Category Archives: teaching

Not quite a time trial—and not quite a city championship

The Wolfpack Howl kicks off the cross country season for four Chicago city teams.

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl.  But who would go number two?

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl. But who would go number two?  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Last year, in preparation for our start-of-the-season practice meet, we did not let the boys draft their own teams for our annual Wolfpack Howl.  It was simply an oversight—and we ran short of time with our preparations.

This year senior Kallin Khan sent us an email fully two weeks before the event as a reminder.  The opportunity to pick their own teams, Khan was suggesting politely as a senior leader, is an important part of the event for the athletes.  Lesson learned.

We begin our season with a practice meet we call the Wolfpack Howl.  We break our boys up into color teams, White, Black, Gold, and Maroon, our Saint Ignatius College Prep school colors.  Initially we ran this meet on our own.  But when the Illinois High School Association added a week to the beginning of the interscholastic competition season a number of years ago, we invited a few other schools to join us.  This year Jones College Prep, University High, and St. Patrick’s came along.   We ask them to do the same—break their teams up into intersquad teams– but only Jones has the numbers to do so.

We gather in Chicago’s South Side Washington Park, which would have been the location for the Olympic Stadium in the city’s ill-fated bid to be the 2016 host.   It’s probably not a cross country race proper because while we run on the grass for some of the race, most of the race follows the 1.4 mile crushed limestone jogging path around the northern side of the park.  That way, we figure, no one can get lost.  As a starter race—and to help make sure no one takes it too seriously—we only run two miles.

But we do have a cross country-style start across an open field.  We do have a finish chute to teach the newcomers to keep moving after they finish—and to collect finish cards at the end of the chute.

We do have results, which we compile old-style with envelopes.  We give them to the team captains of the color teams from each school, and we stick a golf pencil in the envelope and ask them to record the names and finish places for their teams on the envelopes.   It’s a way to be sure all the athletes understand how to score a cross country race—and that all the members of the team are important.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes, to compile the results old school.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes to compile the results old school.

As a concession to modernity, the watch is a Nielsen-Kellerman Interval 2000xc.  We record all the times on one watch, which we give to a parent to click at the finish line.  Then we import the times from the watch directly into the computer.

We made an attempt this year to collect team rosters at so that we could use our Hytek.  It didn’t really work.  So when it came time for results, like other years we just copied the names off the envelopes and typed them into Excel.

We pointedly do not share our official unofficial results with Dyestat or Milesplit.

We call it a two-mile race, and we compare results for our boys year-to-year.  But we’re never quite sure of the course, as simple as we try to be by using the jogging path.  Some years we have arrived in the park to discover the Universal Soul Circus has set up in the park, blocking part of the jogging trail.  This year I checked the schedule for the Soul Circus, and they aren’t coming until October.  But on Friday night when I visited the park it was the African Festival of the Arts blocking the path with an enclosed chain link fence.  So we improvised the course, cutting through the grassy outfield of some softball diamonds.  A quick bike tour with the Garmin GPS showed the course to be a little bit short, so we extended  the start to the edge of the field and then we moved the finish line back.

Even the start , approximately 400 meters across the grassy park, can be tricky.  We negotiate with the University of Chicago Ultimate Frisbee team and ask them to stop their practice for 30 seconds each time for our two races as we run through the cones that mark their field.  We also had to run around two cricket circles this year.

The grass is long and unmowed.  The field, if it has been raining, can be a little bit sloppy in spots.

We moved the race schedule up 15 minutes or so at the last minute when Jones College Prep told us that they had some kids who had to get to a school concert performance later in the morning .  We aimed for 9:30, and we were more or less on time.

But at 9:15, as our assistant coach Nate McPherson told the story, he looked up where the finish chute was supposed to be—and there was no finish chute.

It was ready in plenty of time by 9:25.  We sprayed a 15 foot long white line at the front of the chute, and stuck some soccer corner flags into the ground.  We ran 30 feet of yellow caution tape down each row of poles to make the chute.

Gun violence is a terrible problem in Chicago, especially on the South Side.  As a gesture of understanding, we started the race with a whistle.

We paint a line for the start—and we even have some boxes, which the runners basically ignore.  We run girls from University High and Jones as teams with the frosh-soph boy runners.    There were a lot of runners in this group who had never run a race.  I gave clear instructions:  “I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it once a long time to start.”

I paused and moved into position.  One whistle—half the 70 runners started off the line.  I blew the whistle a bunch of times and told everyone to stop.

“Let’s try that again.  I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it one a long time to start.”

The second time it worked.  Only one or two stepped forward on the first whistle, and we let them step back quickly before we started the race.

The only other mishap in the frosh soph race occurred when the race leader, our sophomore Lyndon Vickrey, ran off what we thought was a very simple course.  He was following a bike ridden by assistant coach Steven Bugarin, but Bugarin had stopped to close the gate of a giant dumpster which had opened and was a little bit of a hazard on the course.  Vickrey ran right by him toward the chain link fence blocking the path instead of turning across the ball fields.  Bugarin quickly called him back and he had such a big lead no one else really followed him or lost much time.  And Vickrey won going away, anyway.  We probably should have put him in the varsity race.

When the varsity boys started, there was no problem at the start or on the course.  As low key as we try to make it, they still take it pretty seriously.

Jones and Ignatius have become pretty serious rivals in recent years, competing with only Lane Tech, perhaps, for the title of the best team in the city of Chicago.

Our Saint Ignatius students are drawn from all over the Chicago metropolitan area, including near and distant suburbs, but about half come from the city itself.  Both teams train on the Chicago lake front, and our staging areas are a block apart on either side of the Grant Monument on the top of the hill at the south end of Grant Park along Michigan Ave.  We both run across the same bridge and through the same tunnels to get to the Lakefront running and biking path.  Last week they practiced on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on Tuesday.  We were there on Wednesday.

When our groups pass each other on the path coming and going, we nod politely.

As it happens, this year the teams will actually race six times—maybe seven if both teams qualify for the state meet.  Jones moved into a new building last year and enrollment will double in the next few years from 900 to 1800.  We sit at about 1400.  Jones was state champion in the 2A state division in 2012, but the increase in enrollment has moved them into the large school 3A division with us now.  We will fight each other in the same sectional for one of five team state qualifying spots in early November.

Apparently unable to get enough of a good thing, Jones coach Andrew Adelmann this summer proposed that we race each other in a late season old-fashioned dual meet.  Both of us withdrew from our invitationals the weekend of October 11 to make it happen.  We don’t have a site yet, but we have a date:  Thursday, October 9.

So the race at the Wolfpack Howl was like a good preview for a season of drama ahead.

Our official but unofficial results score the meet as a multi-team meet between the color teams.  On those results, two Jones teams—the Jones White and Jones Blue teams—battled for the win, with the White team scoring 81 to the Blue’s 85.  Our Ignatius Black team was third with 90 points—and all they really cared about was winning the Ignatius color team battle.  The Black team earned a visit to our team treasure chest with their win.

It wasn’t hard to notice with just a glance, however, the outcome of this first Jones versus Ignatius meeting, even if it was just a skirmish.  Junior Dan Santino, the 2013 Chicago Catholic League champion, won the race, with two more Ignatius seniors—Andy Weber and Kallin Khan—close behind.  Mark Protsiv of Jones was fourth, with Jacob Meyer of University High fifth.  But then Ignatius senior John Lennon was sixth, junior Vince Lewis was 10th, and freshman Patrick Hogan came close behind in 13th , with another freshman Brett Haffner 15th–for an even more unofficial score of 22 for the Wolfpack.  Jones scored 38.

But no one was keeping score, of course.

The Ignatius color teams did, in fact, care mainly about their own competition and their own teams.  Each color team came up with their own uniforms.  They warmed up together,  and they made their own team strategies.

The teams had been created in a draft.  On Tuesday before the Saturday race, after a workout run on the lakefront, the four junior captains, who had been chosen by their coach, gathered on the picnic tables near the Saint Ignatius track.  We had given them a team roster of juniors and seniors, plus the names of a few sophomores and freshmen.  The list, in fact, ranked the runners in roughly rank order in terms of expected performance.

Chris Jeske went first, and he made the obvious choice—Dan Santino.  Then it was Andrius Blekys’s turn.

“I pick Vince,” he said.  And everyone laughed.  Vince Lewis was a new runner on the cross country team, coming over from soccer.  He ran track as a freshmen and sophomore and has lots of potential.  But he was not the runner anyone expected to go number two in the draft.

Jack Morgan quickly picked Kallin Khan.  Then Colin Hogan took Andy Weber.  In the snake draft order the boys had established, Hogan chose again and grabbed John Lennon as the fourth pick.  Morgan took senior Brian Santino at five.

Then it was Blekys’s turn again: He took Dante Domenella—another surprising choice.  On his next turn, he chose AnthonyImburgia, once again, probably not the runner you would choose if you were picking according to the rank order.

What had become clear to everyone was that Blekys wasn’t picking runners by their abilities.  He was choosing friends that he wanted on his team.

Blekys, as it turned out, was not able to run in the race when Saturday came around.  He was shut down from running by our trainers, because of severe shin splints with point tenderness, sometimes a precursor for stress fracture.  The White team finished fourth among the four Wolfpack teams.  Even with Blekys in the lineup, they probably would have been fourth.

