Category Archives: IHSA

You gotta believe: On the podium for three hours, Wolfpack boys finish 4th at state track meet

After 16 of 18 events, the Saint Ignatius Wolfpack boys track team sit third--and have an IHSA state trophy in hand.

After 16 of 18 events, the Saint Ignatius Wolfpack boys track team sits third–with an IHSA state trophy heartbreakingly close.  But it wasn’t to be.

As we prepared for the prelims at the state meet on Friday, I got a report of someone who had read my blog post about our state meet prospects and got the impression that I thought we could win the state meet.  Well, I don’t think I said quite that.

But the reader was right.  We went into the meet with the hope we could win a trophy.

Since last winter, in fact, our Saint Ignatius team members have been telling ourselves that we had a chance at a trophy at the IHSA 3A state meet.  We felt our top runner Jack Keelan could win both the 1600- and 3200-meter runs, which would start us off with 20 points.  If we could find ten to fifteen more points, we reasoned, we might have a shot at the podium. It turned out that we would have needed 11 more—and we got only eight.

On Friday night at the Race at State meet, the Wolfpack boys shake it out.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

On Friday night at the Race at State meet, the Wolfpack boys shake it out. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

For more than three hours on Saturday at the state meet, including hours after the meet had finished on the track, we were on the podium—after 4 events, then after 13 events, and then even after 17 events with one to go.  But we finally finished in a tie for fourth with 28 points, the best performance ever by our Saint Ignatius boys track team—and heartbreakingly close to a trophy.

The final results show Lake Park in first place with 63 points, our Chicago Catholic League rival Providence Catholic second with 33, Pekin third with 31—and Saint Ignatius College Prep and Grant-Fox Lake tied for fourth with 28.

With storms threatening the Charleston area, the IHSA meet organizers made an early decision to run the meet on an accelerated schedule.  Rather than stick to a stately schedule that would begin at 11:00 AM and then conclude at 5:00 with team awards, events would run quickly one after another.  As a result, the track events were over at 2:30 in the afternoon—more than two hours early.

There was, indeed, some rain—but never any storm serious enough to threaten a delay.  The slick conditions did require the high jump for 2A and 3A and the 3A pole vault to be moved indoors to the field house.  The speedy track meet and the delay in getting those events underway meant that they continued for two hours after the conclusion of the track events.

It also meant tears for some competitors.  Boys do cry when officials won’t let them run because they get to the tent too late.  The meet moved alarmingly quickly—30 minutes ahead of schedule by the third event, the 3200-meter run.  Coaches and athletes who were not paying careful attention missed their check-ins at the tent, perhaps because they were following the original schedule—and perhaps because the meet just moved more quickly than anyone could imagine it could.

The Wolfpack 4x800 team Elliot Gibson, Andrew Reardon, Sean Kampe, and Chris Korabik after qualifying on Friday.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The Wolfpack 4×800 team Elliot Gibson, Andrew Reardon, Sean Kampe, and Chris Korabik after qualifying on Friday. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It  is possible to miss an event on the normal schedule.   The scheduled time for the 4×800 meter relay, the first event of the day at 11:00 AM, never changed.  I was sitting with our 4×800 team in the field house at 10:30 AM and then watched them all disappear into the locker room where the toilets are located.  Time passed, and they seemed to be a long time.  Loudspeaker calls– “All 4×800 teams to the tent”– began to get serious.  You can’t hear the calls in the locker room.  More time passed.   Had the boys somehow gone from the locker room directly to the tent?  I jogged the quarter mile or so over to the tent.  I heard the check-in official tell another official, “We’re still missing Arlington Heights Hersey and Chicago Saint Ignatius.” Another coach there was talking about how the technical rule for the day was that 3A competitors were required to be in the tent when the 1A competitors were running onto the track for the same event.

I sprinted back to the field house, running right past my wife Peggy who had arrived to watch the meet.

Three members of our team were waiting for the fourth to come out of the locker rooms.  “Get to the tent!” I yelled at them.  They grabbed their things and ran out of the field house.  The fourth member of the team re-emerged—and after he collected his spikes and bag, I chased him to the tent.  I’m not sure that we met the technical rule, but the door official let him into the tent with his teammates.

This was for the first event of the day, at a time on the posted schedule.  As the day progressed and the meet sped up, many other athletes were not as fortunate.

We had rearranged the order for our 4×800 from the prelims.  We had set a school record of 7 minutes 54.50 seconds the day before, finishing as the seventh qualifier.  But with 300 meters to go we had been winning our heat.  Earlier in the spring against an elite field at the Prospect High School Wanner Invite we had been winning with 200 meters to go until York and Lane Tech ran us down.  Similarly, indoors at the Downers Grove South Mustang Relays held at North Central College, we led for as many as 15 of 16 laps until Aurora West and Carl Sandburg caught us. Our team had four good runners, but unlike many other teams, we had no closer who could throw down a fast anchor leg 800.

In the prelims, Elliot Gibson had run 1:59.4 to lead off, which left us at the back of the pack.  But Andrew Reardon’s 1:58.5 leg and then Chris Korabik’s 1:57.8 leg put us in the lead.  Sean Kampe ran his first 400 in 54 seconds, too fast; he ran like he knew he was being chased, and he was.  With 200 meters to go he was still a close third in about 7:20—but he struggled home in 34 seconds.  His final leg was still a pretty good one, all things considered, 1:58.5. There had been many predictions that it would take 7:53 or better to make the final, and we were initially worried we had still run to slow.  Then the time held up well for the next two heats.  We were only five seconds off the top qualifying time, in the end, by Minooka, 7:49.49. If each of our guys could run just a second faster, we reasoned, we could be in the mix even to win the race.

Chris Korabik held onto the ninth place medal position on the final straightaway as York chased.  It was an important single point for the Wolfpack.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Chris Korabik held onto the ninth place medal position on the final straightaway as York chased. It was an important single point for the Wolfpack. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

But it wasn’t to be.  Kampe, moved to the first leg so that he could sit behind the pack for the first lap and then try to move as he likes to do with 300 meters to go, did just that—but again he struggled on the last 100 meters.  At 2:00.5 we were behind the pack at the first exchange.  Gibson caught up quickly to the back of pack and then relaxed.  His 400 split was reasonable—about 56 seconds.  At the 300 mark he surged, moving into the middle of the pack.  Then he, too, struggled in the last 100 meters, finishing in 1:57.9.  It was a similar story for Reardon.  He caught up.  Then he moved, but then he struggled, having used his resources to get himelf back into the race.  Reardon passed the baton to Korabik in eighth place at 5:56.6 after a 1:58.4 leg.  Chasing the fast anchor leg runners, Korabik never really got back into the mix.  He was passed by one runner; he came through the first lap in 57 second seconds still in ninth.  He held onto the final medal position down the last straightaway with a 1:58.1 leg as the anchor from York tried to run him down.  Our final time was a tick slower than the day before:  7:54.85.

