In 2010, when our Saint Ignatius team qualified to run at the IHSA 3A cross country championships for the first time since 1986, it is my memory that our team got lost as I was driving the mini-bus to dinner at Avanti’s in East Peoria.
What struck me at that time–and as I have observed to myself many times thereafter: the teams that qualify for state every year have a big advantage over those that don’t. Those every-year teams don’t lose time by getting lost on the way to dinner, for example.
And then there are other logistics and considerations. They know when to make a hotel room reservation so the team has a place to stay in Peoria. They know what time to leave school for the Peoria drive in order to have the right amount of time at the course, for hotel check in, and then for dinner the day before. They have routines and a productive set of activities–not too much, not too little–to follow the night before the race. They have a race morning routine that might or might not include an early morning shakeout run. They know what the boys should eat for breakfast. They know what time to leave the hotel on race morning. They know what the boys should do as they wait for their race at Detweiler Park.
None of this is brain surgery. Most of it is common sense–and just good coaching sense. Some of it depends upon the team and its culture, as well as the individual make-up of the boys. But all of that, really, comes from experience.
The teams that qualify for state every year have a big advantage over those that don’t.
I’m finishing this blog post in Peoria, actually, and we are on a streak here of a sort. In 2010, 2013, and 2014 we qualified teams to the state meet; in 2012, 2015, and 2016 we brought individuals. We missed only in 2011. But even on those years when we did not qualify as a team, we brought a team, more or less as practice for the years we come as a team.
What follows is an account of some of the things we have learned about travelling to Peoria over the last seven years.
One way to gain some Peoria experience, we learned, is to go to the big early season invites in September: the race that is now known as First to the Finish on the season’s second weekend, or the Peoria Notre Dame Richard Spring Invite on the third weekend. These are massive meets. FTTF runs multiple races at the IHSA class levels; Richard Spring puts all the school classes together, but it runs big varsity, fresh-soph, and open events. The competition at each meet includes about half the ranked teams in the state–more or less the pool that supplies the state qualifiers at the end of the year. The logistics also mimic the state meet. Hotel rooms for a big group require reservations far in advance. It is hard to get an Avanti’s reservation the night before, too, as we learned the hard way.
2016 was our seventh trip to FTTF. Our first one was in 2010, and two months later we ran at Detweiler again at the state meet. While it is hard to remember exactly, we consciously arranged what was then called the Woodruff in anticipation of fielding a team that might run at state. That 2010 team looked to be the best team that I had ever coached. We brought only our top ten boys to the Woodruff, in a mini bus that went down the morning of the race. We sent the rest of the team–another 25 boys–to a small meet in Chicago. The big meet experience arguably paid off. It was the first time on the Peoria course for sophomore Jack Keelan, who finished ninth and ran 15 minutes and 1 seconds. Our team finished ninth, with three runners in the top 35, and that success–along with a few other wins that year including the Chicago Catholic League championship–gave us some confidence and helped propel us to a fifth place finish at the Niles West sectional and qualification for the state meet. 2010 was the first time since 1982 that an Ignatius team ran at the state meet.
That formula–success in September in Peoria equals success in the postseason–sold us on the September Peoria trip. We stuck with Woodruff, later FTTF. We brought the whole team the following year, with most of the team coming down by bus on Saturday morning. The late start for the 3A race–12:40–even means a fairly gracious bus departure at 8:00 am. But a few of the boys–mainly our top runners–travelled the night before with their parents. That split team arrangement–some boys going on their own, the others traveling by yellow school bus on Saturday–became the standard for four more years.
Those were successful years for our program, with some of that success riding on the back of Jack Keelan, of course. In 2011 we did not run well at Woodruff, actually, finishing 22nd. Keelan was fourth overall in 14:48, but he was dropped in the last mile by the leaders who ran away from him. Now running at Stanford as his teammate, Edwardsville’s Garrett Sweatt won in 14:20. We subsequently lost to Loyola in the Chicago Catholic League championship, although we did finish second, and then we were eighth at our sectional. Keelan famously did not even qualify as an individual out of Niles West.
