The Wolfpack Howl kicks off the cross country season for four Chicago city teams.
Last year, in preparation for our start-of-the-season practice meet, we did not let the boys draft their own teams for our annual Wolfpack Howl. It was simply an oversight—and we ran short of time with our preparations.
This year senior Kallin Khan sent us an email fully two weeks before the event as a reminder. The opportunity to pick their own teams, Khan was suggesting politely as a senior leader, is an important part of the event for the athletes. Lesson learned.
We begin our season with a practice meet we call the Wolfpack Howl. We break our boys up into color teams, White, Black, Gold, and Maroon, our Saint Ignatius College Prep school colors. Initially we ran this meet on our own. But when the Illinois High School Association added a week to the beginning of the interscholastic competition season a number of years ago, we invited a few other schools to join us. This year Jones College Prep, University High, and St. Patrick’s came along. We ask them to do the same—break their teams up into intersquad teams– but only Jones has the numbers to do so.
We gather in Chicago’s South Side Washington Park, which would have been the location for the Olympic Stadium in the city’s ill-fated bid to be the 2016 host. It’s probably not a cross country race proper because while we run on the grass for some of the race, most of the race follows the 1.4 mile crushed limestone jogging path around the northern side of the park. That way, we figure, no one can get lost. As a starter race—and to help make sure no one takes it too seriously—we only run two miles.
But we do have a cross country-style start across an open field. We do have a finish chute to teach the newcomers to keep moving after they finish—and to collect finish cards at the end of the chute.
We do have results, which we compile old-style with envelopes. We give them to the team captains of the color teams from each school, and we stick a golf pencil in the envelope and ask them to record the names and finish places for their teams on the envelopes. It’s a way to be sure all the athletes understand how to score a cross country race—and that all the members of the team are important.
As a concession to modernity, the watch is a Nielsen-Kellerman Interval 2000xc. We record all the times on one watch, which we give to a parent to click at the finish line. Then we import the times from the watch directly into the computer.
We made an attempt this year to collect team rosters at Athletic.net so that we could use our Hytek. It didn’t really work. So when it came time for results, like other years we just copied the names off the envelopes and typed them into Excel.
We pointedly do not share our official unofficial results with Dyestat or Milesplit.
We call it a two-mile race, and we compare results for our boys year-to-year. But we’re never quite sure of the course, as simple as we try to be by using the jogging path. Some years we have arrived in the park to discover the Universal Soul Circus has set up in the park, blocking part of the jogging trail. This year I checked the schedule for the Soul Circus, and they aren’t coming until October. But on Friday night when I visited the park it was the African Festival of the Arts blocking the path with an enclosed chain link fence. So we improvised the course, cutting through the grassy outfield of some softball diamonds. A quick bike tour with the Garmin GPS showed the course to be a little bit short, so we extended the start to the edge of the field and then we moved the finish line back.
Even the start , approximately 400 meters across the grassy park, can be tricky. We negotiate with the University of Chicago Ultimate Frisbee team and ask them to stop their practice for 30 seconds each time for our two races as we run through the cones that mark their field. We also had to run around two cricket circles this year.
The grass is long and unmowed. The field, if it has been raining, can be a little bit sloppy in spots.
We moved the race schedule up 15 minutes or so at the last minute when Jones College Prep told us that they had some kids who had to get to a school concert performance later in the morning . We aimed for 9:30, and we were more or less on time.
But at 9:15, as our assistant coach Nate McPherson told the story, he looked up where the finish chute was supposed to be—and there was no finish chute.
It was ready in plenty of time by 9:25. We sprayed a 15 foot long white line at the front of the chute, and stuck some soccer corner flags into the ground. We ran 30 feet of yellow caution tape down each row of poles to make the chute.
Gun violence is a terrible problem in Chicago, especially on the South Side. As a gesture of understanding, we started the race with a whistle.
We paint a line for the start—and we even have some boxes, which the runners basically ignore. We run girls from University High and Jones as teams with the frosh-soph boy runners. There were a lot of runners in this group who had never run a race. I gave clear instructions: “I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready. Then I will blow it once a long time to start.”
I paused and moved into position. One whistle—half the 70 runners started off the line. I blew the whistle a bunch of times and told everyone to stop.
“Let’s try that again. I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready. Then I will blow it one a long time to start.”
The second time it worked. Only one or two stepped forward on the first whistle, and we let them step back quickly before we started the race.
The only other mishap in the frosh soph race occurred when the race leader, our sophomore Lyndon Vickrey, ran off what we thought was a very simple course. He was following a bike ridden by assistant coach Steven Bugarin, but Bugarin had stopped to close the gate of a giant dumpster which had opened and was a little bit of a hazard on the course. Vickrey ran right by him toward the chain link fence blocking the path instead of turning across the ball fields. Bugarin quickly called him back and he had such a big lead no one else really followed him or lost much time. And Vickrey won going away, anyway. We probably should have put him in the varsity race.
