Baby Steps

On Monday night, my daughter, born November 19, 2015, took her first steps.  At first, it was 3-4 steps tentatively from me to my wife.  Within an hour, she was toddling across the room.  It was amazing to watch her confidence in her own abilities expand so rapidly.  Once she realized she could walk, all her prior fears and doubts evaporated.

That process, played out repeatedly through the human life cycle, is how we become fully ourselves.

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use” – William James


As a coach, I measure my own success based on how well I am able to help the athletes I coach reach beyond their self-imposed limits.  It is, in some ways, an unfair standard to hold myself, as I control only half of the equation.  Nonetheless, nothing makes me happier than to see athletes achieve a mark beyond what they’ve ever managed before, and nothing causes me hurt, frustration, and resolve so much as when an athlete performs far beneath their capabilities.  As it always does, the conference meet provided me with the emotional whirlwind of highs and lows, causes to celebrate in some cases and to search for answers in others.

To our Sophomore squad, I can say unequivocally and with genuine pride, you are the conference champions, and incredibly deserving of the designation.  To set an ambitious goal and then strive for it, together, with every fiber of your being – and then to achieve that goal – there is truly no better feeling.

So here is Brandon Belgrad, on May 15, 2016:

my goal for cross country…that is as a team to win Sophomore Conference.

And here is Alec Hill, one day later:

One other comment I wanna add to my reflection after seeing brandon’s log is that I’m with him on that goal: win sophomore conference. I feel like the conference doesn’t even know about me. I was injured for all of xc and then I ran a 2 mile time at soph conference that I was able to do 2.5 months prior. I’m a much better athlete than some other people may think. And even more important, the conference doesn’t know about our other guys. They don’t know about keegan being a new xc guy. They don’t know about kusak’s ability to boost it. They don’t know about our insane depth of hard-working guys on top of that: we’ve got brandon, khop, fletcher, anshul, bradley, and countless others who could also shock some people next year…So yeah, I am hungry to go out and win that sophomore conference meet. There’s no doubt we have the potential to do it.

You did it, boys!  Your goal was audacious, having finished 4th in Conference as Freshmen.  You got a huge boost when Keegan Caveney decided to join the team.  Keegan finished 6th today, but his influence goes far beyond his running ability.  In the week leading up to the race, he encouraged all his sophomore teammates to reflect on their seasons.  Each of the three days leading up to conference, they were to write one positive note about what they did well and one honest admission of something they can improve upon, and then post it on their on-line training logs.  This instruction did not come from the coaches, but grew organically, from the team up.  If you want to see what a great team dynamic looks like, read the logs of that Sophomore crew.

They were denied their moment of hearing their names called at the awards ceremony (Lyons Township was evacuated as a precautionary measure after reports of a gun on campus), but they deserve recognition.  So here are your Sophomore conference champions:

Alec Hill – 2nd place – Five feet, 85 pounds of pure fury.  A true leader.  The architect of this title.

Matt Kusak – 3rd – Has anyone had a more consistent season?  Matt was 4th at Hornet-Red, 6th at Palatine, and 5th at Naperville Twilight.  Though he doesn’t show it much, few people care as much as Matt does about showing up for his teammates.  He sure did that this year.

Keegan Caveney – 6th – See above.  His decision to join XC was a total game changer for us.  His teammates (and coaches) will forever be grateful.

Kevin Hopkins –10th –  “KHop” – man of the hour.  We needed him to come through today and he did.  Finished one place better than last year.

Brandon Belgrad – 11th at conference.  Put in the work this year and became one of our most improved Sophomores, which was crucial to giving the team the confidence it needed.

Will Ricker – 14th – Last year he was 18th and just missed all-conference.  He missed much of track due to injury, but has been steadily building all season, and saved his best race for last.

Fletcher Spillers – 19th – He had a rocky start to the year due to a health scare, but finished strong.  For sure, ran his best race at Conference.  Has great footspeed and will be a great half miler in track.

Charlie Carter – 21st – Truly committed to running this year.  Had an outstanding season.  Like Fletcher, he has excellent speed and may excel in middle distance.  Really proud of him for going ‘all in’ this year.

Liam Walsh – 22nd – Great race for Liam.  He is quiet and unassuming, but a hard worker.  Did a great job moving up, and has tremendous potential to get even better.

Anshul Sankaran – 30th – I know he is disappointed with his race, but he has learned a lot this season about dealing with adversity, and his contributions to the culture of the Sophomore squad is unquestioned.

