I did something as a coach yesterday that I once thought I would never do.
At the IHSA 3A regional meet in Washington Park, a meet that awards a big championship plaque and which puts a year on the team awards banner that hangs in our school gymnasium, we didn’t try to win the meet.
Meanwhile, our girls coach Matt Haffner, who in other years has made the decision that I made yesterday, had his girls run to win the girls side of the meet. To be honest, however, he did not run all his top girls—just enough of them to win. They got their big plaque, which will hang on a school wall, and they will get a 2012 pasted on their team banner under regional champions.
Our reasons for not running our best team at the regional are somewhat complicated. But the simple answer is this one: Giving our top runners a week off from competition seems like the best way to prepare them for the more important races ahead of us the next two weeks at the IHSA sectional and state meets.
We have not been happy with the way we have competed at those meets the last two years. Two years ago, after winning the Chicago Catholic League championship with the best Saint Ignatius Boys team in many years, we won the regional the next week. At the sectional qualifying race for the state meet, we did not run a good race. We did, however, qualify as the fifth place team. Our race at the state meet was mixed–some great, some not so great. Last year, however, we had even bigger struggles. We finished second in the CCL meet, and then, even though we were missing one of our top runners because of illness, we made what turned out to be a failed effort to win the regionals anyway. Then, at the sectional, we fell flat. Most notably, our top runner Jack Keelan, expected to run with the leaders at the state meet the next week, did not even qualify to run at the state meet. It was his only subpar race of the season.
There were other circumstances that went into the decision, but it seemed logical that we should try a different approach. We have a very good team this year, we believe, which can compete for a place in the top ten at the state meet in November. We have a runner who will compete to win the state meet individual title. We have much bigger fish to fry in the next two weeks ahead of us.
We decided to rest our top five runners, giving them a Friday workout instead of a Saturday race this week. It is an approach other coaches use regularly—John O’Malley at Sandburg comes to mind, and York, if memory serves correctly, has done the same thing in the past (although York did not do so this year). Some coaches use a modified approach, pulling a top runner, or two, or three from the regional lineup. We did that, in fact, in 2010. In 2010, we still used enough of our top runners to win the regional, however, and often the teams that rest their top runners still win their regionals because their teams are so deep.
Our team yesterday wasn’t deep enough to win without our top runners. We finished fifth in the meet behind winner Lane Tech (who rested two seniors and still won), Northside, Leyden, and Whitney Young. We were open with our team and other teams ahead of time about what we were doing. Some parents on our team seemed a little bit nervous: What if our team didn’t qualify for sectionals? I assured them that we would. Our second group of runners were not strong enough to win the regional, but they were good enough to compete with teams running their top boys. And finally, only eight complete teams even ran in our regional, with seven qualifying. We really had nothing to worry about.
Assuming that this decision results in a good performance at the sectional meet next week by our rested top runners, we did already realize one surprise bit of added value. Our experience with the twelve man postseason roster has often been that the boys at the bottom of the list are happy to be on the roster—but not especially motivated anymore because they were not going to race again this season. After we announced to the team that we would be resting our top five runners, the second seven all knew they would be running at the regional. I don’t remember as much excitement and motivation from this group in the past compared to what we got from them this week during our training. Younger runners got experience that they would not have gotten. Seniors got to run in a postseason championship race—most for the first time.
And if our team qualifies for the state meet, these runners will know that they were part of the effort.
Our three top runners at the regional, in fact, set personal bests in the race. Junior Patrick Manglano, who had established himself securely as our number six runner on the team with a big improvement at the CCL meet last week, ran 16 minutes and 42 seconds for the three miles in Washington Park to finish 14th overall and set a personal record by a little bit. Senior Ray Lewis ran 16:49 for 16thand sophomore Brian Santino ran 16:54 for 17th, both setting personal bests by 20 seconds. Lewis and Santino were also fighting each other for the number seven spot on the team—and the chance to run in the sectional meet. Senior Matt Heffernan finished 21st in 17:10, another personal best, and senior Andrew Musur was our fifth place runner and final scorer in 26th place (17:20).
We were the host team at the meet. Serving as emcee at the short awards ceremony after the race, it did feel a little bit funny to award the big regional championship plaque to the Lane Tech boys. They are a respected rival whom we race often in track and with great seriousness in cross country, mainly at the end of the season like now, each year. We didn’t put up a good fight at the regional–but we will race them and what amounts to probably six or seven more serious contenders for five qualifying spots to the state meet at the IHSA Niles West Sectional next Saturday, October 27 at 2:30 PM.