Barrington had won in 7:45.94, so we never had a chance to win.  But sixth place LaGrange Lyons Township finished in 7:52.23.  We scored one point in ninth place; sixth place would have been worth four—and we had been hoping for five.  But it would turn out to be an important point at the end of the day, nonethless.

We were on top of the moving schedule, and Jack Keelan was in the tent plenty early for the 3200.  Last year, when Keelan attempted the 3200/1600 double, we had come to the state meet with a simple strategy.  He would try to run the final two laps of all three of his races, 1600 prelims, 3200, and 1600 final in 2:05 or better.  If he could do that, we felt, he would have a chance in all three races. As it turned out, perhaps because of the hot weather which produced 100 degree temperatures on the track, he couldn’t.  Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Park-River Forest, did manage that feat in the 3200 as he ran away from Keelan in the last two laps to win in 9:03.42 and Keelan finished second in 9:08.48.  But even Schrobilgen found himself in survival mode in the 1600 later in the day as he finished third behind New Trier’s Leland Later, who had run only the 1600; Keelan had gamely finished seventh.

Jack Keelan's plan in the 3200 was to sit in the pack for five laps--and then take control of the race.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Jack Keelan’s plan in the 3200 was to sit in the pack for five laps–and then take control of the race. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

As we prepared for this year’s meet, we looked at the forecast to see that the cool temperatures would help Keelan attempt the 3200/1600 double.  The announced strategy would be the same, and no surprise to anyone who had watched Keelan’s race at the Arcadia Invite in early April, where he had run the state leading time for 3200, 8:50.74.  Keelan had simply bided his time at the back of the big Arcadia pack of 25 runners for the entire first five laps; then he had moved halfway up the pack on lap six, and then further up on lap seven.  He had in fact taken the lead briefly as the race entered the final lap.  There he had let eight runners go by him, although he had passed three of them back before his fifth-place finish.  After a 4:36 first mile, his final mile had been 4:14—and a 2:03 final half mile.  Once again, we decided, he would need to run that 2:05 in the last half mile at the state meet to win—and this year the heat would not suck that finish out of him in the earlier laps.

But as we neared race day, Keelan also decided to amend the plan.

Text messages with his friend Alex Riba at O’Fallon confirmed that Riba and his teammate Patrick Perrier would be running the 3200/1600 double just like Keelan.  Riba had led Keelan for most of the IHSA state championship cross country race back in November, before Keelan made his move with 800 meters to go and left Riba behind.  A week later, at the NXN regional in Terra Haute, Keelan had attempted the same move—but he didn’t have the same engine.  Riba and three others held onto Keelan and then Riba won the race with a strong finishing kick.  Initially fierce rivals who had hardly even spoken, one from the north of Illinois and one from the south, Riba and Keelan had become friends in Portland as members of the Midwest team.   But in Charleston they would still be racing.

When Alex Riba took the lead of the 3200 after the halfway point, Keelan moved to follow.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

When Alex Riba took the lead of the 3200 after the halfway point, Keelan moved to follow. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Keelan’s new plan was really just a variation.  Although he had new confidence in his finishing kick, Keelan decided he would take the lead of the state 3200-meter with three laps to go and push the pace from there.  Assuming that Riba and Perrier did not try to pull out ahead of the pack on their own, in which case Keelan would likely follow them, Keelan would sit in the pack for five laps—and then he would push the pace.  It sounded good to me, I said.  In the Tour-de-France, I told him, they would call it a selection.  It was clear that it would be a deep field, with lots of boys who might think they could run close to 9:00 under good conditions.   It would be better if at the end the race came down to fewer competitors so Keelan could know who he was racing.  An earlier move would drop people before the end game.  He was thinking a 65 lap would be about right.

The race went pretty much according to Keelan’s plan.  The pace was a little bit slow—2:19 at 800, 3:39 at 1200, 4:39 for Keelan at 1600.  And still he sat in the pack in about tenth place.  Lurking behind him for all three laps were Riba and Perrier.  Just before the mile, Riba shot past on the outside.  Keelan quickly followed and jumped into the open space behind Riba in second.  Perrier soon followed Keelan.  Riba took the now strung out line of runners through a 65-second lap. As they entered the home straightaway at the end of lap five, Keelan stuck with his plan.  He moved past Riba into the lead.  He would try to control the race from the front.   Cue the Prefontaine music.

Keelan took control of the race on the sixth, according to his plan.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Keelan took control of the race on the sixth lap, according to his plan. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Lap six wasn’t a 65, but more like a 67.  It strung out the field, but it wasn’t really a selection.  When Keelan moved, though, Perrier and Riba jumped in behind him.  Tyler Yunk from Belevidere North, who in fact had the second best personal best coming into the race at 9:03, fought his way back to hook on behind the front three.  Game on.

Lap seven wasn’t a lot faster—a 66.  I had a moment of doubt.  Maybe Jack wasn’t feeling great.  The move hadn’t really been decisive enough.  Or maybe he was just really confident.  He was leaving it to the last lap.

Keelan, Perrier, and Riba pulled away from the line of runners around the turn going into the last 400. Then Perrier passed Keelan coming out of the turn.  Everyone knows that Perrier and Riba are faster 800 meter runners than Keelan.  Perhaps the pace had not been demanding enough to put that speed away.  Maybe it was Prefontaine music?

Alex Riba challenged on the last straight, but Keelan had the better finishing kick.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Alex Riba challenged on the last straight, but Keelan had the better finishing kick. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

But it was only a moment of doubt.  Keelan gave Perrier a few meters in the lead, and then he lowered his head and started to move around him on the outside.  Perrier fought for a moment, then gave in.  Keelan hit another gear and left him behind.  200 to go and Keelan was sailing in the lead—but it had only been a 31 second 200.  He should have plenty left. Riba, meanwhile, moved past Perrier and started after Keelan going into the last turn.

He gained a little bit, then a little bit more. And then Keelan hit the after-burners and left Riba behind. The last 200 was 27.5 seconds on my watch.

The official time was 8:57.61.  Riba also went under 9:00.  The last 1600 was 4:18.  The last 1200 was 3:13.  The last 800 was 2:06, so Keelan had left it a little bit late.  The last 400 was 59 seconds.