Bradley Davis – 31st – No sophomore ran more miles this summer than Bradley.  He leads by example.  He helped make the title happen for the Sophomores.

Jack Gerami – 38th – I love his attitude.  He leads his training group on EVERY run.  Some kids make fun of him for it.  Shame on them.  You want to be great?  Do what Jack does.  And hear this: Jack would be in the top 7 sophomores of any other team in the conference!

Josh Terry – 45th – Have him in class.  Great student.  Confidence is slowly building.  A year of hard work, and he’ll be up with the pack.

Other contributing members to the sophomore squad were Nick Sutton (57th), Matt Ostrowski (58th), Adam Bagnall (64th), Chris Deligiannis (68th), Daniel Yang (82nd), Ryan Park (83rd), Alex Colban (85th), Matt Sayre (86th), and Alan Baek (93rd).  Congrats, Sophs.  Savor it.

Our other highlight for the day came from the JV race, which we won for the first time in my twelve year coaching career, and perhaps for the first time in school history.  Our goal was to go 1-4, and we almost did.  Jan Erick Naess took gold in his final conference meet, with senior teammate Ben Schnieders next through the chute.  Neil Cumberland held on for third to allow us to sweep the podium spots, while Sam Schiavitti fought hard for fifth.  Colin Yandel, wispy in stature but strong in fortitude, tried to push with the leaders and then paid for the fast pace, but held tight to earn the final all-conference spot in 16th.  Perhaps the most surprising and impressive race of the day came from junior Kevin Ellis, who ran inspired and crossed the line in 17:11, fully three minutes faster than he ran at the Hornet-Red Devil Invitational six weeks earlier.  Kevin, a junior, came out for XC this season for the first time, allegedly to stay in shape for baseball.  Kevin works with Coach Kupres and Snee’s training groups, so I don’t get to see him much at practice, but have been told he is a hard work and great role model for the younger athletes.  Thus, we, his coaches, were extremely gratified to see him finish his season on such a high note.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment in this blog to talk about four seniors who joined the team as freshmen and who ran their final races yesterday.  I always have a special place in my heart for those guys on the team who commit to the same level as the top athletes even though they never get nearly the same level of credit.  These guys, each of whom would be top 7 on many other teams in the state, never got to do that at Hinsdale Central, yet each has contributed more than they can ever know.

Michael Chadwell became an Eagle Scout earlier this season, which tells you plenty about his character.   A nicer guy you will seldom meet.  Michael’s been running over 50 miles a week consistently since his sophomore year.  He had to overcome a bout of pneumonia this past season which was a significant setback, but he always stayed positive, and ended yesterday feeling happy with his race.  We’ll miss him.

Nicky Midlash is one of the all-time most improved athletes we’ve ever had come through our program.  He is also one of the most committed.  For the second year in a row, he joined the ‘1000 mile club’ by running 1000 miles between the first day of summer running and the Conference meet.  This puts him in incredibly select company (Feldman, McBrien, Irvine, Evertsen, and Scully are the only others to achieve that distinction twice).  He missed his entire Sophomore track season due to chest surgery, but came to every single team meeting.  That showed how devoted he is to his teammates.   No one could disagree that Nicky has done everything he can to help our team.

Joe Miscimarra wanted so badly to earn all-conference in the JV race.  He tried his very best, moving up into the top 16 around the two mile mark, but ended 19th, just out of the medals.  Just a week and a half earlier, he had the race of his life at the Naperville Twilight meet, finishing 7th in the open race.  It was the first time in his life that he ever earned a medal, and to be able to hear his name announced at the awards ceremony was a special moment.  Joe and Nick have been inseparable since they joined the team together as freshmen (the duo reminds me a lot of Alex Lambert and Joe Griffin, two guys from the 2014 team who were founding members of the original ‘black group’) and have helped ensure that our team remains focused and committed from top to bottom.