Interestingly, Vince Lewis had one of the best runs on the team, finishing as number five for Ignatius.  The confidence of his friend and captain Andrius Blekys maybe helped to spur him on.  He ran like a number one pick.

And perhaps the White team were the real winners, just because they seemed to have the most fun.


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He Prefontaine-ed it, as we still like to say


Chris Korabik moves to the lead of the 1600-meter run at the 3A IHSA state meet with just over 400 meters to go. Korabik is about the take the race lead from Patrick Perrier and Zack Smith.  Jake Hoffert, Jessie Reiser, and Ryan Clevenger are in the mix.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I started my coaching life in what must have been a spring season in the early 1990s when I was an assistant for my daughter’s one season on a tee ball team.  Not long afterwards I began a longer career as an American Youth Soccer Organization coach, rising up the ranks to become a clinic instructor and head of all the coaches for our Region 751 in Hyde Park.

As a tee ball and  soccer coach, I watched one very successful coach for many years.  From his sideline position—and with a loud voice—he carefully directed the actions of his tee ball and soccer players, play by play.  His kids listened carefully and performed well.  They did what he told them to do.

But it never seemed like the right way to teach kids how to play on their own.  It always seemed to me that you have to let kids make some mistakes so that they learn the right way to do things.

We have some rules that we teach our distance runners.  Run in lane one.  Don’t waste energy in a race; sit still if you can.  When you decide to pass someone, do it convincingly—and keep going.  We prefer even pacing—and negative splitting.  It takes a lot of energy to lead a race for a long time; it is better to have the lead at the end.  Make sure you run all the way through the finish line.

We have race plans that we talk about with our boys.  We ask them to participate in making those plans.

But we know that the boys are not going to learn our rules without making mistakes and breaking them.  And we know that on the track, the boys have to learn how to make their own decisions.  They have to be their own race strategists, too.

Our kids are smart.  They learn their lessons—and they run their own races.

On Saturday his coaches sent Wolfpack runner Chris Korabik onto the race track at Eastern Illinois University for the 3A IHSA state championship 1600-meters with three different race plans.  But it was up to Korabik to make his own decisions and execute the race as he thought best.

Korabik was one of just four runners in the race who had not run an earlier race that day—along with York’s Alex Bashqawi, Yorkville’s Jake Hoffert, and Downers Grove North’s Ryan Clevenger.  So race plan number one was to make sure the race was fast enough from the start.  A tactical race would allow the runners doubling back from the 4×800, 3200, or 800 a chance to conserve energy for a big finish—particularly dangerous, it would seem, in the case of Danville’s Johnny Leverenz, who had run 1 minute and 52.0 seconds to win the 800.    Korabik would push on the first turn to put himself in position near the front of the race, and he was prepared to take the lead on the first lap if necessary to make the pace honest.  He would give it up once the race was rolling.

As it turned out, Hoffert seemed to have an even more aggressive race plan—and he took the lead and pushed the pace right away, opening a significant ten-meter gap on the field from the start.  Korabik slid easily into second place at the front of the chasers.  Hoffert reached 200 meters in 28 seconds, with Korabik at 30.4.  In fact, just after the 200, first O’Fallon’s Patrick Perrier and then more aggressively Downers Grove North’s Zack Smith stepped into the space between Korabik and Hoffert—and closed the gap down quickly.  The race, it seemed clear already, would not be slow and tactical.

Smith, in fact, kept running right past Hoffert and into the lead as the runners came past the 400-meter mark.  Korabik, running in lane one, had already slid back to sixth, with 3200-meter winner Jessie Reiser from McHenry  pushing past him in chase of Smith and then Clevenger, too,  passing him outside his shoulder on the straightaway.  Korabik’s split was 62.4.

Korabik never left his position in lane one, and he never accelerated.  He patiently kept his spot in the line.  Around the curve, Reiser pushed back into lane one as Korabik gave way, but Clevenger stayed outside in lane 2.  On the straightaway and then around the turn the group was still in a line behind Smith—Perrier, Hoffert, Reiser, Korabik, with Clevenger still on Korabik’s shoulder outside.  Korabik was 1:33.6 at 600 meters.

Race plan number two was my plan.  It was not going to be a slow tactical race.  But Korabik, we knew, was not the fastest sprint finisher in the field.  In fact, he had been beaten in a sprint finish—off a slow tactical pace—just two weeks before in the Chicago Catholic League championship 1600-meter run by Fenwick’s Sal Flight, who had a personal best almost ten seconds slower.  Korabik knew he would have to run 60-seconds on the final lap of the state race.   But off an honest but not fast pace, he would also have to take the finishing kick out of some of the others—or have a lead he could hold onto.  The plan was the one Hicham El Guerrouj used to beat Bernard Lagat in the 2004 Athens Olympics 1500.  From about 800 meters out, Korabik would take the lead—and then carefully wind up the race.  He would apply more and more pressure at the front of the race, never pushing too far into the red, but never letting anyone pass him, either.  It would be Korabik’s decision, though, to decide if it was developing into a kicker’s race in which he would have to wind up the pace.

Coming into the home straightaway, Korabik positioned himself for a move off the curve.  Then down the straightaway he moved from lane one into lane two and was in position to move all the way around the group now bunching behind Smith.  He went smoothly by Reiser, then Clevenger.  He pulled up along side Hoffert.  Smith and Perrier were side by side in the lead just another step away.

Here was a moment of decision.  Before the race, in the EIU indoor track, we had laid out all Korabik’s options.  He is a 4.0 student at Ignatius.  He is a senior who has run many races.  He could understand complicated options.  With 800 to go, he would have to assess the race.  Was it fast enough?  Who was still in it?  Could he get to the lead efficiently and easily enough without anyone fighting him?  What did he have in his tank?

He had moved to put himself in position to try the El Guerrouj.  But then he made his choice.  He would wait.  His split at 800-meters was 2:06.3.  The race was moving fast enough; the kickers would be tired at the end, too.  He was still close to the front.

Korabik pushed his way back into lane one around the curve, in front of Clevenger and behind Hoffert, in fourth.  Reiser responded by moving around Korabik again on the outside.  Clevenger pulled up on his shoulder again.    At 1000-meters he was in sixth again at 2:38.4.  For a third lap it was still an honest and even fast pace.  He had made a good decision.

Around the curve, Smith was still in the lead, with Perrier on his shoulder.  Then Hoffert held on behind Smith, with Reiser behind him on the outside.  Then Korabik, with Clevenger beside him.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway--and then he moved to the lead.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway–and then he moved to the lead. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Plan number three came from our assistant coach Steven Bugarin, with an assist from assistant coach Nate McPherson.  They had worried the El Guerrouj plan would force Korabik to move too early and drain him for the last lap.  He should wait until 500 to go, they thought—and then move to the lead.

As the runners neared the 500-meter mark, we watched carefully, waiting to see what Korabik would do.  There might be a problem.  We weren’t sitting together, but talking after the race, we had all noticed the same thing:  Korabik looked like he was boxed in.

But the other runners no doubt had last lap plans, as well.  Off the main grandstand curve the front group was moving quickly.  Down the straightaway Reiser moved closer to Perrier on the outside.  It was not quite three abreast—Smith, Perrier, Reiser, with Hoffert crowding behind Smith looking for a place to go.

Korabik inched forward as Reiser did so—and Clevenger, perhaps thinking Reiser would move out to Perrier’s shoulder, moved out a bit wider out to lane three.

And then Korabik struck.  He went past Clevenger on the inside, with perhaps a brush of arms between the two.  He moved past Reiser to his inside.  And then he accelerated past Perrier and Smith.

Perrier made his own move a split second later to step ahead of Smith.  The others followed—Hoffert still chasing, then Reiser, then Clevenger, with Conant’s Zach Dale following and Smith fading quickly.

But Korabik had the jump, and he got to the lead and back into lane one all on the straightaway.  He went by 1200 in first at 3:10.4.  Perrier and the others were sorting things out behind him.  Korabik accelerated around the curve.   Perrier still followed closely, but a gap opened behind Perrier back to Hoffert.  Three meters, four meters, five meters—the gap widened as Korabik accelerated, Perrier chasing close and the others falling back.

Later another coach told us that Korabik’s courageous move had brought tears to his eyes.  It was the kind of move coaches want their boys to make–and train them to make.  As we sometimes still say, he was Prefontaine-ing  the race.  He didn’t hold back and try to run for second or third.  He made a move to win the race.  If it cost him in the end, so be it.  He was trying to win the race with a long 400-meter dash to the finish.

Korabik covered the 200 meters in right about 30 seconds.  He had dropped the pack, but he couldn’t drop Perrier.  At the 200 mark, which comes early on the EIU track with another 15 meters to the curve, Perrier accelerated into the lead.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

But Korabik did not give up.  He doggedly took up the chase.    Around the curve, Perrier’s lead grew to a second step, then a third.  Korabik was losing ground, but he was still moving quickly.  The wheels were still moving.