It had already been several trips back and forth to the field house.  I had watched both races in the stands, down front at the start of the home straightaway, with our team. Keelan’s plan, even with the original meet schedule, had been to return directly to his dorm room after the 3200—skipping the medal ceremony.

He had asked freshman Dan Santino to stand in for him, kind of a changing of the guard, perhaps.  Santino missed qualifying in the 3200  at the sectional meet by 4/10s of a second, running the fastest time for a freshman in Illinois this year, 9:29.65.  I walked Santino down to the track entrance and ushered him through.  There was no sign of Keelan anywhere.

Then I went to the field house.  I texted assistant coach Steven Bugarin in the stands:  “I’m in the field house.  Where is Conor?  Send him here.”  Earlier in the day we had texted and tweeted to everyone the news that the meet would accelerate.  How did coaches manage this kind of situation before cell phones and texting, I wondered?

I got a text from the press box, where our girls assistant coach Matt Haffner was helping do the computer work for the IHSA.  “Team is in second.”  It gave me a chuckle, as I figured it out.  They had given out the shot put awards.  There had been three events on the track.  So after four events, we were no doubt one of the only teams to score in two, and with Keelan’s ten and one from the 4×800, we had 11.

Dunham appeared—and I told him were in second place with 11 points.  He chuckled, too.

Conor Dunham was a surprise third place finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, putting the Wolfpack in contention for a trophy.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham was a surprise third place finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, putting the Wolfpack in contention for a trophy. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Then he was a little bit surprised that I told him he had only 20 minutes to warm up before they would want him in the tent for the 300 hurdles.  He got to work.  He seemed especially calm, focused, and confident.  I walked him all the way to the tent and watched him safely inside as the last of the 400 heats was finishing.

Back in the field house again, I got a text from the press box, where our girls head coach, Erin Luby, was visiting with Haffner.  I had tweeted earlier that Keelan was back in the dorm while Dunham warmed up.  “Is Keelan still in the dorm?”  Luby texted.  “The meet is 90 minutes ahead of schedule.”

Text to Keelan, text to his father who was with him back at the dorm.  Keelan was already on his way.  He appeared in the field house shortly as the 1A 300 heat began.  He had already warmed up.  I had given his father a clean, dry singlet for him to wear.  Did he have it?  Was his number on it?  Yes, he was all set.  He could get himself to the tent.  Someone had told me, I said, that he had been a little bit “spent” after the 3200.  He laughed a little bit and then set off to check in.

I was literally running through the track entrance on the east side grandstand as the gun went off for Dunham’s 300-meter hurdles race.   They were coming off the first straightaway when I caught sight of Dunham in lane 3 chasing Dave Kendziera of Prospect in lane 4.  He was a couple steps behind.

Dunham had been fifth in the prelims, running his fastest time of the year 39.11 seconds.  Only once had he ever run faster—38.98 last year in the sectionals.   The top three in the prelims were seniors—and very good ones:  Kendziera, Andrew Helmin of Providence, and Lino Mogorovic of Lyons.  They seemed untouchable.  As Dunham’s father, Dan, had noted the night before when I said that something might happen in front of Conor to help him out, “These are seasoned guys. “

But in the prelims Dunham had been beaten by Lake Park sophomore Antonio Shinault.  This was Shinault’s first trip to the state meet as a hurdler.  Dunham had qualified as a freshman and then as a sophomore last year, when he had just missed qualifying for the final.  Shinault, we thought, could be beaten.  We were hoping for fourth.

Dunham looked fast around the turn, not losing much ground to the leaders in the middle lanes.  At the last hurdle coming off the curve he hesitated, and then switched legs.  Either he was in trouble, or he was going so fast he had outrun his usual step pattern.  Dunham hesitated a little bit, not quite a stutter, coming to the first hurdle off the curve.  He was in fourth.

Three weeks ago at the Nalley Invite he had been behind coming into the straightaway.  He had lowered his head into a headwind and won the race.

Dunham started his charge again—and then Mogorovic hit a hurdle hard.  Dunham shot ahead of him into third.  He finished strong in a personal best and school record time of 38.26 seconds, scoring 7 points for the team.

I hurried to the main grandstand to watch the 1600 with our team, still sitting low in the stands at the start of the final straightaway.

Keelan’s1600 race came quickly; instead of three hours of rest as it was originally scheduled, he would have 90 minutes.

In the 1600, as in the 3200, Keelan took a spot back in the pack.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

In the 1600, as in the 3200, Keelan took a spot back in the pack. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Once again, as he had in the 3200 and in the prelims the day before, he settled toward the back of the pack for the first lap, keeping out of trouble.  But Riba pushed to the front at around 200 meters, and taking precaution, Keelan moved quickly around the big pack on the home straightaway to get closer to the front.  The first lap was a 64.

Riba kept the lead for the second lap.  Coming down the home straight before the 800 meter mark, Jamison Dale of Jones College Prep, who had run the fastest time in the prelims the day before, 4:11.99, moved decisively into the lead.  He was just under 2:08 at the 800.  He moved out to around a fifteen meter lead on the rest of the runners.

Keelan accelerated to cover the move first, going by Riba;  then others followed.  Keelan let them pass, sticking to the inside curb.   Entering the home straight again, Billy Bund of Lake Forest and Garrett Lee of Belvidere North pulled the whole group back up behind Dale.  Keelan worked his way off his inside position on the curb as he went through the 1200 in fifth place, just a part of the chase group–but now on the outside of lane one with some room to move.  Dale’s 1200 time was 3:12.

When Jamison Dale of Jones took the lead, Keelan moved to the front to stay close.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

When Jamison Dale of Jones took the lead, Keelan moved to the front to stay close. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Keelan still waited patiently.  It could have been a dangerous situation with as many as eight runners still in the race.  There had been no selection.  With 300 to go the pace had really quickened.  Dale fought off Bund to stay in the lead.

Keelan followed when Garrett Lee made his move with 200 meters to go.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Keelan followed when Garrett Lee made his move with 200 meters to go. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Down the back stretch, there was a large bunch of runners pushing toward the front of the race.  Then from behind Keelan, Garrett Lee charged on the outside all the way to the lead past Dale and Bund.  Keelan followed him, settling into second.  Around the curve, they separated from the rest of the runners.  At the start of the straightaway, Keelan hit his high gear again to leave Lee behind.   Lee  beat the rest of the pack for second.  Keelan was 4:12.11, with a 59 second last 400, and a 28 second final 200.

Once again, Keelan had the better sprint finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Once again, Keelan had the better sprint finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

He had won the triple crown—cross country title in November, and then 1600 and 3200 in May.  Maddie Perez of Glenbard West had accomplished the feat the previoius week; Grant Nykaza of Beecher had done it, as well, at the 1A level, just minutes before Keelan.  But previously it had not happened since York’s Sean McNamara did it in 2004-5.