And finally, there is John Bynan.  Last year, the blog I wrote about the conference meet was, also, about the highs and lows of coaching, focusing on two athletes, one (Yuji Cusick, now running and thriving at New York University) who had a tough conclusion to his senior XC season, and the other, JB, who’d risen to the occasion and ran the amazing race he deserved based on how hard he’d trained.  But, ours is not a sport for the faint of heart.   JB needed to overcome a lot of adversity to get to that point.  He faced injuries sophomore and junior year, but through intense cross training managed to get back in shape by conference.  When he got injured again this past summer, his spirits were almost crushed.  It is a long road back, with daunting odds.  JB chose to fight on.  He may be the grittiest athlete on our team.  He finished 20th yesterday, after being 5th as a junior.  His injury hit a little harder this year, a bit later into the season.  He just ran out of time to come back.  To any young runner out there reading this, whether you run for Hinsdale Central or another team, here is what John wrote post-race.  It is worthy of your attention, as he honestly assesses how really HARD running cross country can be, but also why that very difficulty is what makes it worthwhile:

Want to get some thoughts down about running and my career as a cross country runner. Ever since freshman year I believed I would run on a state championship winning team. I believed if I put in the work just like Josh Feldman and Emmett Scully did, I would be like them. Because of this I put in the work. I pushed myself, past my limits repeatedly, and faced the consequences. When it came time to do it again I didn’t cower back and adjust my expectations but I pushed myself just as hard, because I wanted it more than anything. I’ve been thinking about the date November 5th, 2016 for 4 years now. Through good times and mostly bad times, that date, the wild possibility of being able to hoist a 1st Place trophy with my brothers pushed me to continue to fight the good fight. And it got hard. Really really hard at points. This summer was the hardest. I even thought about quitting. I couldn’t handle another injury, another coming up short, hours and hours sitting on a bike, not knowing if it would even matter. But I kept going. Because I wanted to be on that stage more than how much it frustrated me. So today, when my chances of having that first real dream of my life of running top 7 ended, it hurt. But in reflection I would do it all over again. I think it’s important, especially for younger guys to know that I HAVE NO REGRETS WITH THE WAY I TRAINED. I always told myself I would rather be injured than average. I had a goal and went for it. I wanted to be great. I want to conclude by saying I couldn’t have gotten through these frustrations without you all. As much as my goals kept me going through tough times so did my teammates. That’s why I tried to bring some energy to you all over the past 3 weeks. I’ve never liked running, I’ve loved this team. So my cross country career does not end on a stage at Detweiller, but instead on the fields of Lyons Township, but that’s okay because this sport isn’t fair. That’s why I love this sport. It always leaves your wanting more. It will take me time to come to grips with this final blow. What I’ve been chasing for the past 4 years ended today. In that way, a new stage of my life begins tomorrow. But I’ll move on. I’ll set a new goal. And I won’t stop loving and believing in this team. For one last time as a member of the HCXC Cross Country Team, Never Stop Eatin.

It may be strange to see a coach applaud an athlete for saying “I’ve never liked running” but I know exactly what JB means.  I’ve run 95% of days for the last twenty years of my life.  I don’t always enjoy it.  I always feel better after, though.  Last night, too, I thought about how much time and effort I put into cross country, how, now that I have a daughter, the time spent writing blogs and analyzing results means time away from her – how, despite all that effort, the races seldom play out the way I hope they will (and here, I grant, I am far luckier than many, having experienced the ultimate thrill available to Illinois high school XC coaches twice) and leave me wondering if it is worth it.  But, in reading JB’s log, I remember why it is.  What coach with a heart could read his words and not become misty-eyed?

Since she learned to walk, my daughter has fallen countless times.  It does not seem to discourage her.  In life, we will all face many metaphorical falls.  Whether we do so with the innocence of a child or with the hard earned wisdom of an adolescent transitioning to adulthood like John Bynan, what ultimately counts is our ability to get back up.  That is the lesson I hope our varsity and freshman athletes will heed after this meet.  It is an approach to life I hope my daughter always keeps.

“Cross Country is a Counter-Cultural Activity”

September 25, 2016 – “Cross Country is a counter-cultural activity”

Yesterday was the Palatine Invitational.  Chris Quick is the coach of the Palatine Boy’s Cross Country Team.  He is also the author of “One Way Uphill Only,” the definitive book on Illinois High School Cross Country and someone I am privileged to consider a great friend.  We first got to know each other back in 2011, shortly after his team had won their first state title and finished fifth at NXN.  Hoping to learn from the best, I asked to meet with him, and he was incredibly gracious not only in accepting that request but in inviting me into his home and sharing many facets of his program with me.  One of the most powerful ideas I learned from him is the notion that Cross Country is counter cultural.  It is a sport where young people are challenged to act in a way that is contrary to prevailing norms.  In an era of instant gratification where you can find information or order products with the click of a mouse, it demands patience and delayed gratification.  In communities where we are surrounded by comfort and luxury, it asks us to not only learn to find discomfort, but to stay there.  In a time and place where we are bombarded with all manner of visual and auditory stimuli, it is a sport which requires plenty of solitude and reflection.

