It was the best day of a great season so far for our Saint Ignatius boys cross country team, but also a difficult day for runners, coaches, and fans at the Chicago Catholic League conference meet yesterday, run at Turtlehead Lake in Palos Heights.
Our varsity boys won, 35-53 over second place Loyola, which was the good news. It was our second win in three years, after a drought of 12 years before that. We placed four runners in the top seven, as senior Jack Keelan won the race in an amazing personal best time of 14 minutes and 29 seconds, with freshman Dan Santino third in another personal best of 15:27, junior Chris Korabik fourth in another personal best of 15:28, and sophomore Andy Weber seventh in a second best time ever of 15:46.
Keelan had stated his intention in our strategy discussions during the week to go out hard and fast and to set a personal best time. As we call that race plan, he wanted to “Prefontaine” this race. He did just that, going through the mile in 4:39, reaching the two mile mark in 9:35, and then finishing strongly. An email from Carl Sandburg High School’s coach John O’Malley after the meet confirmed what we had speculated on the course. Andrew High School’s Matt Withrow held the old course record of 14:36 at an IHSA Regional race in 2002, the year Withrow finished second in the AA IHSA state championship meet . [I had originally identified 2002 as the year Withrow won the state cross country championship and then came back to win the 1600 and 3200 at the state track meet; those achievements were 2003-4. At practice, four days after posting this blog entry, my cross country boys informed me of my mistake! I told them that next time they need to check my facts sooner.] That course was measured as 2.94 miles. Our similar course was laid out by our Saint Ignatius girls coach Matt Haffner, but with some adjustments he had lengthened it to 3.0 miles—which makes Keelan’s effort that much more impressive.
We had good performances by lots of other team members, including our freshman and sophomore team runners who both placed second behind Loyola Academy teams. For all but our top 12 team members who will continue on in the Illinois High School Association state championship series meets, this was their last race of the season and many ran their best races of the season, as we had hoped.
A special highlight of the day was a visit to the meet by Tom Coyne, a member of the class of 1951 at Saint Ignatius and part of the Ignatius Sports Hall-of-Fame team that won Chicago Catholic League cross country championships in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Coyne gave our boys a big congratulations after the race when he visited an already wet team in their tent—just before the really heavy rains began to fall.
Dark clouds seemed to threaten the meet all morning.
One particular dark cloud for our day: Just after the two mile mark, I saw our number five runner, junior Taylor Dugas, take a funny step running around a flag. He stumbled, limped, stumbled, and limped for 100 meters or so before continuing on. He was 18th at the time. We had the race well in hand. Behind Dugas, our sixth runner Patrick Manglano was in 22nd. We probably had the meet won with our strong performance up front. After the meet, it turned out that Dugas, who had sprained his left ankle two weeks ago, had turned his good right ankle. Dugas courageously finished the race. But his 21st place left him out of the medals and off the all-conference list. (The bigger concern will be his recovery and his ability to run well in the coming weeks.)
There were other aspects of the day that were stressful—including the weather. The forecast predicted the rains would come around 11:00 AM. We had set up a meet schedule which would end the day early—but not before 11. Turtlehead is a course that allows two races on the course at the same time, and we took advantage of that, bumping our time schedule wherever we could so that we could finish before the rain. Our last race actually went off around 10:30—but the rain had already started and the downpour came as the boys open race went through the first mile mark. Of course, our co-captain Tim Hatzopolous later insisted, the race, with some slipping and sliding in the mud, had been “a lot of fun.” It helped, perhaps, that our boys held down 11 of the top 20 places in the race.
The rains did disrupt the post race plans for our important league awards ceremony. In one of the torrential moments, I talked with Coach Dan Seeberg of Loyola who said other coaches wanted to forgo the awards ceremony and get out of the rain. It seemed reasonable to me when I said I understood and agreed. Later I regretted that decision a little bit.
We had had plans to honor the memory of former Ignatius coach Jim Connelly, who had died in September, with some thoughts and a moment of silence. But cancelling the awards ceremony also meant that our Ignatius team did not get the recognition of having won the meet.
The problematic rain came on top of another stress at the time. We had shared the course that day with the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference championship meet, something we had done the year before, as well. Last year I had coached at the meet and also did the meet results for both meets. This year I agreed, at the last minute, some details to follow, to do the computer work for the girls meet again, since we were sharing the site and I could help out Coach Haffner, meet director for the girls meet. But I hadn’t planned on the rain. Instead of doing the results with my team around me, I was huddled in my car trying to keep from dripping on my computer. I got the results done, but it was difficult to do so and coordinate the chaotic team arrangements in the rain. We didn’t even manage a team meeting after the race. The boys who were left did manage a team photo without their coach when they got the news that we had won the meet.
What’s more, it was the end of a long and complicated week just getting the meet on the course. Besides the stress of their importance, conference meets have other stresses for coaches—and our CCL meets have a particular set of their own.