As a group the team decided to move to the award stand area, where both Dunham and Keelan would wait for a long time to get their medals.  The meet had moved so quickly there was a backlog of awards to be presented.

Then another text from Haffner:  “Your team is in second place.”

It did not last long.  We watched Pekin’s Cole Henderson win the 200, his third final of the day—and his third first place win, after the 100 meters and long jump.  With his ninth place finish in the 400, Henderson by himself totaled 31 points for Pekin—and he took over second place.

In the awards area, we watched the 4x400s.  Nothing happened with the points distribution in the 3A race to change the standings.  It had become apparent that many teams had split the points for the meet’s first 16 events. And after 16 events, Ignatius, improbably, was still in third place with 28 points.

We watched Dunham get his medal on the award stand.  Then Keelan got his medal, this time standing in for himself.

The announcement came that bigger storms were threatening the area, and the IHSA would not conduct a trophy ceremony at the end of the meet.

I had been in the field house with Keelan and Dunham when activity began to move the 3A pole vault competition indoors.  We knew that was where the meet would end, and the team began to head in that direction.

In the field house, the atmosphere was subdued at first, but it would become electric.  It was 2:30, the track events were over, but the pole vault had just barely begun.  The 2A high jump competition, also moved indoors, was just finishing.  The 3A high jump competition was waiting  to start.

Conor Dunham gets his third place medal on the awards stand.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham gets his third place medal on the awards stand. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Our Ignatius group began to assemble.  Large numbers from the Keelan family arrived.  Karamath Khan, Ignatius class of 1984, had come down to Charleston to watch with his son Kallin, a sophomore member of our team.   The Santino family was there.  And then there were also the boys from our team.

It would be a long vigil.  We sent the freshmen, who somehow had never checked out of their dorm room, back to the dorm to pack up.  Steven Bugarin, our assistant coach and team photographer, got the job to supervise. Then we watched the high jump and the pole vault progress.

Senior Ray Lewis, who had driven himself to Charleston and taken his own room in a spectator dormitory, began to calculate possible point totals for the teams who still had competitors jumping.  O’Fallon would be able to pass us because they had two pole vaulters in the competition.  There was an Edwardsville high jumper, as well.

But we all knew the bigger and more inevitable threat to our trophy hopes.  Providence Catholic, our Chicago Catholic League rival, entered the competition with the top high jumper, Mike Monroe, and top pole vaulter, Chad Weaver, according to the sectional seeds.  With Andrew Helmin’s 18 points from the two hurdles races, they could score as many as 38 points.  I had a short conversation with the Providence coaches, who were watching the high jump most intently.  There were still ten high jumpers in the competition, and ten pole vaulters.  They were confident, but also realistic.  “We could get twenty,” said one coach.  “But we could get zero.”

The field house had become meet central.  Mike Newman of Dyestat Illinois came through, sought out Jack Keelan, and joked that it was 2:30 and Jack should be warming up for the 1600.

Assistant Coach Ike Ofor showed me how to do a screen shot on my Iphone.  I took a shot of the IHSA results page with team scores after 16 events, which showed Ignatius still in third place.  Later I would take another one after 17 events; we were still in third. All told, we held onto the third place trophy from 1:30 until 4:30 or so.

As the Providence jumper and vaulter cleared heights, it became a little bit painful to watch.   Monroe needed to clear one height, with a number of jumpers still going, on a third attempt; I don’t remember exactly which one, or whether it would really have mattered.   But when he cleared on the third attempt, that was clearly the end of trophy hopes for us.   Essentially each time Monroe or Weaver cleared a height, it was another point or two for Providence.  Weaver was flying confidently over the pole vault crossbar each time, really leaving no doubt.

The Edwardsville high jumper went out at 6 foot and 5 inches for seventh place; that left Edwardsville behind us with 26 points.  The two O’Fallon vaulters were now a threat to our fourth place position.  Our pole vault coach Pat Boyle said that when they cleared 14-06 they were already jumping above their personal bests.  But they were fighting for their team, trying to get their team on the podium.  They were clearly disappointed when they both missed three times at 14-09.  They scored three points together as the eighth and ninth place finishers.  O’Fallon would finish behind us with 27 points.

In the end, Weaver would finish third and Monroe second in their events to score 15 points and earn Providence the second place trophy with 33 points, ahead of Pekin’s one man team Cole Henderson.  Jonathan Wells of Grant-Fox Lake would win the high jump at 6-11; those 10 points moved his team into a tie with us for fourth place at 28 points.

At whatever point it had become clear that Providence would pass us, we began conversations about leaving Charleston.  A big group of our boys who were still with us waiting for the trip home—several went home with their own parents—decided to make a postponed visit to the First to the Finish tent nearby where the boys always enjoy buying the leftover team jerseys on sale there each year. Pat Boyle wanted to wait to see if Luke Winder of Plainfield Central, winner of the pole vault at 16-03, would be able to clear 17-00.  We almost left him behind in the field house.

As we assembled in the parking lot outside the field house and stadium, a Jimmy John’s car drove up.  A woman driver jumped out and asked if we wanted some free sandwiches.  How many of us were there?  About 15.  “How about 30, then,” she said.  “They are pretty small.”

I had missed eating lunch.  The little ham sandwich was good.  We didn’t win a trophy, but we got free sandwiches.

We stage our trip home to Chicago each year, in what has become a team routine if not a tradition, with a stop in Champaign at the Steak and Shake on Neal Street north of I-74.   We arrived to find the Keelans and Santinos already there.

I checked my email on the Iphone.  Congratulations had come in from a number of people who had been following the meet online or by our twitter feeds.

Tim Mitchell, Keelan’s immersion service teacher, wrote me that I should tell Keelan he would deliver a vintage yellow St. Ignatius warm up jacket to me on Tuesday.  Mitchell, who will move to teach at Loyola Acadmey next year, is giving away some of his old Ignatius coaching gear.  He had promised Keelan the prized jacket if he won in Charleston.

Over the next day or so there were more congratulatory notes.  Best of all, perhaps, was a note from Ignatius alumnus and parent Pete Connelly, girls track and cross country coach at Montini High School—and son of Hall of Fame Ignatius coach Jim Connelly, who died late last summer.  We had made the Connelly family and Saint Ignatius track community proud, he said.  After looking at the IHSA results after the track events had ended, he had spent a day bragging to people about our third place finish.

After he figured out his mistake, he said, he continued to brag about our fourth place finish.