In our meeting with the team after the final race and awards ceremony yesterday, I chose to focus on this idea: of cross country in its truest form being a sort of rebellion against a culture that shields us from failure by pretending it doesn’t exist.  In our sport, everyone runs the race, and the results are there for all to see.  There is no hiding.

We had to face up to the data: in the varsity race, we lost over 100 places from mile 1 to mile 3.  In the Sophomore race, we were within a half a second of winning, but lost to New Trier on a sixth man tie-breaker.  Our Freshmen ran tough in their first ever attempt at a race over 2 miles, but were not successful in their first attempt to close the gap against a very talented York class which soundly defeated us in a tri-meet this past Thursday.  The JV race went a bit better, with Colin Yandel having a breakthrough performance by finishing 4th overall and six other runners (John Wheeler, Joe Glasby, Kyle Jones-Shah, Kevin Ellis, Grant Coghill, and Louis Lu) besting their PRs by over a minute; but even there, we were hampered by the absence of several athletes missing in action; each with their own reason, but ultimately adding up to an incomplete squad.

What I want for every athlete in our program is for them to feel the sense of purpose that comes with believing you are engaged in a meaningful endeavor, and the sense of pride that comes in achieving a long sought goal.  Whenever we fall short of those ideals, we simply see how we might use the experience to further those aims.  Part of that comes with learning to accept when your effort is not the best you know it could be and figuring out how to adjust to come closer the next time (and this is true for the coach as much as the athlete).  So, here is what we can learn:

-To get out more controlled.

-That every stride counts.

-That lots of moves early in a race can cost you later.

-That even consistent training is no guarantor of a good race.  One must still execute on the day.


And here is the good:

-That for those who did not race as well as we hoped, it is not for lack of effort in practice.

-That our Freshmen finished 6th, the same place as last year’s group.  Steven Rakos had a breakthrough race.  Carter McCarroll and Mason Steere pushed themselves harder than I know they ever have before.  Aaron Lu and Chinmay Amin suffered late, but only because they tested themselves early, something many runners fear to do.  Will Fahy and Charlie Brubaker are now running with consistency.  These freshmen need only look to the class above them to see how much can change in a year.

-That though the Sophomores will only focus on the fact that they came achingly close to winning only to fall just short, that reality masks some real achievements.  Charlie Carter feels awful because he was our 6th man and was behind New Trier’s 6th man, but, in fact, Charlie improved over a minute from the Hornet-Red Devil and has been showing a tenacity and focus in practice I’ve never seen in him before.  Chris Deligiannis, Adam Bagnall, Peter Hughes, Matt Sayre, and Ryan Park all also improved their personal bests by over a minute.  Despite the runner-up finish, I love the spirit of these Sophomores.  They genuinely care about each other and it is evident that each man wants to do the best they can precisely for that reason.

-That on a day we were not our best, we still finished third in one of the most competitive meets in the nation.  Outside of Chris Quick’s book, my next favorite book on running is “Tradition, Class, Pride” by Jim Linhares and Ben Rosario, which is about the St. Louis University High Cross Country program.  I love the philosophy Coach Linhares (now retired from coaching) brought to his program, best summed up in the title he chose for the book.  Here is a team that has experienced great success and has done so the right way, valuing each individual that comes through.  In their quest to race the best, SLUH travels out of state to attend Palatine.  And here is the tweet SLUH wrote after the meet, on their way back south: “Varsity averages under 16:00 and 1-5 split was 37 seconds. At @PalatineXC that gets you 21st place of 32! Step in the right direction.”   It should tell you something about the quality of this meet that a team as good as SLUH finished that far back.

-We were the only team to finish top 6 on all levels.  That is genuinely something to be proud of.  It means we have the pieces in place to sustain our competitiveness, if only we are willing to continue to fight the good fight against the cultural currents pushing against us.

Will it play in Peoria?

The hardest blogs to write are after disappointing races.  I do so now with certain intentions: to role model resiliency and self-reflection, to help myself and our team process our performance, and to contribute to the wider mission of promoting the sport of Cross Country by providing readers with my perspective on what unfolded this afternoon at fabled Detweiller Park during the 3A boys race.