Behind Korabik, the others had begun to chase.  Conant’s Zach Dale was catching up.  With 90 meters to go, Perrier was well ahead, but Korabik seemed to find another burst of energy.  Perrier was no longer gaining, and Korabik was holding Dale off down the straightaway.  From behind Dale, then, came Clevenger moving faster than all the others.

Perrier won with his arms upraised.  Then the next three reached the finish line almost simultaneously, three across the track.  Korabik leaned in lane one.  Dale was beside him, more upright.  Clevenger actually seemed ready to go by them both, but he eased up at the finish line, standing straight upright.

Clevenger’s leg may have crossed in front of Korabik’s, but with his lean Korabik’s shoulder had beaten Clevenger’s chest to the line.

Officially Perrier was timed in 4:10.34.  Korabik’s time was 4:11.194—more than a three-second personal best–with Clevenger third in 4:11.199.  Dale fourth in 4:11.28, and then Hoffert made it four runners in the 4:11s, 4:11.71.

Korabik’s last lap had been a tick over 60 seconds.  If he had run 59 seconds, he might have been closer to winning the race.  But it had been a really smart final lap—and he won second place by running the fastest last 500 meters of the race.

He had run virtually the entire race in lane one.  He had stayed calm and still in the pack, moving only to take position when he needed to do so.  When he made his move, he did it with conviction and commitment.

He also won second place with his lean.

The night before Korabik and his teammates Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham visited the O’Brien track dressed in caps and gowns, while junior teammate Andy Weber followed them with an Ipad and a speaker playing the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march.  Back in Chicago, their classmates were graduating in the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.

“They’re up to the P-s,” Dunham informed me, looking at his mobile phone.  Apparently he was getting alert texts from the seniors in Chicago.

The boys took some photos on the awards stand.  They took photos in front of the IHSA banner.  And then they took some photos running in their caps and gowns—finish line photos.

Korabik practices his lean.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik practices his lean. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The evening light was challenging for photographs, and it took several tries for assistant coach and team photographer Bugarin to get a focused version of the group.  Once, twice, three times—the boys ran past the finish line.  You can see one photo on the previous blog post; here’s another.

Korabik leaned every time.

It turned out to be good practice.










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A new season of fits and starts

The 2014 track season begins with a winter warm-up run for Saint Ignatius sprinters and jumpers, a one-mile "Halsted loop" on some snowy University of Illinois-Chicago sidewalks.

The 2014 track season begins with a winter warm-up run for Saint Ignatius sprinters and jumpers, a one-mile “Halsted loop” on some snowy University of Illinois-Chicago sidewalks.

Track season started at Saint Ignatius last Tuesday, with a team meeting and our first practice.  It will end, we hope, on Saturday, May 31, in Charleston, IL, at the IHSA state track meet.

The first week of indoor track is always a challenging one.  We have to deal with the vexing problem of paperwork as boys who did not compete in fall sports turn in IHSA physical forms—or quickly schedule exams so that they can get the forms completed and get back to practice.   They have had almost six months of the school year to complete that paperwork, but they wait until the day practice starts to remember it.  Our rules require that we turn them away from practice until the paperwork is complete.

Just finding a place to practice is always a challenge in the winter.  Our winter practice facilities have never been good, and it is always a battle to re-claim a few previously open spaces around the school—on the edge of the wrestling gym, in stair wells, and in school lobby areas—from the other teams that have been using them.  As an in-season team, we get dibs on the space, now, but last week other teams who are out of season but doing conditioning—lacrosse, soccer, and football, for example—were using those spaces.  We sometimes literally have to move them out.  There are other headaches:  Our athletes also do not have lockers, yet, and so we have to find secure places for their backpacks, coats, and bags.

Our practice space challenges this year were complicated by another factor.  Our distance runners generally run outside every day, but they need space to meet and stretch before running, and to meet and do core work afterwards.  Our sprinters generally warm up with a run outdoors, but then they need indoor space to drill and condition.  For ten years our boys and girls track teams have used a wide hallway in our oldest classroom building as a practice space.  This year that space got new plush carpeting—and we got the order to stay away.  Our initial consternation has ended with smiling faces.  The practice space emergency prompted our athletic director to request the use of some space over at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago Physical Education Building (PEB); settled into our old routines, we had not even considered that option for many years.  We will actually have use of the indoor jogging track there now for a short period each day—but valuable time for us.  In addition, we are making arrangements to rent some space at the Mercy Home indoor soccer facility, about a mile from Ignatius, for three days a week.

We have never actually had an indoor practice space where our sprinters can run even a 30-meter fly in the winter.   We have always done our conditioning running up stairs—and then drilling in the short school hallway space.  Now our boys will be able to sprint before we get to the first meet.  Access to the PEB jogging track means we  also have a place where our distance runners can get in some miles when the weather won’t allow them to run.  Our policy is to start exercising some caution when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, especially when combined with wind chill.  At that point we keep the boys nearer to school, running loops close to campus around city blocks; the University of Illinois-Chicago usually does a pretty good job of snow removal on its sidewalks around campus.   On alternate days we have some treadmills we share with our girls team.   Now in a snow or cold emergency we can at least get 40 minutes of running done indoors on the PEB track.

All things considered, last week was a pretty good start for the first days of practice.  We had a large turn-out of over 60 boys.  After four days during the week, we had a smaller turn-out for an 8:00 AM Saturday morning practice when we had access to gym space—something we never get during the school week in the winter, when basketball teams take all the gyms.  Butwith in the first week of practice, on Saturday morning,  we taught all our new sprinter boys how to use starting blocks, we got new and old boys over some hurdles, and we’ve already got some routines and basic programs established for our sprinters, our distance boys, and our throwers.

That productive first week was, of course, too good to be true.  I’m writing on a Tuesday morning while comfortable at home, because we have had two days of frigid cold temperatures which cancelled school.  No school, no practice.  Assuming we have school tomorrow, it will likely be a little bit like starting over again—but without having to send boys away because they don’t have their paperwork complete.

Missing two days shouldn’t really be a big problem.  We have always conceived of our winter track season as a preparation season for the spring competitions, when things get really serious.  Our distance runners are generally doing base training in the winter, putting in lots of miles and slogging along in the snow-covered city.   Our weekend indoor races give them a little bit of opportunity to run harder and faster—and keep them interested.  We will do a little bit of up-tempo training, “Phase two” work in our Daniels-based program, in early March before our indoor conference championship meet.  Our sprinters spend a lot of their time running up what we call the “Iron Stairs,” doing basic conditioning that will be their base for more speed training once we get outside in the spring.

But last year we added an event in February that kind of jump-started our competition season a little bit earlier than in past years.  A benefactor named Ray Meyer, Ignatius class of 1951, offered to fly the team to Washington, D.C., so that we could compete at the Jesuit Invitational track meet which brings East Coast Jesuit schools from New York City, Baltimore, and the D.C. area together at Georgetown Prep, located in North Bethesda, Maryland.    We had six weeks of practice, and three weeks of early season meets to get ready—and we were just barely ready.  Falling behind early in the meet, we stormed back by piling up points in the distance events to narrowly win the meet, 101.5 points to 97, over second place Fordham Prep from New York City.

This year we will make the trip again, February 20-22.  The second time around the task of booking flights and hotels, as well as planning local transportation and meals in a distant city, was a lot easier.   We’ve made a few improvements in our planning.  As a special treat, we will be travelling with a special guest.  At Ray Meyer’s suggestion, we invited former Olympian and indoor world record holder for the mile, Tom O’Hara, Ignatius class of 1960, to join us on the trip.  O’Hara and his wife, Joan, will help chaperone and squire our 25 boys on United airlines and around D.C.

But we will make the trip this year with only five weeks of practice preparation–and with just two meets under our belts.   Now, because of the current Arctic blast,  that will be five weeks minus these two missed school days and practices.

We have been excited for the season to get underway.  More than other years, it seems, I have been perusing indoor track results—at the pro, college, and high school levels.   The Nike Oregon Project team have been featured on Flotrack the last two weekends, as Galen Rupp and Mary Cain took aim on records.    On the East Coast, the high school winter track season starts in December.  Our competitors at the Jesuit Invitational have been competing in earnest already, while we don’t start until February 8.  Last week Fordham Prep and Xavier posted two of the fastest 4×800 relay times in the country (7:57.79 and 7:57.89) while running in a qualifying meet for the New York Roadrunner Club’s Millrose Games.  I actually watched that race live on the internet.

Senior hurdlers Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham, state qualifiers in the 110 high hurdles last year, return to lead the Wolfpack track team in 2014.  Dunham won 3rd place in the IHSA state meet in the 300-meter hurdles, and Hawkins also qualified in the long jump, narrolwy missing in the triple jump, as well.  Photo by Steven Burgarin.

Seniors Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham, state qualifiers in the 110 high hurdles last year, return to lead the Wolfpack track team in 2014. Dunham won 3rd place in the IHSA state meet in the 300-meter hurdles, and Hawkins also qualified in the long jump, narrowly missing in the triple jump, as well. Photo by Steven Burgarin.