Jack Keelan on the awards stand gets his 1600 meter medal.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Jack Keelan on the awards stand gets his 1600 meter medal. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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It ain’t over until it is over

Saint Ignatius senior Jack Keelan finished 26th at the Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, December 1, running the muddy five kilometer course at Portland Meadows in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. Photo by Tim Keelan.

Saint Ignatius senior Jack Keelan finished 26th at the Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, December 1, running the muddy five kilometer course at Portland Meadows in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. Photo by Tim Keelan.

The cross country season is (dare I say, finally) over as all the members of our team have finished their post-season races.

These races—the Nike Cross Nationals series which crowns a national team champion, as well as an individual winner, and the older Foot Locker series which crowns an individual national champ—present some special problems for Illinois high school cross country coaches, including the simple problem that according to a complicated set of Illinois High School Association rules we are not able to coach our runners in these races.

A round-up of the Saint Ignatius results:  With his 26th place finish at NXN on Saturday, December 1 in a time of 17 minutes and 45 seconds on a muddy five kilometer course in Portland, Saint Ignatius senior and 2012 Illinois 3A state champion Jack Keelan has run his last high school cross country race. (Complete results here.)

The Saint Ignatius boys ran in the NXN Midwest qualifier as the Pack-Men, and paid homage in their team design to their love of video games.

The Saint Ignatius boys ran in the NXN Midwest qualifier as the Pack-Men, and paid homage in their team design to their love of video games.

Keelan had qualified for NXN with a fifth place finish at the NXN Midwest regional qualifier at the windy and winding Lavern Gibson Championship course in Terra Haute, IN, on Sunday, November 11.  Our Ignatius team ran there as a club called the Pack-Men, finishing 20th out of 37 top Midwest high school teams.   Keelan ran 15 minutes and 34 seconds, a personal best for five kilometers and 44 seconds better than last year.  Freshman Dan Santino ran 16:49, 155th out of 346 finishers.  Junior Chris Korabik was close behind in 175th, running 16:55—more than 1:30 better than last year.  Sophomore Andrew Weber ran 17:09 for 218th—another 1:30 improvement,  sophomore Brian Santino 18:15 for 323rd—one minute faster,  and senior Ray Lewis 19:06 for 338th.

Keelan, Dan Santino, and Brian Santino also raced at the Foot Locker Midwest qualifier held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on Saturday, November 20.  Dan Santino finished fourth, as the top freshman, in the frosh-soph race with a time of 16:24 for five kilometers—a personal best, and brother Brian Santino ran 18:50 for 104th out of 193.  In the seeded race, Keelan finished a disappointing 84th, running 16:05–more on that race below.

The Pack-Men at NXN Midwest in Terra Haute, IN.  Photo by Tim Keelan.

The Pack-Men at NXN Midwest in Terra Haute, IN. Photo by Tim Keelan.

Technically and honestly, I am not coaching the team in this post-season period.  The Illinois High School Association rules are a little bit confusing and murky about whether I could be the coach of the club team or the individual performers in these post season races.  I did go to Terra Haute and to Wisconsin-Parkside to watch them run—and at Parkside, I went to run a race on the same course myself.  But I did not go to Portland to watch Keelan run—and perhaps I missed a once in a lifetime event, even if I would have been an outsider at the event.

Keelan and his teammates have been essentially training on their own since the November 3 Illinois state meet.  He and the team did train for the post-season following an outline of workouts that I gave Keelan back in August, spelling out a 24-week plan that ran through to December.

We had planned the workouts so that Keelan would train hard until just before the state meet, when he would begin a competition phase of training—what coaches call a peak.

For the six weeks previously in September and October, the hard workouts of the week presumably left Keelan a little bit tired when it came time to race on the weekends.  He took very few days off during this time.  He ran about 60 miles each week, with a long run of 12 or even a few more miles on Sundays.  Mondays was a workout in which he ran 1000-meter or 800-meter repeats at about his goal race pace—3:00 for 1000, 2:22 for 800—with a rest about equal to the length of the interval.  On Wednesdays he ran mile repeats, usually about five, at a tempo pace of between 5:00 and 5:10 per mile, with a one-minute rest between.

But for the last month of his season, from a week before the state meet through to December, the number of miles he ran decreased a little bit and the workouts were less demanding.   Mondays were a combination of intervals, including some faster 200-meter sprints; Wednesdays were fewer tempo miles, with some 200s.  He took a few days off.  It was clear that some of these big races and big efforts took a lot out of him.

One key to Keelan’s success this fall—and a lesson we have tried to convey to his teammates—is that we identified manageable pacing goals for the workouts that tested him but did not deplete him.  He has avoided the common mistake of over-training—or what might be called “racing in practice.”  Especially at the end of the season, the emphasis has been on the weekend races, not the training sessions.

It was the first time as a coach that I have had to plan for an extended post-season schedule.  It was a tricky thing to do,  because the event that was most important, really—the Illinois state meet—came before the qualifying and national events for NXN and the Foot Locker cross country championship.  Although for the future I will look at this again and think it through after evaluating the results of the last month, I really do think we planned the workout schedule correctly, in terms of Keelan’s physical preparation.

What we hadn’t thought about very carefully, however, was the mental challenge that Keelan would face this last month.  After winning the Illinois state meet and running a spectacular time of 14 minutes and 5 seconds on November 3, it seems likely to me that he found it a little bit difficult to find the motivation to dig as deep and push himself as hard in the qualifying races at the NXN Midwest and at the Foot Locker Midwest.   He might disagree, perhaps.

Outside of Illinois—and perhaps even among the college coaches doing their recruiting—these national meets seem most important.  But here in Illinois, winning the state meet was a big deal.  At a school like Ignatius, where we have seldom even had runners qualify for the state meet, it was even a bigger deal.  And if you followed Keelan’s bigger story, with its disappointing chapter last year when he did not even qualify for the state meet after having been touted among the favorites to win when he was a junior, then you can probably understand how much his win on November 3 meant to him.

At the NXN Midwest race, it was a windy day on the challenging inclined course at the Lavern Gibson facility.  Keelan was touted as one of the clear race favorites after winning the Illinois state meet the week before.  He sat in the pack for the first half of the race, and then at about the half-way point—an uphill stretch with the wind behind him—he moved to the front of the race and began to push.  It was more or less the same strategy he had followed the week before in the Illinois state meet.