Let us begin by situating the race in time and place.  It is 2016, an election year, and, not unrelated, a day before the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American History.  It is poignant to consider that I now for the first time coach athletes who were not even born when that happened.  Even our seniors were then only three, and yet, now, some of them are old enough to vote.  In fact, many of the miles run together by our team this season have been spent debating the merits of the candidates.  It is one of the virtues of team sport that it can bring together people who politically could not be more different, which certainly is true of this year’s group.  I used my precious moments in the team huddle before the race to ask each boy to take a moment for reflecting on our peculiar historical moment: to feel grateful to be healthy and strong, gifted with the opportunity to attempt to maximize the talents they’d been born with against worthy competitors and under giant blue skies.

And, also, above, across, and through mud.  Let us begin our discussion of place by zeroing in on the puddles of muck that had begun pooling up the day preceding, precipitation cycling through phases of drizzle and storm as we carried out our pre-meet workout.  A short while earlier, as our minibus approached closer to our destination, Blake Evertsen had called up from the backseat, “Coach, how close are we to the course?” I smiled as I turned back from the front seat and replied, “Blake, this is the seventh time you’ve done this trip, don’t you know by now?”  It is the ritualistic aspects of the Peoria journey that render it most meaningful.  I’ve never been to this most quintessential of Midwestern cities for any other reason than to run, watch, or coach a Cross Country meet, but I’d venture I’ve done that over twenty times now in my life.  Over the last several years, it’s become a twice yearly pilgrimage that now has familiar and predictable qualities like running into New Trier’s team at dinner or seeing St. Ignatius at our hotel, which is located on the banks of the Illinois River and offers the view of the occasional passing barge.  There are the familiar landmarks: a pawn shop, transit station, minor league baseball stadium and convention center.  There is grime and there is beauty; graffiti painted on the concrete pillars of a bridge within sight of farmers at the weekly fall market shopping their wares.  I pass all these on my early morning run, a specific route I’ve charted for myself which I complete a circuit of each time we come down.

There is, always, the slightly tense feeling of making the slow bus ride through the crowded back road as we wind our way to our pre-established team area which we establish in a moderately secluded shaded patch west of the course grounds.  And the inevitable repinning of bibs to jerseys after meeting with officials before the race.  And, too, the sense of possibility as I leave the team huddle, turning away as our boys hits their final stride before the firing of the starters’ pistol.

A less comforting but no less significant aspect of the ritual is the revelation of where your team stands on that particular day.  One reality of competing at Detweiller (shared by its sibling, the track at Eastern Illinois), is that one rarely leaves feeling contented.  Detweiller draws the best, and so there is no hiding – you leave knowing exactly where you stand.  Save a few shining exceptions, I’ve usually left feeling resolve more than satisfaction, and today’s performance was more consistent with that norm.  Like last week, our final result was fair, but our effort below the standard we’d set for ourselves.

What we learned: that we must tip our hat to DGN, who ran with passion and purpose, and also to Lyons Township, our other west suburban rival, who also demonstrated they are a better team than us at this point of the season.  Our athletes are well aware of the times and places we’ve run here in the previous few years, of the long road ahead.  To a man, we were flat, not one of our runners placing where we believed we should have.  When one of ten athletes does not run well, that is mainly on the athlete.  When all ten don’t run well, that is on the coaches.  No single factors explains why we were not at our best, but there are several I can identify, many of which can and will be addressed at upcoming practices.

The presence of two of our most distinguished alums, Zach Withall and Billy Fayette, helped put the results in a more proper perspective.  Zach and Billy carpooled down together to watch the race, as Zach is in town for a short time before resuming his studies for structural engineering (he is working towards his PhD at UC-San Diego) and so was able to join Billy, who works for an insurance company in Chicago, for a trip down south which I’m sure was tinged with nostalgia.  When both were seniors, we’d finished 6th at the ‘First to the Finish’ Invite (then known as the Woodruff Invite) and left feeling great.  In that year, there was no talk of trophies, with the goal simply being to get to state and finish in the top half.  It is perhaps unfair that all HC teams are now judged by the standard of the 2013 and 2014 teams.  Zach and Billy ran simply to be the best they could.  That is all any of us should aim to do.  And it is by that standard only that today’s race results seemed so difficult to swallow.

Listen, it’s a great group of guys.  Their personalities can be told, in part, by what reading material they brought with them: “The Wall Street Journal” for Ryan Doorhy, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” for Neil Cumberland.  Alec Hill brought homework assigned by his social studies teacher, Mr. Lawrence.  And Sean O’Connell brought “The Great Gatsby.”  One phrase from the famous final passage strikes a chord: “so we beat on, boats against the current…”  But not to the past.  Not us.  We’ll row harder.  We’ll get in sync.  We’ll move forward.