But we came back strong in 2012. At FTTF we surprised Mike Newman when, as an unranked team, Keelan’s low stick as individual winner helped us to fifth place and a trophy. We went on to win the Catholic League again. Then, at the Niles West sectional, the first posted results gave us fifth place, until a scoring error was discovered–a missing chip for a Lane Tech runner resulted in a lost scorer–which relegated us to seventh. Our boys cried, but they cheered happily at Detweiller the next week when Keelan won the 3A state championship.
In 2013 we nabbed fourth place at FTTF. We lost the CCL crown to Loyola, but we came back to beat them at the Lake Park sectional with a third-place finish and a return to Detweiller as a team qualifier. In 2014 we were fifth again at FTTF for another trophy, and we squeaked into the state meet by tying York for fifth place at Niles West.
We had become a team that returned to the state meet, but it still seemed like we had a lot to learn. In 2013 we let the boys cut their hair the night before, and then we felt they underperformed the following day with a 16th-place finish.
In 2014 we had our best team, perhaps. At FTTF in September we placed fifth again, our third trophy in a row; we placed two runners—Dan Santino (15:03) and Andy Weber (15:05) in the top 20, with a third runner Kallin Khan (15:10) at 28th. We were ranked late in the season as high as sixth place on Dyestat, and we were in the top ten in the ITCCCA coaches poll. We had heard about different kind of thoughtful team activities practiced by other teams the night before the state meet (activities that did not involve hair clippers).
On our trip down to Peoria at the International House of Pancakes off of I80 south of Yorkville we put the names of our twelve runners in a hat, and each boy picked a name. My son Luc’s kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Lisa Kuzell, had introduced me to what she called class “put ups”–the opposite of put downs. We proposed that at our team meeting that night, like the kindergarten class, each member of our team would get a put-up from the team, delivered by the person with the name that came out of my hat.
That night was one of the most remarkable nights of my coaching life. Our 12 runners, with a couple other senior boys who made the trip with us, assembled in the front living suite of an Embassy Suites Hotel room–by 2014, obviously, our hotel of choice. We sat in close quarters. around the room on chairs, a couch, the couch and chair arms, and the room table. We called on the first “put up.” And when that boy had finished delivering his sincere positive comment about his teammate, four more hands went into the air. Each of them wanted to add another story or comment about that same teammate. Then others chimed in until everyone in the room had weighed in. It took fifteen minutes. There were 13 more boys
We finished at 10:30 pm, much later than our appointed bedtime. We brought the boys together again for a 7:30 am shakeout run, a couple miles only along the river to the giant Bass Pro Shop outdoors store. We had big hopes for the day–but we finished 14th. Senior Andy Weber, who ran a personal best of 15:02 for 41st place. Senior John Lennon, who had developed as our number three, lost a shoe in the first mile and still ran a personal best 15:22. But our top runner all season, junior Dan Santino, did not run well, finishing 64th in 15:13, slower than his FTTF race; senior Kallin Khan likewise ran 15:27. After struggling all year without a strong fifth runner, we wasted a breakthrough effort by senior Brian Santino, who ran under 16:00 minutes for the first time as our number five in 15:42. Overall, the team had the best three-mile average ever for an Ignatius team at the state meet–better than the 1982 team that had finished second. But we still felt that they had just run flat.
Our diagnosis: our emotional put-up session had been a bit too much of an emotional energy-Sapper.