Our team will be a good one, after a historic  2013 season in which we won the Chicago Catholic League championship for the first time since 1991, repeated as IHSA sectional champion, and then finished fourth in the IHSA 3A (big school) state championship meet.  We will lose our big point scorer at that meet, Jack Keelan, state champion in the 3200- and 1600-meter runs.  But we return the 3rd place finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, now senior Conor Dunham.  We think we have some state-level  talented boys on the team who might be able to make up at least some of Keelan’s lost 20 points from last year—senior jumper/hurdler Chris Hawkins, senior jumper Sheldon Pierce, senior distance runners Chris Korabik and Taylor Dugas, and sophomore distance runner Dan Santino.   We surprised people last year with our strong performance at the state meet; we surprised many people again last fall with our state-qualifying cross country team.  We think we can do it again.

Let’s hope that we have school tomorrow so that we can practice.

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Learning curve

Three years ago, in November of 2010, we brought our Saint Ignatius boys cross country team here to Peoria for the Illinois High School Association state cross country championships.  Driving our team van, I got really, really lost trying to find Avanti’s on Washington Street outside of East Peoria.  The thought struck me at that time that the coaches who bring their teams here every year have a significant advantage over those who don’t, even in terms of knowing their way around the neighborhood.

We have added a trip to the First to the Finish meet as a regular part of our schedule.  We have many of the logistics for the Peoria trip worked out now.  We know our hotel preference, the Embassy Suites in East Peoria, and I had reservations made in the summer for November.

But we did not qualify anyone on our team for the 2011 championships.  Last year we missed an opportunity to qualify our team, but we did come to Peoria with two qualifiers, one who was the state champion that day.

Bringing a team is different, though.

This year we are here with a team.  It has gone pretty well.  But as a coach, I still feel behind on the learning curve.

We do have some routines, and we have made some logistical improvements.  When our Ignatius soccer team moved on to the semi-final of the 2A state tournament with a morning game scheduled for Friday, our principal Brianna Latko decided to give the whole school the day off so students could attend the game.

It helped us to get on the road a little bit earlier then we might have if the boys had attended a couple classes on Friday.  Getting on the road early got us to Peoria early.  We were on the course at 1:00.  I attended the mandatory coaches information meeting at 2:00.  We were at the hotel by 3:00.  At 4:45 we were on our way to Avanti’s—and I knew the directions.  The boys were hungry early—we had a late breakfast but skipped lunch—and after a visit to Walmart, we were back at the hotel around 7:00.  Most of this could not have gone better than the script.  There are a few things we need to do better.

We have other routines here at the state meet.  It is Saturday morning at 6:30 AM—and I am writing a blog post.  As the state track meet and at the state cross country meet it is my habit to wake up early, as I normally do, and then go for a run—which is not a regular part of my daily schedule at home.  It has also become a routine to write the early morning blog post.

We have some time on this morning because as a 3A boys team, we do not run until 2:00 PM.  We discussed taking a shakeout run this morning with the boys, but they didn’t like the idea.   “What did Keelan do last year?“ they asked.  Our senior co-captain Chris Korabik, who made this trip and ran with Jack Keelan last year, told us there had been no shakeout run.

There will be no shake out run this year.

Breakfast will be at 8:00.  We expect the boys will be hungry after the early dinner.  I’m not sure we have reported this anywhere, but last year, after his championship run, Keelan had suddenly depleted in the half hour after his race.  It was bad enough that he wasn’t sure he could handle the awards ceremony and photo session.  He had eaten only a small breakfast, it turns out; the 2:00 race does not make eating lunch possible.  He was much better after eating a banana.

We have talked to the boys already about the importance of eating a good breakfast.  We have energy bar supplies to feed them something before the race.

There have been a few more lessons already this year.  It is too early, however, to start looking at next year.

We have a race to run today.  We have a plan.  We would like to become one of those teams that surprises people in Peoria.  We hope that we have learned how to do that.

And we want to be a team that comes here every year.


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Meet the new boys–same as the old boys?

Assistant Coach Nate McPherson with the Wolfpack freshmen before the Palatine Invite.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Assistant Coach Nate McPherson with the Wolfpack freshmen before the Palatine Invite. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

On Tuesday, October 8, our freshmen boys met a special milestone in terms of becoming full-fledged members of our Saint Ignatius cross country team.

Our Tuesday plan, pretty much throughout the season, is an easy long run. From the Ignatius campus at 1076 West Roosevelt, we made our almost-every-practice trek to the lake front, running down Roosevelt–that is a mile and a half each way as warm-up and cool down. We assembled near the corner of Michigan and Roosevelt, on a grass plot near the Agora “legs” sculpture. We stretched there, and then assembled for our run.  Our site is about a half mile away from where the Jones College Prep team meets each day, closer to Michigan and Balbo. But we both use the same bridge over the Metra electric line tracks and then the tunnels under Columbus and Lake Shore Drive to get to the lake path.

Assistant Coach Nate McPherson was leading our freshmen group of runners on their five mile run up the lake to the Chicago River, and then along the river path to the Michigan Avenue bridge, which is our halfway mark turnaround. They had run over the bridge and through the tunnels and were on the lakefront, approaching the Buckingham Fountain plaza, when they hit the milestone.

Freshman Robbie Skoronski asked Coach McPherson a question about the Roman empire. McPherson, a new teacher at Ignatius this year, teaches several sections of freshmen World History. A discussion began: Was the Roman Empire more successful as a republic or when led by the emperors?

I have listened to such discussions before on long runs. In case you are wondering, I heard this one because after a hiatus of some months, I am running again myself. It is a sign of progress for our freshmen that I did not hear much of the discussion. They ran five miles, and continued discussing, but I fell off the back of the pack shortly past the Buckingham Fountain plaza.

Our track and cross country programs have developed and changed over the last eleven years. But some things stay the same. I can remember Nick Christou, Ignatius Class of 2004, and Joe Miller, class of 2005, carrying on a similar conversation on their runs together ten years ago; Christou went on to St. John’s College in New Mexico, and Miller went to Georgetown University. I was running a lot better and faster then, and I got to listen to more of the conversation because I could keep up.

Coach McPherson, who is training to run the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, will carry on the seminar now. McPherson comes to Saint Ignatius after developing the program at Zion-Benton High School for the last five years. He was captain of the team when he attended Palatine High School, right about the time that program went through the transition from Fred Miller’s tenure to Chris Quick’s. As a college student at the University of Illinois he continued to run and train on his own.

McPherson has had to make some adjustments to his new role as an assistant coach, to be sure. Our Ignatius program is a little bit more laid back in terms of the daily intensity of our workouts–especially compared, for example, to what Quick described in his book about the Palatine team. Pace goals are moderate even on our hard days; seldom do we ask the boys for all-out efforts in practice. Those efforts are for races. But McPherson has made an impact. He’s brought us a new dynamic warm-up that the boys have embraced with conviction and energy.   And even on those moderate pace days, his enthusiasm and intensity have earned him the nickname “Coach McFierce” from co-captain Taylor Dugas, who thanked McPherson in a team meeting for bringing a tougher and edgier attitude to the team.

McPherson joined our program as a third coach. For the last four years assistant coach Steven Bugarin has had an established role as a sensei-type guide for our top level runners; he is their pace setter for most workouts, and their guide up and down the lakefront on their long runs.

McPherson joins Bugarin and the “varsity” for some of their work-outs. But his special role has become that of coach for the freshmen, coaxing them along through the aches and pains of beginner runners who step up from running a few miles each week in middle school between soccer and lacrosse practices to running 30-40 miles in six days each week with our team.

This year’s freshmen group includes Lyndon Vickrey and Paul Tonner. Both boys have older brothers who recently graduated from Ignatius–brothers who were captains of our track and cross country teams two years ago. Clifford Vickrey and Mike Tonner, graduates in the class of 2012, raced each other as friends, teammates, and competitors for four years. Now Lyndon and Paul, who have finished within seconds of each other in their last three races, have re-engaged in the same family feud–deja vu all over again.

Ned Sutoris, another freshmen, emerged as our top finisher in the freshman 2- mile race at Niles West last Saturday, with a time of 11:41. Vickrey (11:56) and Tonner (12:02) were close behind, followed by Skoronski (12:08). Finnbarr Connors was the fifth scorer for the team (12:55). As a group they finished 9th out of 24 schools.

Our only concern about this group is that with the exception of Skoronski, the four others play other sports in the winter and spring. Sutoris is a talented volleyball player who, as a freshman, will be a candidate for the Ignatius varsity team. Vickrey and Tonner play lacrosse; Connors is a strong swimmer.

We have four more freshmen on our roster: Evan Ram was cut from the freshman soccer team and decided to give cross country a try; two other soccer players gave us a try and then stopped trying. Ram ran his first three-mile cross country race in 24:37. Jack Kohler ran 24:18. Ian Wolff ran 25:58–on what was probably just a bad day in his first race ever at the ICOPS Invite. Wolff has since run 18:14 for 2.5 miles at the Palatine Invite, on pace to run under 22:00 for three miles. Ram ran 14:25 for two miles at Niles West, and his goal will be to break 22:00 in his next three-mile race. Kohler was 13:59 at Niles West, and he will aim to get close to 21:00.

Finally, Ariel Farinango rounds out the group; he has run 23:38 for three miles.

The next big race for the freshmen is the Chicago Catholic League championship on October 19.