But this time, it seemed, Keelan didn’t have the same big engine.  I likened it to the moment in Star Wars when Han Solo hits the button to send the Millenium Falcon into the hyperdrive jump to light speed—and it doesn’t work.  Keelan did regroup, however, and did a good job of race management.  He settled into the small chase pack that followed a successful separation move by Sam Wharton of Ohio, who countered Keelan’s push and then kept moving after Keelan’s effort stalled.  Wharton’s move created a selection in the bigger field, and in the last half mile of the race seven runners were fighting for the five qualifying spots.  Keelan would have to rely on a finishing kick strategy.  Alex Riba of O’Fallon High School in Illinois, who had challenged Keelan for more than two and a half miles at Detweiller Park the previous week, finally ran Wharton down to win the NXN Midwest with a strong finish over the last 200 meters, but Keelan qualified a few steps behind in fifth to go to Portland.  Quentin Shaffer of Prospect High School, runner up to Keelan at the Illinois state meet, was a third Illinois qualifier with his fourth-place finish.

Two weeks later at the Foot Locker Midwest qualifier, Keelan’s result was not as good.  Parkside was a much more challenging course in terms of its hills.  The first 600 meters or so of the race, in fact, are a long uphill—much more severely than anything at Terra Haute, even.  But after coasting downhill on grass toward the mile mark, the rest of the course is run on a rolling, hard-packed trail with some pretty severe uphills and fast downhills.  Keelan made a visit to the course with teammates—freshman Dan Santino and junior Taylor Dugas—the week before on his one free weekend of the last month, and he ran some tempo miles on the hills.   For a few weeks he also did part of his workout on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on the Chicago lakefront—a grassy, steep incline of 100-meters or so.  But in retrospect it probably wasn’t enough preparation for the pounding of the Parkside course.

Keelan sat back in the pack for the first mile.  When Riba, Wharton, and Jake Leingang of North Dakota made a separating push at the front of the race, Keelan did not keep up—but he moved up in the pack and he was running in fifth place at the two-mile point.  But after a hard and fast downhill, the course went vertical again—and Keelan later said he just couldn’t get his legs to go up the big hill.  He jogged into the finish line in 60th place.  Riba cracked a little bit later in the race, falling back to 30th.

Whether it was a physical or mental lack of readiness remains a good question.  Keelan trained for the FLMW with freshman Santino, who ran the frosh soph race at Parkside.  Santino sat back in his race through the mile.  He was in about twelfth place as the pack strung out over the next mile.  And then over the same hills that had been too much for Keelan, Santino surged to finish fourth in 16 minutes and 24 seconds for five kilometers—a great outcome for a freshman on that challenging course.  The same training on Bobsled Hill seemed to have adequately prepared Santino for the hilly Parkside course.

Keelan went to Portland, therefore, with something to prove.  A preview for the NXN race by Steve Underwood for Milesplit.com listed Keelan as an honorable mention among the star-studded field but not among the 13 favorites who held top 25 rankings according to Underwood’s list, with the note that he needed to save his post-season with a good race:  “Trying now to salvage a disappointing post-season.”   Another national ranking, the Bill Meylan index, tries to measure the difficulty of different courses and different race performances against each other; this list had Keelan’s combined efforts at the Illinois state meet and the NXN Midwest race ranked at number 13 among the contenders at NXN.

The epic sloppiness of the already notoriously muddy and wet course in Portland, with hay bales to jump and the so-called woop-de-dos speed bump hills late in the race, presented Keelan with another kind of entirely different cross country challenge from anything he had ever experienced before.

Keelan eats lunch after NXN with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager and race winner and Midwest teammate Sam Wharton.  Photo by Tony Jones.

Keelan eats lunch after NXN with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager and race winner and Midwest teammate Sam Wharton. Photo by Tony Jones.

Reports from Portland say that Keelan became friends there with Ohio’s Sam Wharton, who turned out to be the surprise winner of the race.  They were members of the Midwest individuals team, who were chaperoned by Chicago’s Lane Tech assistant coach Tony Jones.  Jones posted on Twitter photos of Keelan and Wharton eating lunch together after the race with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager.  (Jones’s Twitter posts here.)  Wharton was the only one of the five member Midwest group to have run at NXN the year before, and Jones dubbed him the team captain.  Jones posted other photos of Keelan and the team, obviously having a great time together.

Nike broadcast the race over the internet on a special Facebook page.  There were some pre-race segments with videos and photos of the participants from the festivities on Friday.  Keelan’s smiling face showed up a couple of times, including a shot of the Midwest individuals running on the course.

It was hard to pick him out of the crowded field once the race began.  The internet broadcast site did allow you to type in a name, and it produced the chip timing splits at one, two, three, and four kilometers.  So we did get to see Keelan’s race develop.  He was 32nd at the one kilometer, in a fast time of 2:32, a couple seconds or so at that point behind the leaders.  The subsequent kilometer splits slowed dramatically, as the runners hit the muddy and puddle sections of the course.  But Keelan stayed near the lead for kilometers two and three, and moved up slowly, reaching 22nd .   At four kilometers he had fallen farther off the pace of the leaders, as Sam Wharton made his strong move to win the race, but he kept his place.  Over the last kilometer he lost a few spots at the end.  The broadcast did show him crossing the finish line, with a bunch of runners just in front and just behind him.  It had apparently been a frantic closing kilometer.

Keelan’s 26th place finish was a perfectly respectable performance on an extreme day in terms of both its competitive pressure and the course conditions.  The Tracktalk.net elite high school board has been rocking with complaints about the course conditions, with the focus on the disruption of form in the individual race, where the top four favorites going into the race all finished outside of the top 10—New York’s Nick Ryan finished 17th after a fall at the start, Arizona’s Bernie Montoya 22nd, West Virginia’s Jacob Burcham 84th, and North Dakota’s Jake Leingang 59th.   Comments after the race sounded like horse race handicappers—the course is built on the infield of the Portland Meadows race track—with its discussion of mudders and not-mudders.   Quentin Shaffer of Illinois and another of Keelan’s Midwest teammates was clearly a mudder, finishing 12th overall, a great finish to his breakthrough year as a runner.

But while I might be wrong, you also have to guess that Shaffer would swap his two wins over Keelan in the NXN races for the state meet victory.  After winning the state meet, Keelan was never in a position where he had to salvage his season, whatever Steve U thinks.

We can expect some epic battles in the spring when all these runners take their talents to the track.

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Executing the plan

Jack Keelan celebrates his state cross country win after schoolmates put a Saint Ignatius flag over his shoulders. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The 2012 Illinois High School Association 3A cross country champion Jack Keelan admitted afterwards that he had been very, very nervous before the race.  And it had been a while, I think, since a race had made him nervous—not even the state track meet back in May.