In 2015 we did something new at FTTF: we brought our whole team of 50 boys down the night before, and we took them all to the course, to Avanti’s, and then to the Embassy Suites. We probably left school a little bit later than we should have, and we didn’t get to the course in Peoria until 6:00. After a quick stop at the hotel, we didn’t get to Avanti’s until 8:00, and then we waited to get seated. We returned to the hotel very late, around 9:30. No time for any meeting. We put the boys to bed. We did not run well at FTTF 2016, finishing 15th. Dan Santino had had a breakthrough season in track winning a state medal and running 4:14 for 1600 meters. But at FTTF he finished 22nd in 15:04, another failed effort to break 15:00 at Detweiller. The experiment of bringing the whole team seemed like a failure.
Later in the season we would be fourth at the CCL meet, then seventh at the Hinsdale Central sectional; our FTTF effort mirrored the struggles of our season. We brought our top 12 team to Peoria for the state meet anyway, to support Dan Santino, who had reversed his FTTF fortunes to come on strong, winning the CCL championship and qualifying for state as an individual qualifier. We had booked the hotel rooms, after all, and it would be good practice for the team and for the underclass boys especially. Santino finished 24th, posting his best time ever at Peoria in 14:45, for his first cross country state medal.
All of this is a long preamble for our 2016 trip to Peoria for First to the Finish.
Our second trip with over 50 boys went much better. We left school at 1:30, taking an early dismissal from classes. We were on the course at 4:30, and even though we were running in the rain, our runners were happy and positive. We arrived at the Embassy Suites a bit muddy at 6:45. At 7:00 Avanti’s delivered dinner to the hotel for us–spaghetti, marinara sauce, salad, and bread, with plates and plastic utensils. We ordered for 65 when our group was 55; next year we’ll order for 75. The plastic utensils to serve the spaghetti snapped and broke; next year we will bring our own serving utensils. But the boys got the food they needed and we were done eating by 7:45. And needless to say, the price was right–about half the cost of eating in the restaurant.
We hadn’t made careful plans for our evening meeting, being unsure how the schedule would unfold. Although we had been a team for a month, we knew that almost half the boys on the team, between freshmen and new upperclass runners, were new to the team. A lot of boys, it seemed, didn’t even know their teammates names.
In a quick conversation with assistant coach Nate McPherson, I proposed that we do something that I’d seen him do in class as a teacher. We set up the Embassy Suites dining area, which we had used for our dinner, with 26 sets of facing chairs. We sat our 26 juniors and seniors separately in the chairs. We told 26 freshmen and sophomores to choose a partner, ideally someone they didn’t know, and take the leftover seats. Coach McPherson proposed a topic for conversation: “Why do you run?” We told the boys to introduce themselves, then talk for two minutes. Two minutes later we told the freshmen and sophomores to stand up and find another partner. The next topic: “What makes you weird?”
We likened it to speed dating, and afterwards, we gave our activity a name: Getting to know you. We continued with “Getting to Know You” for 45 minutes, and the energy was as strong at the end as it was when we began.
We moved the boys from the dining area in the big hotel atrium to the conference area–actually just grabbing a quiet walkway spot that could fit our big group in a close corridor. They moved cooperatively and happily. We sat them down and proposed a second activity. Each Thursday at Saint Ignatius, our entire school engages in what is called the Ignatian Examen. It is part of Ignatian spirituality, a program of introspection, self-examination, and prayer. The boiler-plate Examen asks participants to begin by appreciating the gifts of God in one’s life. Then one considers the trials of the day, and reflects on its challenges. Then one considers how one might have performed better–more soulfully. Finally, one makes resolutions for the future–and for specific behavior in the future.
I told the boys the story of the specific Examen script that I would use that day, one drafted for me by a Jesuit novice who was teaching for a couple years at Ignatius, a man many of them had known as a teacher, Andrij Llabse. Originally we had drafted it for our track team. I had been thinking for a few years that an Examen might be a good way for boys to prepare to run a big race. I suggested to our boys in Peoria that the Examen was the closest thing that Catholics have to a Buddahist meditation tradition, a kind of rational mysticism. The Examen was a way to focus the mind, to identify what was important, and to think clearly and directly with a purpose or a goal in mind. I had told these things to Andrij Llabse, and he had smiled. “But Ed,” he had then cautioned me (I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this, “You have to remember that this is all about Jesus and honoring him.”