We probably should also mention that the team had a few more freshmen at the start of the season that we have lost along the way as the season progressed.

But the boys above have fought through their aches and pains–and their doubts and worries–to become cross country runners.

These are our runners of the future, who have a lot in common with our runners from the past–including their beyond-the-classroom interest in the Roman Empire.

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It’s summer, so let’s talk about the multiplier—and recruiting.

IHSA Boys 3A Sectional Track Champions:  Saint Ignatius Wolfpack!

For the second year in a row, the Saint Ignatius Wolfpack boys track team is an IHSA 3A Sectional Track Champion!

There has been some more conversation recently about the multiplier that the Illinois High School Association uses to calculate enrollments for some high schools and then to assign teams to divisions for sports competitions.

To rehash a little bit:  Before 2009 the IHSA state championships divided schools into two divisions for track and field and cross country—large schools and small schools, AA and A.  The cut-off was around 750 students total enrollment.  In that system Saint Ignatius College Prep, with an enrollment of around 1375, was clearly a large school—no problem.  We were still, however, among the smaller half of the schools in AA, competing against many city and suburban schools that enrolled 2,000 and more students.

It had made no difference to us when in 2006 the IHSA instituted a 1.65 enrollment multiplier for “non-boundary” schools—private, Catholic, and public schools that do not draw students from a specific geographical area.  Basically the smaller public schools from around the state ganged up on the private, Catholic, and city schools—mainly because of the success of those schools in very specific sports:  football and girls volleyball.  Football, with its eight classifications, was a particular target.  The multiplier was intended to move some of the Catholic school powerhouse football teams up in class into competition with bigger public high schools.

As a result, our 1375 Saint Ignatius enrollment became 2200 under the multiplier.  But in track and cross country, both two division sports back then, it meant nothing to us.    We were already classified as a big school, remember.

But then, in 2009, the IHSA instituted another change:  three divisions for track and cross country.  The cut-offs were roughly at 750 for 1A, 750-1500 for 2A, and above 1500 for 3A.   Ignatius should be a 2A school by straight enrollment.  But the multiplier put us in 3A.  We have competed in 3A ever since.

The story got a little bit more complicated in 2011 when the IHSA instituted an automatic waiver system that exempted many schools from the multiplier on a sport by sport basis.  Essentially, if a multiplied school has not been able to compete successfully in a particular sport against the larger school class, it is no longer multiplied in that sport.

There are many interesting issues with the multiplier.  The waiver procedure raises more issues.

But it is still really a non-issue for us.  We have had enough success as a team in track and cross country that we expect to be multiplied.  I actually began blogging here two years ago mainly because I simply wanted to think about and write about the multiplier and the issues it raises for our cross country and track teams at Saint Ignatius.   The conclusion I reached then continues to hold.  In conversations with my athletes, they have told me that they prefer to compete in the 3A large-school division of the IHSA against the best competition in the state.

In 2013, especially, we showed that we are able to do so.  At the state track meet in May, we scored 28 points to finish fourth in the 3A meet.  Most of our points came from one athlete, our double state champion Jack Keelan, who won the 1600- and 3200-meter runs.  We scored ninth place in the 4×800, and in his third state meet junior Conor Dunham finished third in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles.  We also qualified other athletes who competed at the state meet in the pole vault, the long jump, and the 4×400 relay.  For the second consecutive year, we won a sectional meet team championship, in addition to qualifying our strong group of athletes for the state meet, and this year the competition included a perennial sectional champion and last year’s third-place state team, Oak Park-River Forest.  This was our team’s best performance ever in the state series, and it is a fair claim that this was the best team Saint Ignatius has ever produced.

But a look at the 2A results and  a quick calculation suggests that we could have scored as many as 70 points in the 2A state meet, good enough for 2nd place—and a possible challenge against this year’s dominant team from Cahokia.  In 2A we might have scored points in eight additional individual events, and in two more relays.  What’s more, we might have had as many as 16 more athletes qualify for the 2A state meet, depending upon where we were assigned for a 2A sectional.

That kind of success would arguably have made us an even more storied team.  Fourth place in the state meet did not give us a trophy.  Second place in 2A would have given us one.

The multiplier has recently been a topic on’s tracktalk page.  The kick-off point was an overheard conversation recounted by Bob Geiger, former Dyestat Illinois owner, FAT proprietor, and semi-retired coach at Whitney Young.   At a sectional seed meeting, according to Geiger, a 2A coach for a team with a multiplier waiver talked about keeping kids out of the meet to avoid scoring points that might earn the team a spot next year in the 3A series.  Under the complicated rules of the multiplier, if you finish in the top three spots at the sectional meet as a team for two years out of six, you lose the waiver—and you might bump up in class. [Edit:  Actually, I just took a look again at Geiger’s post, and he talks about multiple coaches talking this way at two different sectional meetings.]

Our Saint Ignatius team, for the record, does not care about the waiver; we care about scoring points.  We have won two sectionals, and I think we have finished in the top three of every sectional meet since I started as coach ten years ago.  After our sectional win this year, we are automatically multiplied for the next five years.

Andrew Adelmann, track and cross country coach at Jones College Prep, recently wrote a blog post about the multiplier on the site.  The gist of his argument was that it is unfair to apply the same 1.65 multiplier to the enrollments of magnet high schools in Chicago and to the Catholic and private schools which have special advantages in terms of admissions procedures, offering financial scholarships, and recruiting generally.  City magnet schools, after all, are not un-boundaried schools, he noted; they enroll students from the city of Chicago, and they do so under a set of admissions rules that are very strict.

Jones is in a particularly problematic position with regard to the multiplier.  They are a successful program—especially in cross country, where they were the 2A boys state champions in 2012.  They were successful as a track program for a few years competing as a 2A school in sectional meets; they had two top-three team scores in the last three years, which means they are multiplied for three more years.  The Jones enrollment is about 880, which multiplies to 1450.  For cross country, they are a 2A school, with the cut-off above 1600.  But for track, the 2A cut-off is just above 1400; Jones was 3A for track this year, and they will be 3A for next year, as well.  What’s more, Jones opens its new school building this year, and enrollment will increase a bit more over the next few years to over 1,000, moving them closer to 3A status under the multiplier in cross country, as well as track.

I consider Adelmann a coaching friend.  I haven’t had a chance to tell him directly that I didn’t like the blog.

In his blog he has essentially accepted the basic argument in favor of the multiplier from the public schools around the state, which is that Catholic schools, in particular, have advantages in terms of recruiting athletes.   I don’t think that this argument has any relevance whatsoever in terms of Saint Ignatius or, really, for track and field, generally.  Adelmann posted his blog on a track and field web site—and, in addition to being professional friends, we are also the Catholic school that is his closest rival.  He seemed to be talking about us.

The common argument that Adelmann seems to accept so quickly—Catholic schools have recruiting advantages–actually seems to ignore some pretty basic real world issues for families and adolescents that come up when students consider whether to attend our school.

I fail to see how it is a recruiting advantage for Saint Ignatius when we tell families that they have to pay $15,300 for tuition to attend our school, whereas it is free to attend a public school.  We have demanding admissions standards; only about half the 1,000 students who apply get an acceptance.  We have strict rules about financial aid procedures, which are need-based; parents have to submit documented financial information in order to apply for aid.   Contrary to popular belief, apparently, there are no athletic scholarships.

What’s more, when students come to Saint Ignatius, they also have to accept the special requirements that come with attendance at a Catholic school that is arguably doing everything it can do to define itself as Catholic–and different from the mainstream adolescent culture.  This includes, among other things, going to church as a school several times a year, saying a school prayer daily, and taking four years of religion classes.  We also have a disciplinary system with what others might call detention, but which we call “Jug,” or “justice under God.”   You can get a jug for having your shirt untucked (boy), or because your skirt is too short (girl), or because traffic on the Edens or the Eisenhower frequently makes you late for school.  The students who attend Saint Ignatius choose to accept these things; many other adolescent students would not—and do not.

Finally, there are issues with attending school at a distance from your home—including commuting and managing city and suburban transportation to Saint Ignatius by bus, train, and car.  Many of our students commute for an hour or more–each way.  It is also not a small thing to leave friends behind at home, especially when those friends will go on to the hometown local high school together–and you will be going to another one in the city, perhaps on your own.

Approximately a fifth of the students who get accepted to attend Saint Ignatius choose instead to attend another high school—usually a local public high school, or, in the city, one of the magnet schools like Jones College Prep.

This year I had contact with two special “recruits.”  I use that word very loosely.  I did not seek out these boys to invite or encourage them to attend Saint Ignatius because of athletic ability.  They are boys who apparently had an interest in our school—and who then identified themselves to me because of their interest in running.  Because they wanted to attend our school and they had questions about our track and cross country programs, they wanted me to know about their special talents as runners.  They were probably among the best runners I ever “recruited” this way.

