It was, in fact, too good to be true.
The results posted at around 3:15 after the IHSA Niles West sectional gave our Saint Ignatius boys cross country team the fifth and final qualifying spot for the state championship meet next week. We had scored 183 points—a surprisingly high total to qualify. York had dominated with five in the top fifteen to score 29, with Maine South scoring just 70 points for second place in a strong performance. New Trier was third with 119, and Glenbard West fourth with 167. We had beaten Lane Tech by three points—183 to 186.
We had known we might be in some trouble with a half mile to go in the race, but we also had hopes the race could still turn our way. Standing at the far southeast corner of the Niles West sports campus, as far as you can get from the finish line in the stadium, I had scored us with 170+ points at that point. It is a commonplace at the Niles West sectional that 150 points is a good standard to aim for when it comes to qualifying. But there were a lot of teams in play, it seemed, for the final three qualifying spots, and I silently hoped that might inflate the score needed to qualify.
At that half mile to go mark, our senior co-captain Jack Keelan seemed to have the race in hand with an eight meter lead on Scott Milling from York. We would score the number one. Junior Chris Korabik was in 18th, just about right where we had hoped he would be. Freshman Dan Santino was in 28th. But he had beaten Korabik often during the season, and he had moved up from 36th at the half way point of the race; he seemed to be on the move. Sophomore Andy Weber was in 44th, a bit back from where we had hoped. Then it was a long way back to junior Taylor Dugas in 75th. On the optimistic side, there were ten runners lined up just in front of Dugas if he could muster a strong finish. On the darker side, Dugas had been up around 55th place at the halfway point in the race, so he was fading.
I had yelled at Santino and Weber that they needed to pass five more runners as they ran to the finish. I told Dugas he needed ten more. That would do it, I figured—close to 150.
We didn’t have a good finish, however, and our senior co-captain Tim Hatzopolous had unofficially scored us with 178 points as he watched the race on the finish line. Keelan had won, Korabik was 21st, Santino 36th, Weber 43rd, and junior Patrick Manglano had passed a fading Dugas to finish around 80th as our fifth scoring runner.
In the crowd at the finish line, our boys were clearly discouraged. We still had a chance, I told them, as I collected the chips from their shoes. I sent them back to the field house to change out of their spikes and prepare for a cool down—and I told them to stick together. They needed to support each other, and they needed to be together for whatever news was to come. There was hope for us; all the scores might be high today.
But when they were gone, I had told a group of our parents at the finish area that now they could start praying for us.
At 3:15, the prayers, it seemed, had been answered. A parent, Bill Santino, had caught a glimpse of the results as they were posted on the wall and delivered a thumbs up to us across the field house as he hurried to join us and celebrate. We took team photographs in front of a phalanx of smiling parents. Mike Patton, the IHSA cross country champion from Ignatius in 1980, jumped into the group for a few more photographs. We talked to newspaper reporters.
As the good news sunk in, we made other observations. This team would be only the third Ignatius team ever to qualify for the state meet—and Keelan, Korabik, and senior co-captain Tim Hatzoplous would be the first Ignatius runners ever to go to Peoria on two different teams. They were all members of our 2010 qualifying team.
Our team had really come from nowhere in pre-season estimations to rise into the unofficial rankings of the state’s top teams; we were a big surprise. Our boys had worked very hard over the last year, and now they were being rewarded. We had not run our best this day, but our boys would have a chance to perform better the next week. Watch out for us next week.
Along with winning our Chicago Catholic League conference meet, which we had done, it had been our goal for the season that the team would qualify and accompany Keelan in his campaign to win the state individual championship.
Our Saint Ignatius team was told we had qualified at 3:15. And then at 3:45 we realized that we had not qualified.
A year ago at the Niles West sectional, there had been a debacle when race results had been posted prematurely before they had been reviewed and corrected by the IHSA officials. A team, Maine South, had been told they had qualified for the state meet—only to be told later that a mistake had been made and they would not go to Peoria to run. New procedures had been put in place, in fact, to prevent that kind of disappointment from happening again. At the sectional meet the officials would be required to review a video of the finish, runner by runner, to verify the results from the chip timing system—just as they do at the state meet.