That admission wouldn’t be a big surprise to those who spent any time with him on Saturday while he and teammate Chris Korabik huddled in our Saint Ignatius school van, parked on Bus Drive at Detweiller right by the finish line at the IHSA state cross country championships.  We had made a concerted effort to keep the bus empty.  Only Patrick Santino, our co-captain from last year, one of Keelan’s best friends, and now a runner at Miami of Ohio, got an extended stay.  Other teammates–more than 40 Ignatius boy and girl runners had made the trip to Peoria–were told by their coach pretty directly that they could poke their heads in to wish Keelan and Korabik luck, but then they should leave the bus.

The nervous Keelan wasn’t a great conversationalist at that point, anyway.

Both Keelan and his coach thought he was ready.   His workouts all season have been right on target.  He completed a six-week session of phase III workouts at the end of October.  On Mondays the workout was basically at race pace—1000s in 3:00 or 800s in 2:22 with a few minutes of rest, sometimes on the grass, sometimes on the track.  Wednesdays was a tempo workout, often 5 x a mile, sometimes on the lakefront path, sometimes on the grass at 41st Street beach, with a minute rest.  Saturday races in September and October were really a third workout, and then Sunday was a long run—12 miles or so.  With some easy running on the other days, his mileage total amounted to around 60 miles a week.  He had never pushed too hard in the workouts, just running the pace.  Races were the same way.  He had run comfortably for the most part, losing only to Grant Nykaza of Beecher at the Palatine Invitational in September in a closing sprint.  In mid-October Keelan had tested himself a little bit at the Chicago Catholic League conference meet, where he had set a new course record of 14:29 running by himself at Turtlehead Lake.  Scott Milling of York had pushed him a little bit at the Niles West Sectional, where he ran 14:45 on a soft track.

Keelan wanted to win the individual state title, but he also wanted to run a fast time.  As it turned out, he had to run fast to win.

On Friday afternoon at the course, Mike Newman of Illinois Prep Harrier and Dyestat.com had told me that he was predicting a winning time of about 14:20—and it was a reasonable prediction.  Last year Garret Sweatt, Leland Later, Malachy Schrobilgen, Erik Peterson, Todd Ford, and Jereme Atchison had posted Detweiller times of better than 14:27 in September and then only Later was able to go faster to run 14:17 and win the 3A state meet.  No one had matched those fast times this year.  Keelan had run only 14:35 winning the First to the Finish meet in September.

On Friday Keelan was still talking about running 14:00.

To think you can go from 14:35 in September down to 14:00 in November–even on a fast day at Detweiller–requires some serious belief.  Keelan hadn’t even nibbled at it with a 14:20 along the way.

I suspect this was partly why Keelan was nervous.  He believed he was ready, but he didn’t know absolutely for sure that when he reached down for what he needed that it would be there.  He hadn’t run a race like that since last June.

Keelan said later that he had had one small moment in his head while he waited before the race where he had said, “Well, if it doesn’t go well today I still have NXN and Footlocker.”  But then he kind of gave himself a big shake and said, “No, this is the state meet!”  It was the race he really wanted to win.

Just before the start, one of his Ignatius teammates put his own special mark on the day.  York brought the school band.  Junior Mickey Smith had brought his bagpipes, and he began to play them five minutes before the race started.

Keelan’s plan was to start in the pack, but then go early at the mile, before the triangle.  With O’Fallon’s Alex Riba and York’s Scott Milling out in front of him a few steps after the 4:39 first mile, Keelan didn’t actually take the lead until they were into the triangle itself, and obviously Riba was there ready to go with him.

In the morning, back at breakfast at the Embassy Suites, I was eating with my family at the same time that the O’Fallon team and coaches were in the breakfast area.  While waiting in the waffle line, I had a quick hello and shook hands with Coach Jon Burnett as he passed by.  “Our guys are gunning for Jack,” he had told me.

What a courageous race Alex Riba ran.  As one of our captains, Tim Hatzopolous said later, Riba had already been second once.  He wasn’t going to just run for second place again.  He was running to win.

Keelan and Riba came out of the triangle together, with the others behind, and it was clearly a two man race.  They started up the hill and passed through the two mile in 9:23.  They were running fast.

Talking about the race later, Keelan said that Riba had put in a surge going across the top of the course after the turn around the tree.  Keelan had to fight a little bit to stay with him.  But then going down the hill along the highway, Keelan had picked up confidence.

Keelan and Alex Riba of O’Fallon ran stride for stride at the front of the race for a mile and a half before Keelan made a final move with 800 meters to go. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I was actually at the bottom of the course at the turn just past the mile clock, with 800 meters to go.  They were still together.  I had a video camera out.  I caught them going by together and watched them stride away.   Then I looked back toward the mile clock to where the other runners were coming, looking for our second runner Chris Korabik, who had been running around 50th.  It must have been about 20 seconds that I took my eyes off the front of the race.

And then I looked back to Keelan and Riba, and Keelan had made his strong move and opened a gap that just kept getting bigger.  Keelan said later that he had started pushing a little bit, but that Riba had also started to fall off a little.

As I had imagined the race, it was going to take a double move by Keelan to win.  He would have to move after the mile in the triangle to make a selection.  But then he would have to run the last 800 to beat whoever came with him.

We knew from last spring that he could run that last 800 fast, like he did at the Arcadia Invite in April when he ran 8:55 for 3200 and closed in 2:05.  But there was maybe a small sliver of doubt after Nykaza had outrun him at the Palatine finish.  I did mention to Jack before the race Saturday that the finish at Palatine had been downhill.  It is a lot different, I suggested, to sprint that incline uphill to the finish at Detweiller.  If it came down to that, I told him, a sprint there would suit him a lot better.

Keelan was sprinting coming up the last incline, but the race was already in hand.  He built close to a ten second lead.  His teammates, it was reported to me later, were going crazy; there were reports of lost voices the next day.  Keelan’s father later admitted to thinking, don’t fall down.

He finished in 14:05–an evenly paced race with miles of 4:40, 4:43, and 4:42.   Our co-captain Ray Lewis said it was perfectly executed race plan.

Riba faded to fourth in 14:15 after his courageous effort, passed in the last 400 meters by Quentin Shaffer of Prospect (14:14), who took second, and teammate Patrick Perrier, third in 14:15.

So finally, even if he was a little bit nervous, when Keelan went into the tank to find what he needed, he found it.

Keelan had started the race nervous, but with a belief that he had that bigger race in him.  He really had been waiting all season for November and the chance to open it up all the way.

We’ve been planning for a final phase of the cross country season in November through December, with the state meet as the first big racing week of five.  We hope he has some more big races in him.

I don’t think he will be quite as nervous next week at the NXN Midwest race at Terra Haute.