One boy I met once for a short conversation after he ran the elementary school race we host in conjunction with our Connelly-Polka Cross Country Invite; it is an event that we actually co-host with Fenwick.  I think we also briefly met in the hallway passing period on his shadow day at Saint Ignatius; he was not even escorted that day by a runner from our team.   The boy, his father, and I shared a few emails, providing information about our program.  This boy tested at Saint Ignatius in January, he was accepted in February, and then his parents accepted his spot with a $500 non-refundable deposit in March.  Mid-May I got the surprising news that he would be attending one of the strong magnet high schools in the city next year.  He had attended a small Catholic school for his elementary school years, and he wanted something different for high school.

I did have a short conversation with the cross country coach from this high school, after the fact.  The coach certainly knew about this boy’s decision, and at the family’s request, he said, he had in fact arranged for the boy’s shadow day at the school.  I sent a last email to the boy and his father telling them that he would have lots of fun and good coaching running with the boys at his chosen school.

A second “recruit” I met twice, first at the Saint Ignatius open house last December.  He spent a lot of his time that day—20 minutes or so— in our school gym talking with Dan Santino, our star freshman runner; we spoke only briefly.  I sent him the same follow up email that I send to all the boys I meet at open house, thanking them for their interest and offering to answer any future questions.  He tested at Ignatius in January, was accepted in February, made his deposit in March, and then enrolled in classes in April when he visited for a registration meeting with another Ignatius teacher.  It was on the day he registered for classes that I met him the second time, just to shake hands and say hello.  I have been sending him emails this summer about our plans for the fall and our summer runs at Waterfall Glen on Sunday mornings.   Last week he sent me an email to say he would be attending the suburban public high school where he lives.  I think, finally, that he really just wanted to go to high school there with his friends from grammar school.

I can assure my coaching friend Andrew Adelmann that not one of the athletes on my team was “recruited”—in the real meaning of the term–to come to Saint Ignatius as a track athlete.  A few of the boys on the team, including a couple siblings of Ignatius students at the time, participated in Ignatius summer camps before they applied; Dan Santino, brother of our 2011-12 cross country and track captain Patrick Santino, actually attended Ignatius lacrosse camp.  A couple of our future athletes, like Santino, competed in elementary school track and cross country meets that we have organized.  I meet a few boys who join our team each year as freshmen when they are 7th or 8th graders at the open house Ignatius holds each year in December, and I might have sent those few an email with follow up information about our team.

There are 80 or so boys on our track and cross country team rosters.  I believe that I met all but four or five of them on the very first day of practice—and Jack Keelan, as a specific example, is one of the boys I met on the first day of cross country practice in August of 2010. [Edit:  Keelan has reminded me that we actually met a few weeks before this when he attended a couple of our summer runs at Waterfall Glen.  At the time he was also running with the Lyons summer running camp weekday mornings.]

So much for recruiting–or maybe I am just really bad at it.  Recent evidence suggests it is certainly not one of my strengths as a coach.  And that is maybe how it is supposed to be.


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A not so quick story about reading Chris Quick’s One Way, Uphill Only

Palatine coach Chris Quick holds up the 3A cross country trophy at the 2011 IHSA championship meet.  Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Palatine coach Chris Quick holds up the 3A cross country trophy at the 2011 IHSA championship meet. Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Last Saturday morning I attended a retirement Fun Run and celebration party, complete with a cake, organized by grateful parents and athletes of longtime Chicago-University High track and cross country coach Bud James.  That event will be another blog post.

Then in the evening I helped out at the Midwest Distance Festival at Illinois Benedictine in Lisle, where I made it a point late in the evening to seek out Palatine cross country and track coach Chris Quick.  We had only a short conversation, but I had the pleasure of meeting and shaking hands with Palatine alumnus Tim Meincke, who was standing with Quick.  Together they watched Palatine sophomore Graham Brown break the frosh-soph school record for 3200 meters, running 9:29.45 for two miles, 9:26.1 on my official watch at the meet for 3200.  Earlier in the evening I had watched another member of the Palatine team, senior Christian Zambrano, run 4:18.81 for a mile.

Meincke (nickname “Monkey” to his Palatine friends), Brown (apparently still known as “Prodigy”), and Zambrano are key characters in Quick’s book, One Way, Uphill Only, his memoir about the 2011 Palatine cross country season in which the team won the Illinois High School Association 3A state title.  While there might not have been a book without that victory, perhaps, the book is less about winning the race and more about the relationships among the teammates and their coach on the way to that victory.

I am working on getting the exact details, but I remember either after the summer of 2010—or better, the summer of 2011—a parent of a Saint Ignatius cross country boy told me that they had seen the Palatine High School boys cross country team running together in Colorado somewhere in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  Maybe the Ignatius team could do the same thing? asked the parent.

I’m not sure how I answered at the time.  But my thought, then and now, is that Ignatius is not Palatine.

Palatine cross country coach Chris Quick.  Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Palatine cross country coach Chris Quick. Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

After reading Chris Quick’s book I am even more sure of that.

A Palatine team booster club, as I understand the arrangements, pays most of the expenses to send the team to Colorado each summer; the accommodations are not splendid, with some boys sleeping on the floor of rough cabins.  But it is a powerful bonding experience for the team as they share hardships of accommodations—and the suffering of running up mountains in altitude.

The Alumni Mile at the Palatine Relays puts as many as a hundred former runners and other team supporters on the track each spring--many of whom also volunteer their help at the meet.  Coaches Chris Quick and Joe Parks join them.  Photo by Palatine Track.

The Alumni Mile at the Palatine Relays puts as many as a hundred former runners and other team supporters on the track each spring–many of whom also volunteer their help at the meet. Coaches Chris Quick and Joe Parks join them. Photo by Palatine Track.

For years our track team has competed at the Palatine Relays at the end of April or early in May, and each time I marvel at the community support for the event.  It is the only meet we attend where visiting coaches do not have to chip in and run the events; competent community volunteers take all those tasks—like measuring the long jump, shot put, discus, and triple jump.  We competed at the Palatine Invitational cross country meet for the last two years.  Once again volunteers carry an enormous load of the work for the meet—including the concession stand that sells a lot of hot chocolate and coffee. I can imagine that the Palatine community probably supports its football and basketball teams, the major high school spectator sports, with even bigger crowds—although perhaps not as many volunteers who actually help to run the events.

At Ignatius we have a few home track meets, and we host a cross country meet.  A few parents help out, but the coaches do most of the work.  This is not a criticism of our wonderful parents—and we hope to recruit more alumni to help, as well.

Palatine, as Quick’s book emphasizes at several turns, is not York High School, the dominant state power and perennial favorite to win the cross country title.  The school marching band does not follow the team to the state cross country meet, like the York band does.  Busloads of fans do not come to the state cross country meet from Palatine.

But in Quick’s book about the 2011 Palatine cross country team that won the Illinois High School Association state championship, it is clear that this is a program of storied achievement going back years and years—and the community both feeds, demands, and supports that achievement.

Perhaps nothing shows this more clearly than Quick’s description of the Early Bird Running Program, a 6:00 AM summer run for the team and the community in Palatine.  Each morning of the program 150 runners—some from the high school team, some from elementary schools, and many adult runners, including cross country and track alumni —gather in front of the high school:  “While most high school groups develop an insular bond with one another through school camps, we train alongside Boston Marathon aspirants, fitness joggers, mothers and fathers, and returning alums.”

There is, in fact, a large Ignatius track community out there in the world.  We’ve seen it come alive and coalesce at moments like beloved Coach Jim Connelly’s funeral last September.  But we don’t get together daily in the summer150-strong at 6:00 AM to run together and encourage our high school boys and girls teams.

Ignatius is not Palatine.

Palatine, as I have said, is not York, either.  After winning the state cross country title in 2013, York has now won the state championship trophy 27 times in the last 48 years.

As Quick begins his story, Palatine had never won.  But they had finished second five times—including a recent stretch of three second-place finishes in a row:  2003, 2004, and 2005, all three times behind York.  Quick had been assistant coach for the first two, and then head coach in 2005.  In addition, Quick coached his team to third place in 2007.  Quick’s Palatine program has produced IHSA individual champions Alec Bollman (1600-meters in 2010), Matt Smoody (800-meters in 2007 and 2008), and Steve Finley (XC in 2005).  In its conference, Palatine had won 61 consecutive dual meets in the Mid Suburban League, as Quick wrote his book in 2011, and in 2011 Palatine won its ninth consecutive conference championship.

After Jack Keelan’s exploits this past year, Ignatius now has a proud state champion, too.  In 1981 Mike Patton won the state cross country championship, the 3200 at the state track meet, and then finished third in the 1600—another great champion.  But when we won the Chicago Catholic League cross country championship in 2010, it was the first time since 1991.  We did win again in 2012—and in 2013 we won the CCL outdoor track championship meet.  But that was the first track championship since 1991, as well.

When we qualified as a team to compete at the state championship cross country meet in 2010, it was the first time our team had done so since 1981.

Ignatius is not Palatine.

Even before his team won the 2011 state cross country championship, Quick, then at just 35 years of age, had already established the groundwork for a hall-of-fame level career—and he had put his name in big letters on the already established monument of Palatine track and field and cross country success.