I hammed it up a bit for the boys in Peoria: “Sure, sure, sure—but it can also help boys think about trying to run faster, right?”
After that introduction, our Examen in Peoria was nonetheless properly respectful and prayerful. In particular it emphasized discernment in the boys. They were invited to think about what kind of a teammate each boy would like to be for the other boys on the team. It asked them to be thoughtful not about running fast times and performing well on the course, but about doing all things that involve being a good teammate. For Ignatius discernment was about sorting through the conflicting feelings that motivate us. Some behaviors that give us satisfaction and pleasure are short-lived; others provide satisfactions that continue. It is the latter behaviors that we should recognize as gifts from God. Those are the behaviors that we should build upon.
We sent the boys to bed by 10:00 PM, and we did not hear any stirrings in the hotel runways of the Embassy Suites that night.
Our trip to the 2016 state meet, similarly, has run efficiently. The Cubs World Series win and the parade in Chicago on Friday was both a gift and a complication. We qualified only an individual, junior Michael OBroin was sixth at the Niles West Invitational as our team had a disappointing day, finishing 10th overall when we thought we had a genuine chance to qualify. Only OBroin and a roommate would have gotten permission to miss school on Friday to make an early trip to Peoria to scout the course and so we could meet obligations like attending the coaches meeting with officials. The rest of our varsity team would come down after school—after all, we had booked the hotel rooms long ago and we need the practice of attending the state meet. The prospect of 5 million fans on the trains, busses, and roads that would bring our students to a from school that day, however, gave our school administrators a legitimate reason to cancel classes. So we scheduled our school van for departure for the whole team that morning.
We did basically fill the 14-seater van, but there were a few boys—just a few–who opted to come down later as a carpool after the Cubs parade.
We stopped at the International House of Pancakes in Morris, Illinois, as we always do, for breakfast. We arrived at the course around 1:15. Our boys jumped off and went for a jog in Detweiller Park. I attended the 2:00 coaches meeting, and had short conversations on the course with Sandburg’s John O’Malley, Fenwick’s Dave Rill, Hinsdale Central’s Noah Lawrene and Jim Westphal, and OFallon’s Jon Burnett. We were back in our van at 2:30, and we were checked into our rooms at the Embassy Suites by 3:15. I went for a short run myself. We loaded the van again at 4:45, and we were early for our 5:00 dinner reservation at Avanti’s. Then we were back at the hotel by 6:30.
At our teaming gathering at 7:30, we had some time to kill because the carpool after the Cubs parade had not yet arrived. So we played a few rounds of “Mafia,” a game the boys had enjoyed at our summer team camp at Western Michigan University back in July; OBroin opted out, preferring some quiet time with a book in his room. When the Cubs parade carpool arrived around 8:30, we re-convened as a team.
We talked over logistics for the following day. We did one round of put-ups, as each boy gave a memory of their time with Michael OBroin. There were memories of first practices and races together in the winter and spring of 2014. Senior Lyndon Vickrey thanked Michael for talking with him about calculus and physics on their runs this fall.
Then we broke up, after setting a 10:00 curfew. A few boys wanted to grab a dip in the pool, something we only allow when the boys are not running.
It is 7:00 AM now at the Embassy Suites, and I am going to get a cup of coffee before joining the team on a short 7:30 run before breakfast. We have a team breakfast at 8:30. Then we check out and head to the course at 10:15. Our boys want to watch our girls team run in the 2A race at 11:00. OBroin will come to the course later, because it has been our experience that spending too much time in the van waiting to run makes our runners too nervous.
And we noticed a couple years ago that Hinsdale Central leaves the Embassy Suites much later than we do and pulls into the parking area behind the awards stand at Detweiller just an hour or so before they race. They have been here for a lot more years than we have.