After his teammates were first told at the Niles West sectional that they had qualified and then were told they had not qualified, the disappointed Jack Keelan said he had a new mission and a new reason to win at the state meet. It was the only way to make his teammates feel better. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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Keelan wins

Jack Keelan takes a ten second lead down the final straightaway to win the IHSA 3A cross country championship at Detweiller Park on Saturday, November 3.

This picture by our assistant coach Steven Bugarin is worth more than a whole lot of words.

It is Sunday morning, and I’m still processing yesterday’s great day.

Blog post to follow at some point.  But for now, just the news:  Saint Ignatius senior co-captain Jack Keelan won the IHSA 3A cross country state individual championship yesterday.  His time of 14 minutes and 5 seconds was the tenth fastest time in state meet history.  Keelan becomes the second Ignatius runner to win the state meet, and his 14:05 sets a new school record, breaking the record of 14:24.3 set by Mike Patton in his 1980 state championship run.

Junior Chris Korabik also had a great day, running 15:08 for 57th place and almost a 30-second Detweiller personal best.

1980 IHSA cross country champion Mike Patton, Ignatius class of 1981, visited practice two weeks ago for a visit with the team–and this photo with Jack Keelan. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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Early morning on race day at the Embassy Suites

Up at 4:00 AM in the Embassy Suites Hotel in East Peoria, I really did not have a problem sleeping the night before this big day of the state cross country championship race.  I’m usually up at 5:00, and last night I actually went to bed at least an hour earlier than usual.   There just wasn’t a whole lot to do here last night.

I took my computer down to the lobby to use the internet outside the closed Starbuck’s internet cafe.  The only people around were hotel staff and one dressed up couple; the woman was carrying around a big tall fancy drink glass.  “Couldn’t sleep?” a hotel worker asked.

“Just up early,” I said.

I checked my email, read the Bulls score and story from last night, scanned the weather report, and did some schoolwork, posting an assignment for my senior Journalism class to Edline.  I wondered how they did on the test I left for them when I missed class yesterday to drive down here.

Then I brought my computer back upstairs, and I went for a run.  It had rained overnight.  It was in the 40s, but not too bad once the running got me warm.  It was still dark.  The rain will soften the course a little bit, but the rest of the day should be dry according to the weather report.

Two years ago when we brought our team, it occurred to me what an advantage the coaches who bring teams here every year have over those of us who are still learning the ropes.  That year I got terribly lost trying to find the Avanti’s in Washington, turning a 15 minute drive into an hour detour.  Last night I got lost navigating the maze in East Peoria around I-74, but we got there without too much trouble.  We did have a long wait for a table, however.  Next year we will get there early before the rush.

Yes, we are already talking about next year.

But first, this year.   I put our two runners Jack Keelan and Chris Korabik back in their room at around 9:30, after we spent some time at dinner with their somewhat raucous teammates.  Jack remarked on the way back to the Embassy Suites that it had been a good idea to have the boys who were not running the race stay in another hotel.  Their energy level was high; Korabik and Keelan were trying to conserve theirs for the race the next day.

We had arrived in Peoria at 1:15, going directly to Detweiller.  Keelan and Korabik had run the course.  They visited race box number 10, where they will start.  I had a longer conversation with Rob Heselton from Jones College Prep, along with shorter ones with Mike Newman from Illinois Prep Harrier and Dyetrack.com and Bud James from Chicago University High.  Then I attended the 2:00 required coaches meeting with the meet officials.  We got some instruction about using the new bib chips.  Key piece of information:  Don’t put a pin through the chip part of the bib, because then it won’t work.

After we checked in at the Embassy Suites, Keelan and Korabik took it easy in their room, and then they took a walk to the nearby Walmart for some supplies—crackers and Gatorade.  One big question for tomorrow, considered carefully later over dinner, has become whether to use the goo or the gummies.

It did occur to me that Keelan and Korabik seemed a little bit lonely in the big hotel without teammates.  We left school early, missing classes for most of the day.  The rest of the boys came down later, required to leave after school was over.  It would have been a different trip—and a very different group with the same boys—if the whole team was competing.

The support group here also includes our captain from last year Patrick Santino, who came in from Miami of Ohio for the big weekend in Peoria.  We ate dinner last night with Patrick and his father, Bill Santino, and then we sat with the fourteen boys (including two more Santino brothers, Brian and Dan) and assistant coach Steven Bugarin who arrived around 7:30.

The plan for this morning is to head to Detweiller around 10:00 with Keelan and Korabik.  We brought our team tent canopy, but on my run this morning, in a little bit of drizzle and cold, it occurred to me that our comfortable van might be a better place for them to spend their waiting time at the course.  They want to see the big 2A boys showdown between Jones College Prep, Belvidere North, and Glenbard South at noon.  But otherwise they will lay low.  Hiding out in the van might be a good way to keep them in a secluded place with restricted access (a suggestion from another coach) so that they can relax and do better race preparation.

They each have their race plans.  Korabik will simply position himself in the early part of the race to give himself a chance to race for an all-state spot.  I will try to give him an indication of his race place as early in the race as possible.

Keelan, one of the favorites to win the race, has picked a race plan.  He wants to win the race—and he wants a fast time.  He will run aggressively.

At 6:30 AM, the lobby of the Embassy Suites was still empty.  As I did my flexibility exercises, a woman hotel worker politely asked me for some suggestions on working out her upper arm muscles and getting better definition.  It was my first coaching of the day.

On the one hand, the hay is in the barn.  There is not much more to do.  On the other hand, there are some things to do today to close the deal.  Maybe a big part of the job today is just to keep people away so that Keelan and Korabik can focus on what they have to do.

But step one will be to see if I can maneuver our van through the traffic and find a good parking place in the middle of the morning at Detweiller.

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Boys don’t cry

The first results posted at the Niles West sectional, signed by an IHSA official, gave our Ignatius boys the fifth qualifying spot.

But Lane Tech’s results listed only six runners.  They found number seven, David Schmieg, in 44th place, using video review. Photos from CPSfan.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Coach Steven Bugarin, freshman Dan Santino, senior Jack Keelan, junior Patrick Manglano, sophomore Andy Weber, junior Chris Korabik, junior Taylor Dugas, senior Ray Lewis, and coach Ed Ernst celebrate–for a short while–our qualification for the IHSA state meet with 1980 IHSA state champion Mike Patton (front). Photo by Tim Keelan.

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Not racing to win is a funny feeling

At the Saint Ignatius IHSA 3A Regional meet at Washington Park on Saturday, October 20, we ran our “second seven” and rested our top five runners. Our team ran well, but not well enough to win. Our top five will run next week at the IHSA Sectional at Niles West High School. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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.

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