But in addition to celebrating the hard work and success of his 2011 team, Quick’s book also makes another thing perfectly clear—Quick himself is unapologetically a running and coaching nut.  I mean no disrespect–and instead of nut, a better word might be “character.”   Completely devoted to and passionate about his team, deeply involved in what he openly acknowledges as a loving relationship among his ”men,” knowledgeable and expert as a trainer, Quick is also capable of wonderful foolishness that in fact demonstrates the depth of his love for his sport and his boys.  It might also be the key to his success as a coach.

When Quick pushed his team into the Rocky Mountains to run up ten percent inclines and switchbacks, climbing over snow drifts in June to complete the assigned runs, he pushed his own 35-year-old body to run with them.  He, too, ran 80- and 90-mile weeks the rest of that summer.   He suffered and sweated beside them.

I did not attend the 2011 state cross country championship meet in Peoria when Palatine won.  Our Ignatius team has its own story from that year, a story told in these blog pages as the team, not a big surprise, and its star runner Jack Keelan, which was a surprise, failed to qualify for that state meet.   So I didn’t travel to the Peoria on that November day; neither did Keelan, for the record.  Other members of the team, in fact, did so to watch as spectators.

After reading Quick’s account of the race, I regret not having been there, mainly because I missed seeing Quick in the outfit he wore that day, which he describes unapologetically in the book.  Having pushed his own running and training to the limit that season, even as he pushed his team, Quick dressed himself in a red Palatine throwback singlet and short, red running shorts—and he admittedly scrambled around the course like a mad man as he exhorted his team to run and win.

Quick had earned that uniform, most readers of the book would agree, after training alongside his boys all year.

The book makes it clear that Quick is a knowledgeable coach in terms of designing a demanding training program for his team and that he is also skilled at team building and psychological motivation.  But it is also clear that Quick, an AP English teacher at Palatine, is also a romantic, whose passion and emotion about what he does at several key moments of the book overwhelms his telling the story.  In other words, as he tells us in the book, he cries a lot when the moments overwhelm him.  And his emotions, he admits, often get the best of him.

Some might wonder about boundaries and propriety–and wonder whether Quick gets too close to his boys.  He describes the team peeing together in the bushes before the championship race at the state meet—angering a park monitor.   Boys stop by his house at 9:00 PM for summertime evening runs.  He knows their music, and their personal tastes in terms of food, dress, and hygiene   He seldom says a word, however, about their lives beyond the team—except about their relationships with parents, which seem important to Quick.

He writes about the Palatine track team’s visit to the York field house in the middle of the book as Palatine runs an indoor track meet there; he describes the York trophy room, with its 27 state trophies.   Nothing could match that impressive memorabilia.  But much later in the book he describes the basement room of his own house—with team photographs, framed medals, and trophy photographs of each individual runner on the team that won the trophy.  Indeed, he apparently has a room in his private home devoted to his Palatine running teams.

He describes numerous occasions when he stands in front of his team giving speeches in which he cries—including the morning of the state championship run.  On that day, as Quick tells the story, he had so convinced the boys on his team of their love for each other that they all cried together.

Then they went out and won the state championship that afternoon.

I have never cried in front of my team, either out of emotion or as a way to motivate them—and I have never managed to move them to tears.  We do have a framed photograph on the wall of our family room of our 2010 conference-winning cross country team, celebrating my Lawless Award as the Chicago Catholic League’s top coach that year.  It was given to me by my team that season.

But Ignatius is not Palatine.  And I am not Chris Quick.

Quick, as I suggested, is unapologetic about his coaching passion.  Other coaches make appearances in the book, especially his Mid Suburban League colleagues.  The book celebrates the hard-boiled competition of that conference.  The relationships and rivalries between these coaches, as Quick describes them, in some ways resemble the relationships among the coaches in the Chicago Catholic League, of course.  But Quick also seems to make it a point that these MSL coaches, like himself, are pretty nutty.  Among those coaches, his closest friend, he notes, is Jamie Klotz of Buffalo Grove.  Klotz make several appearances in the book, and he is among the first to congratulate Quick after the state championship win.

Coach Jamie Klotz with the Buffalo Grove Bisons.  Photo by Dyestat Illinois.

Coach Jamie Klotz with the Buffalo Grove Bisons. Photo by Dyestat Illinois.

As he tells the story of the 2011 MSL indoor championship meet early in the book, Quick also affectionately describes Klotz this way:  “As head coach of Buffalo Grove’s cross country and track teams, he is one of the true characters in Illinois sports.  To know him and love him you must be anesthetized to an endless stream of filthy language.  He’s not the kind of guy you take your mother to meet.  My mom has met him.  All she could say afterward was ‘Who is this guy?  I’ve never heard anyone say f*** in so many creative ways.’  On MSL days, he goes straight into barbarian mode.  With his bright red goatee, shaved head, and numerous tattoos, he coaches with the ferocity of a medieval Viking.  The man should be decked out with a battle axe and an ancient helmet scarred with the blows of former foes.  When I hear the first ‘Attack!!  Attack!!’  of the meet, I know it is time to go.  Klotz and I always look each other in the eye and think the same thing, ‘Are you ready to bang today, brother?’”

Quick’s book deserves a real book review.  He self-published it last year, and I didn’t finally get a copy from him until a few weeks ago.  I really probably didn’t have a chance to read it until this week, with school finished and the track season over. But I pretty much read it straight through over a few days.   A commercial publisher, Breakaway Books, will release a second edition in the fall, and that book, with a new cover, is listed already on  Maybe I can write something more like a real book review at that time.  In other words, it would be a review of the book which would describe the book for any reader.

Because, as a coach, what especially captivated my thoughts as I read the book was the landscape it described in terms of coaching, specifically among these storied Illinois coaches that we compete against, as well.

The sporting drama of the book includes two bookend events—the 2010 state championship cross country race that Palatine lost and the 2011 race which it won.  York won the 2010 meet.  But much of the drama of the 2010 race—and the 2011 race which follows the same initial plot, with a different ending—really centers on the battle between Palatine and Neuqua Valley, who pursue what are essentially opposite racing strategies.

In 2010 Palatine’s runners—it is not quite clear how much under coach’s orders and how much simply out of a youthful response to their coach’s bubbling belief and enthusiasm—began the race so aggressively that they took an enormous lead after the first mile.  It was Palatine ahead of Oak Park-River Forest, another fast starting team, 57-138.  None of the meet favorites—in particular, York and Neuqua Valley—were in the mix at that point.

Then the Palatine runners faded.  “Monkey” Meincke, who had led the Palatine runners until well after the first half mile in a misguided chase behind the frontrunners that day Lukas Verzbicas and Jack Driggs , ended up 135thoverall.  Tony Gregorio held on for all-state honors in 20th.  The others finished in the spaces between.

Meanwhile, from behind the Palatine runners, York, Lake Zurich, and Neuqua Valley moved through the field, eventually taking the top three spots.  Neuqua edged Palatine out for the last trophy, 180-189.  At the mile, Neuqua had been hundreds of points behind.

Coached by Paul Vandersteen, Neuqua had run virtually the opposite race from Palatine.  Controlled and careful, their team had moved through the ranks as a bunch.  They did not win the state meet in 2010, but they had done so twice in the previous three years.

Tony Gregorio and Peter Tomkiwiecz were all-state runners for Palatine's 2011 state championship team.  Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Seniors Tony Gregorio and Peter Tomkiewicz, with shaven heads andwearing Palatine red uniforms with a throwback “P” on the front, finished 14th and 10th as all-state runners for Palatine’s 2011 state championship team. Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

In 2011, Palatine’s race plan was to run a similar race—except they would not fade so dramatically.  There were also two differences from 2010.  First, Meincke was going to hold back and run as a truly important fifth man.   Rather than leading a Light Brigade charge down the hill, Meincke settled into an intelligent pace in the middle of the pack.  In addition, over the course of the previous year, a new top runner had emerged for Palatine, Peter Tomkiewicz.   Tomkiewiecz would finish as the tenth place scorer in the team race, followed by Tony Gregorio in 14th, Tim Johnson 21st, Marcus Garcia 22nd—and Meincke in 47th—for a team total of 114 points.

But the danger, in Quick’s mind, had been Neuqua, once again.  Could their disciplined charge once again catch Palatine from behind?  In fact, they finished third once again with 144 points.

Upstart O’Fallon had been a stealth team behind Palatine with 120 points—leading Palatine, in fact, in the early stages of the race.  They had almost out-Palatined Quick’s team.  The final difference, in fact, had been Johnson, Garcia, and Meincke, all of whom finished just a few places ahead of the number three, four, and five runners from O’Fallon.

I don’t really know Paul Vandersteen from Neuqua Valley or Jon Burnett from O’Fallon.  I’ve talked briefly with each of them, and I’ve emailed once or twice.

But I know from Facebook and Twitter, we are friends there who follow each other, that Vandersteen is a science teacher.  He takes his students on ecology field trips.  Along with pictures of his family, he’ll post a picture of a turtle on his Facebook page .  His training methods have benefited from experimentation, it would seem, and they have evolved into a path of moderation, as opposed to passion.   We had an email exchange a few years ago, in response to some of my blog posts at the time about what is appropriate mileage for summer running, and he told me that he no longer pushed his boys into the 1000-mile club, as he had once done.  In addition, his team really does not do its most serious training until the season is well underway; for the first half of the season, even, it is a dose of tempo running, and then their training emphasizes moderate interval work mainly at a distance of three-quarters of a mile or so–lots of 1200s, it seems.  As I have read about this kind of approach in training books, like our current Bible, Jack Daniels’s Running Formula, this is a program that seems to go by the book.  In particular, according to the “book,” it is not recommended that runners do many hard intervals for more than 5:00 minutes at a time.