When the varsity boys started, there was no problem at the start or on the course. As low key as we try to make it, they still take it pretty seriously.
Jones and Ignatius have become pretty serious rivals in recent years, competing with only Lane Tech, perhaps, for the title of the best team in the city of Chicago.
Our Saint Ignatius students are drawn from all over the Chicago metropolitan area, including near and distant suburbs, but about half come from the city itself. Both teams train on the Chicago lake front, and our staging areas are a block apart on either side of the Grant Monument on the top of the hill at the south end of Grant Park along Michigan Ave. We both run across the same bridge and through the same tunnels to get to the Lakefront running and biking path. Last week they practiced on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on Tuesday. We were there on Wednesday.
When our groups pass each other on the path coming and going, we nod politely.
As it happens, this year the teams will actually race six times—maybe seven if both teams qualify for the state meet. Jones moved into a new building last year and enrollment will double in the next few years from 900 to 1800. We sit at about 1400. Jones was state champion in the 2A state division in 2012, but the increase in enrollment has moved them into the large school 3A division with us now. We will fight each other in the same sectional for one of five team state qualifying spots in early November.
Apparently unable to get enough of a good thing, Jones coach Andrew Adelmann this summer proposed that we race each other in a late season old-fashioned dual meet. Both of us withdrew from our invitationals the weekend of October 11 to make it happen. We don’t have a site yet, but we have a date: Thursday, October 9.
So the race at the Wolfpack Howl was like a good preview for a season of drama ahead.
Our official but unofficial results score the meet as a multi-team meet between the color teams. On those results, two Jones teams—the Jones White and Jones Blue teams—battled for the win, with the White team scoring 81 to the Blue’s 85. Our Ignatius Black team was third with 90 points—and all they really cared about was winning the Ignatius color team battle. The Black team earned a visit to our team treasure chest with their win.
It wasn’t hard to notice with just a glance, however, the outcome of this first Jones versus Ignatius meeting, even if it was just a skirmish. Junior Dan Santino, the 2013 Chicago Catholic League champion, won the race, with two more Ignatius seniors—Andy Weber and Kallin Khan—close behind. Mark Protsiv of Jones was fourth, with Jacob Meyer of University High fifth. But then Ignatius senior John Lennon was sixth, junior Vince Lewis was 10th, and freshman Patrick Hogan came close behind in 13th , with another freshman Brett Haffner 15th–for an even more unofficial score of 22 for the Wolfpack. Jones scored 38.
But no one was keeping score, of course.
The Ignatius color teams did, in fact, care mainly about their own competition and their own teams. Each color team came up with their own uniforms. They warmed up together, and they made their own team strategies.
The teams had been created in a draft. On Tuesday before the Saturday race, after a workout run on the lakefront, the four junior captains, who had been chosen by their coach, gathered on the picnic tables near the Saint Ignatius track. We had given them a team roster of juniors and seniors, plus the names of a few sophomores and freshmen. The list, in fact, ranked the runners in roughly rank order in terms of expected performance.
Chris Jeske went first, and he made the obvious choice—Dan Santino. Then it was Andrius Blekys’s turn.
“I pick Vince,” he said. And everyone laughed. Vince Lewis was a new runner on the cross country team, coming over from soccer. He ran track as a freshmen and sophomore and has lots of potential. But he was not the runner anyone expected to go number two in the draft.
Jack Morgan quickly picked Kallin Khan. Then Colin Hogan took Andy Weber. In the snake draft order the boys had established, Hogan chose again and grabbed John Lennon as the fourth pick. Morgan took senior Brian Santino at five.
Then it was Blekys’s turn again: He took Dante Domenella—another surprising choice. On his next turn, he chose AnthonyImburgia, once again, probably not the runner you would choose if you were picking according to the rank order.
What had become clear to everyone was that Blekys wasn’t picking runners by their abilities. He was choosing friends that he wanted on his team.
Blekys, as it turned out, was not able to run in the race when Saturday came around. He was shut down from running by our trainers, because of severe shin splints with point tenderness, sometimes a precursor for stress fracture. The White team finished fourth among the four Wolfpack teams. Even with Blekys in the lineup, they probably would have been fourth.
Interestingly, Vince Lewis had one of the best runs on the team, finishing as number five for Ignatius. The confidence of his friend and captain Andrius Blekys maybe helped to spur him on. He ran like a number one pick.
And perhaps the White team were the real winners, just because they seemed to have the most fun.