But at Niles West in 2012, apparently, the officials did not do a complete video review before posting the results, as they had been instructed to do.
As our celebration geared down and we started to look for the awards ceremony to begin, a buzz had begun to circulate that there was a mistake in the results that had been posted. I was nearby, in fact, when a Niles West meet worker angrily tore the boys results off the wall, showing obvious frustration and concern.
Someone explained to me, I don’t even remember who it was, that a Lane Tech runner was missing from the results—their fourth or fifth runner. A few minutes later Lane Tech coach Tony Jones and I had a quick and friendly conversation, and he confirmed that David Schmieg, who had finished close behind their 37th place runner Jonathan Vara, was missing from the results.
A quick calculation made it clear to us that Lane Tech would jump up in the standings when Schmieg was inserted into the scoring. I called our boys together and gave them the bad news. I don’t remember everything I said to them. I do know that I began to recite the speech I would give to them individually several more times that afternoon: Next year, we would be Maine South, who had faced this same kind of disappointment last year and who had come back this year as a possible trophy team.
The Niles West meet organizers brought me outside the field house to meet the IHSA official as he arrived by golf cart from the finish line, where he had reviewed the race video with the chip timing company representative. Did I want to see the video, they asked me? No, I told them, I understood what had happened. As expected, the official confirmed that a video review of the finishers showed that the chip timing system had failed to record the finish of a Lane Tech runner, senior David Schmieg, in 44th place. Inserting Schmieg into his rightful spot, the adjusted final scores read York 29, Maine South 70, New Trier 119, Lane Tech 165, Glenbard West 168, and Saint Ignatius sixth—and outside the last qualifying spot–with 184.
I did ask him whether they had reviewed the video before the first set of results had been posted, and I was told that they had looked at the video but only to look at the close finishes. I did tell him that in the officials meeting I had attended last winter, it was made clear to us by IHSA administrator Ron McGraw that a full review of the finish was required at the sectional before approving and posting results. It wasn’t clear to me that this official understood that.
I spent the next fifteen minutes circulating among our boys and their parents—and a few coaches who wanted to know what had happened. Although I was standing nearby, I missed the awards ceremony which gave Jack Keelan his first place medal. I was one of the last to get the news—a small silver lining—that with the adjusted results Chris Korabik had won one of the seven individual qualifier spots for Peoria with his 21st place finish.
As the field house began to empty, some of our boys, including Keelan, were among the last to leave. We had a conversation together where I told him that, for better or worse, he had new pressure on his back for the state meet next week. There would be only one thing that could happen to make his teammates feel better.
Yes, Keelan acknowledged, he had a new mission.
With the field house almost empty, Mike Newman of Dyetrack.com and Illinois Prep Harrier asked me, with his tape recorder running, whether we would lodge a protest. Of course not, I told him. It was unfortunate that our boys had been told we had qualified when we had not. But Lane Tech and Glenbard West had beaten our team on the cross country course to earn their qualifying spots.
The real ethical dilemma, I suggested, would have been how we all would have responded if the video review had not been available to find the Lane Tech runner. I had been one of those last year calling for the IHSA to institute a back up procedure for chip timed finish lines after the problems at the Niles West sectional last year. Last year there had not been any complete video review, and there are still questions about the final results of that meet. The new system this year had not really worked properly because the officials had not done their complete video review the first time; incorrect results had been posted. But the correct results had been posted in the end, and there was no doubt about the correct results.
Then I went outside to make a phone call to my wife, who had been celebrating the news I had texted her an hour before that we were all going to Peoria.
When I came back inside the field house, workers were ripping tape to pull up the mats covering the gym floor. The field house was clear except for our team camp, where there was a lonely Gatorade cooler, a forlorn frisbee, an empty box, a few pieces of trash to be picked up, some extra team warm-ups I had brought along, and my own jacket and meet backpack. I threw away the trash and packed the other stuff in the box, and then I dragged it all out to my car.
Later last night I got a text from Tim Keelan, Jack’s father, with some good news. A big group of boys from the team were out bowling together, and they had plans to go for a team run at Waterfall Glen in the morning. Yes, I texted him back in agreement, this was a good sign.