I do not believe that Vandersteen takes his team into the Rocky Mountains for a trip of running pain sessions.  I suspect that he does not cry very often, or at all, in front of his team.  [Note:  After reading this, Vandersteen did want me to know that, in fact, he does cry in front of his team–usually on the night before the state meet as the team reviews its season together.]   In other words, Vandersteen would seem to be a rationalist—and a very successful one.

I know even less about Burnett  We had one exchange at breakfast last November in the Embassy Suites Hotel before the state cross country race later in the day.  “Our guys are going to be gunning for Jack,” he had told me.  And, indeed, O’Fallon’s Alex Riba would run ahead of Keelan for almost two-and-a-half miles of the three miles later that day.

As I think about these men, and then Joe Newton, as well, they do kind of fall into different categories of approach and mindset.  Quick is the poet coach—all about suffering, passion, and effort.  Vandersteen is the scientist coach—emphasizing discipline, control, and adherence to a plan.  Burnett is perhaps a psychologist coach, who seems to prepare his team for the biggest contests.

Newton?  I don’t know him except in passing, watching him from afar at track or cross country meets; I have read some of his writings as a coach and watched him on video.   I’ve also heard testimonials from his former athletes.  He famously tries to shake the hand of every runner on his team, 200 boys whom he knows by name, every day at the end of practice.  At Ignatius, I replaced our legendary coach Jim Connelly—and they are of a similar generation, I think.  Connelly was an engineer, a math teacher—and also a political science teacher.  They share some similarities of character and approach—and I think that their former athletes give similar testimonials.  Newton, it seems to me, is also a political scientist of sorts—a builder of teams as a political system, one in which he pulls the strings, perhaps, as the boss maker.

All these men are characters—as are many coaches, it would seem.

But Quick—and several of the other MSL coaches he lionizes in his book—go a little bit further into the areas of color and flamboyance.  Joe Newton never dressed himself in a bright red team uniform and short shorts in order to chase his runners around Detweiller Park.

Chris Quick and I have had as many as four significant conversations that I remember pretty well.   At the 2011 state meet, our 4×800 team ran in the last heat.  For almost three legs we were up front with the leaders, vying for a qualifying spot in the final; we faded at the end, but we had taken a good shot.  Palatine had run in the second heat and run well, apparently qualifying for the final.  After our race I was walking past the east end of the track, when I bumped into Quick, whom I must have already known somehow in passing, probably meeting at the Palatine Relays.  He basically gave me a pat on the back and some encouragement along the lines of, “Your guys were in it until the end.”  He had been watching and paying attention to our guys.

As we arrived to run the Palatine Relays in 2012, Jack Keelan had recovered from the cross country disappointment of 2011 by running great that winter—and then he dropped his astounding 8:56.86 for 3200 at Arcadia in early April.  He was now among the favorites for the state meet a month away.   Quick was working at the changes and scratches desk before the meet.  It must have been the first time I had seen him since Palatine had won the state championship.  Always scouting, perhaps, Quick asked me about Keelan’s plans at the state meet.  He wanted to go after the double, I told him, 3200 and 1600.  He smiled his approval.  I explained the strategy we were developing; I call it the 2:05 strategy.  Keelan had demonstrated on several occasions that he could negative split his races with a strong final 800 meters, 2:05 or better.  That was the way to do it, Quick said supportively.  I suggested that there were other guys who might be able to do the same thing—like Todd Ford at Loyola Academy.  Ford had outkicked Keelan for second place behind Leland Later at the Palatine Invite cross country race the previous fall.  Quick didn’t really agree:  “But I don’t think there are more than a couple guys who can run 2:05 the last 800 when they are all running 9:00 pace already.”

Then he smiled and told me, “Enjoy this!  Whatever you’re doing with him, keep doing it.”

We touched base again at the Palatine Relays this year, and then we had a sporadic  talk together at the Nalley Invitational as we both hung out by the 200 meter mark watching our athletes run that day.  It was there that I started to make arrangements to get my hands on Quick’s book, which I had meant to buy in the fall but hadn’t done so.

Finally, after Keelan’s double win at the state meet and our team’s surprising fourth place finish, one of my favorite emails came from Quick:  “I really enjoyed reading your blog about the weekend…  Stay up high floating on those clouds my friend!”

In those conversations, Quick had made me feel like part of the fraternity when I still felt like an outsider—or even a pretender.  To be fair, even my email exchanges with Paul Vandersteen had made me feel that way, as well.

What I have learned over the last fifteen years or so of watching my coaching colleagues at work is that there are many ways to do the job successfully—and nonetheless lots of disagreement about how to do it best.

At the end of his book, after the big victory at state–which seems like it should be the ending, but isn’t–Quick tells some stories about events after the state meet.  The team goes on to complete at the Nike X-Country Nationals meet, finishing 5th in the country.  But Quick, under IHSA rules, isn’t allowed to coach them, and he watches from the sidelines.

He also tells the story of an all-school pep rally at Palatine High School—the impromptu kind reserved for only when a team wins a state championship.  Quick finds himself with the microphone at the end of the event—and he admits that he has always liked having a microphone in his hand, just the way, it seems, he likes standing before his team giving motivational talks.  At the pep rally, Quick describes for the audience the struggle and work of his team over the last year, including the torture of running up Rocky Mountains.   And then he talks about what it has meant to him personally to watch his team work so hard–and then succeed.

Chad Quick gets his turn with the state trophy after Palatine's 2011 state championship.  Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Chad Quick gets his turn with the state trophy after Palatine’s 2011 state championship. Photo by Palatine Cross Country.

Finally, he introduces the crowd to his team’s biggest fan and supporter—his brother, Chad.  His brother, wheelchair bound since childhood, has cerebral palsy.  Chad, it would seem, represents the community and its support for the team—and the team has performed because of that support.  The team has run, it would seem, finally, for those like Chad who could not run.

Quick succeeds in making many of the people in his audience cry.

It is a measure of the place of a cross country team and its coach, even a state champion team, in a high school community that afterward Quick was still known by many in the general student population as “the guy who gave that speech.”  (I suspect they know the name of the football coach.)

Quick, the man with a Palatine memorabilia room in his home basement, talks about the sacrifices and support of his wife and his own children which allow him to coach the team, especially at the end of the book.  His father had been a hall-of-fame cross country and track coach, as well.  The 2011 Palatine cross country championship was clearly a family affair—and indeed, he describes the boys on the team as an extended family.

We do have aspects that suggest a family in our own Saint Ignatius program, and we cultivate those.   Peggy allows us to hold a team picnic and party in our Hyde Park condo, early in the season every year.  The boys on our team know my wife and kids by name.

So there are similarities with the Palatine program.

And I share some things with Quick.  He quit a graduate school Ph.D. program at Northwestern University in history when he decided finally that what he really wanted to do in his life was be a coach—and to marry his wife, Meredith, who at the time lived back home in Moline.  I had made a similar decision in the mid-1990s to leave my graduate program in English at Northwestern, my second attempt at a graduate program, for I am almost twenty years older than Quick.  A vague plan to teach and coach was behind my decision.  Quick and I, of course, are also both English teachers; we share the burden of grading papers and inspiring students to read and to write, as well as to run.  Like Quick, I have a special place in my heart for Romanticism and its excesses of feeling and expression—for both the British, but more importantly, the American versions.  Where Quick, I suspect, might lean toward Blake (“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”) and Tennyson (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”), I probably lean toward Whitman ( “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”) and Emerson ( ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ And “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”).

What’s more, I, too, have a family member, our son Luc, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  Luc can walk—and he can even skip along doing something that he calls running.  But without full control of his right leg and not  much use of his right arm, he has significant physical struggles.  It is not likely he will ever run on a cross country team.  My wife, Peggy, however, has frequently told me that we should never say never about things like that when it comes to Luc, who continues to surprise us.

There were particular moments in Quick’s book where my own attention piqued, especially at events where I remember my own experiences on the same days—like the state cross country meet of 2010, the 4×800 at the state meet in 2011, the Palatine Invite of 2011, and the Palatine Relays of 2011, where our teams competed with Palatine and others.

ernstBut most of all, Quick’s book sometimes made me wonder just how nutty I might seem to my runners and their parents, and, perhaps, boys and coaches from other teams, as well.  I don’t think that I am nearly the same kind of character as Quick, or Jamie Klotz, for example.  But perhaps there are boys from other teams who know me as that coach who wears the funny hat all the time.

Officially, I wear the hat as a way to battle the occupational hazard of sun damage.  But I guess I also just like to wear it because it is a little bit different.

And I do have to wonder whether my team might be a little bit more successful if I could be a little bit more of a character like Chris Quick.

THUMBNAIL_IMAGE bookHere is the Palatine Cross Country pages link for Chris Quick’s book, One Way, Uphill Only:

And here is the link for the new edition on

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