In track, at invitational meets, coaches often have to work the meets, measuring for the shot put or long jump, for example; but in cross country, invitational meets are a lark for coaches. The home team pretty much handles everything, and the stress falls on just those coaches running the meet. We know about that since we host one; we are happy to return the favor to the coaches who host for us.
But at the conference meet, there really is no home team. Often, one school or another is designated as the host for that particular year, but it is often an all-hands-on-board arrangement. All the coaches have to chip in a little bit.
At our Chicago Catholic League meets, it is common for a coach and recruited volunteers to do the timing and computer work for the meet scoring and results. If you are timing the meet and organizing the meet, it is hard to be a coach.
Conference meets also carry the burdens of history. Sometimes the rivalries—and old grudges—remain fierce, so there are sometimes interpersonal challenges. When there is work to be done, it is human nature to chip in; but it is also human nature, perhaps, to feel that others are not doing their share. Of course, on the other hand, many coaches are good friends after having spent years running these meets together. It is complicated to be colleagues and rivals—and stressful, I find.
And when there are problems, blurred lines of communication and authority at the conference meet can make things more complicated.
In the Chicago Catholic League, we have an arrangement in which the schools in the northern division of the conference handle the league meet one year, and then the southern schools handle it the next. 2012 was a year for the northern schools. Early in the summer Dan Seeberg, the Loyola coach, communicated with some of the northern coaches and volunteered to organize the meet for us this year. He wanted to host at his home Harms Woods course, where we have run before. He has a skilled computer operator on his coaching staff, Dave Behof, who would handle the timing and results. It would be an easy day for the rest of us.
But some confusion over permits at Harms Woods—and then at Schiller Woods, the back-up plan—resulted in a decision to join the GCAC for their meet at Turtlehead Lake. Many of the CCL schools have girls teams as members of the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference, and some of those coaches coach both the boys and the girls teams. Having the two meets in one place works great for them. Saint Ignatius girls coach Matt Haffner had a permit and a race course laid out at Turtlehead Lake for Saturday morning, where Ignatius had been host for our “home” meet earlier in the fall. Haffner and the GCAC helpfully offered to share their site and event with the CCL boys teams.
So we made new transportation arrangements and hammered out a new meet schedule–and Haffner ordered more port-a-potties.
If only someone could have made better arrangements about the weather. It occurs to me that we have only had one meet that I can remember in the last ten years where we ran in that kind of rain. At least there was no thunder and we were able to run all our races.
As it turned out, the girls teams waited out the heavy rains and then held an awards ceremony in a drizzle. It wasn’t even that cold.
When the teams had cleared out, Haffner, girls’ assistant coach Erin Luby, and I picked up flags and cones on the course and loaded them into Haffner’s car.
The Southwest Suburban conference meet had been scheduled to run at Turtlehead after us in the afternoon. It was interesting to watch another group of coaches go through their own discussions—and possible disagreements—as they decided to reschedule the meet for Tuesday afternoon. Buses pulled into the Turtlehead parking lot and then headed back out, one after another.
Only Thornton High School’s coach Vince McAuliffe unloaded his runners and sent them off around the course for a practice run.
It was McAuliffe who gave me the first information about possible course record holders. What had Lukas Verzbicas of Sandburg run, he wondered. And then Matt Withrow, of course.
Back home a couple hours later I finished the GCAC results, mailed them off to Haffner and Mike Newman of Illinois Prep Harrier and Dyetrack.com, and emailed John O’Malley, Verzbicas’s coach at Sandburg.
A fun email came back quickly—with congratulations for our team win that day. O’Malley had already started looking at results. Verzbicas had only run a time trial at Turtlehead during his three-year high school career, running 14:56. But O’Malley had a list ready of the top Turtlehead times:
Matt Withrow Andrew 14:36 2002
Dan Glaz Stagg 14:42 2000
Dan Haut Lockport 14:42 2000
Zac Sartori Lockport 14:56 1999
Tim Moran Andrew 14:58 1997
Jeremy Borling Sandburg 15:02 1997
Kyle Saginus Lockport 15:05 2003
Marty Carr Andrew 15:06 1999
Kyle Leonard Lincoln-Way 15:07 1994
Jason VonSwol Lincoln-Way 15:08 1997
“Congrats on Jack and the rest of the crew today! That is flying. You guys are having a great season,” O’Malley wrote.
At the end of a long hard day, it was great to read those words and agree. It was good to remember that when we run these races we are connected to the coaches who coached and the boys who ran these races many, many years ago. Those coaches had to time their own meets, too, and they had to coach in the rain.
And finally, when you win a conference championship, it has to be a great day, and it has been a great season.
Now we hope it gets even better as we enter the IHSA state series post-season.
Of course, that reminds me, we are the host team for the regional meet next week. We will pray for sunshine.