Lay Your Cards on the Table

“Cross Country is harder than soccer.”  This is the report sophomore Keegan Caveney gave to his parents after finishing his first ever high school race.  Caveney is fairly positioned to judge, having played ‘the beautiful game’ for both his high school and club teams last year.  Among the possible athletic challenges available to students across our nation, it is hard to argue against the looming imposition of three miles over hill and dale as the endeavor most requiring of fortitude.  As fans cheering the racers on, we have only the slightest sense of the internal battles waged in the minds of each and every harrier swiftly passing by.  The racer must contend against the elements, their opponents, and their own body’s natural tendencies.  With due respect to football and soccer players, I suspect they do not quite understand how it feels to have over 400 meters left in a race and sense a rival pull even.  Your body aches, sweat pours, breath heavy – and you must make a decision: can I summon reserves of strength to hold off this challenger?  How will I manage to hold this pace for another minute and a half?!   Wait, now it’s not enough to maintain, I have to somehow run faster?!   As all Cross Country runners know, the last two minutes of a race warps conventional notions of time, which stretches out in ways unknown to the sedentary.

Yes, Cross Country is an unforgiving sport, and our home course at KLM is particularly unforgiving. KLM exacts a yearly toll: it is a beast in search of victims.  Last year at the Hornet-Red Devil Invite, Neuqua Valley’s Scott Anderson finished an amazing fourth place after breaking his foot during the race.  At the Sectional meet two months later, Sandburg’s sophomore sensation Dylan Jacobs was the next to fall prey, sustaining a hamstring injury which prevented him from competing at full strength a week later at state for the eventual champions.  And we who call KLM our home are not immune to its proclivities.  KLM reached out its maw and took its first swipe at us the day before the Hornet-Red Devil as we were jogging the course for practice.  Nearing the creek jump (the most blatant of KLM’s many snares) senior Sam Fathizadeh took one false step and resprained an ankle he’d twisted the past summer.  He let out a yelp, and a bit of the air of confidence we’d built after an excellent week of training was released.  Sam gamely walked back to school, and after icing and meeting with the trainer, learned the injury was not severe – if he felt fine during the warm-up, he’d be cleared for competition.

So, we’d dodged that bullet, but KLM was not done with us yet.  The first race at yesterday’s Hornet-Red Devil Invite was the highly touted varsity boys race.  I had been particularly looking forward to this race, as I was anxious to see how we matched up against other teams in the state and against previous iterations of our own team in an authentic environment (only so much projection can be drawn from practice results).  This is the first weekend in Illinois of major invitationals, offering up an initial glimpse of which teams may have the pieces to contend for a trophy.  After holding cards close to their chests, many coaches throw down what they have for all to see.  After watching the varsity race, I can say this: Neuqua Valley’s top-3 national ranking is indeed merited.  The Wildcats ran a disciplined race and served notice to the rest of their state by placing four runners in the top eight without Anderson, their top returning runner from last season.  We were not in their league.

And we may not be this season.  And that may be OK.  What is not OK is racing in a way that is below our capability, which proved the case for several of our top athletes on Saturday.  Momentum builds or is lost throughout a race, and we lost ours early.  I will let Sean O’Connell explain: “well today didn’t go the way i hoped it to. Right at the start I tripped over plan (Ethan Planson) and when I tried to get back up, someone stepped on my heel and my shoe with the chip in it fell off. I stopped to see if I could get it back but there was a stampede behind me so I had no chance and getting it back on. After that, I lost all focus.”   While I believe our #2-#9 guys will be interchangeable all season, no one from that group had looked better in practices this week than Sean.  That he still managed to finish 33rd overall despite running with only one shoe speaks to his talent (big props to freshmen Magness Naess for having the presence of mind to grab Sean’s spike with attached timing chip and then tossing it to Sean right before he crossed the finishing mat!) and certainly makes me wish for a do-over, which one does not get in our sport (there are no timeouts in XC)!  I really do believe teammates feed off each other’s energy during races, and Sean’s early tribulations threw his teammates a curveball to which they had trouble adjusting.  I saw the team first at the 1000 meter mark, where we actually were in the lead, but that fast early pace took its toll, and we’d faded badly by the next time I saw the group.

Despite the frustrating results, there were some genuine highlights in the varsity race.  Blake Evertsen won a hard fought battle with Soren Knudsen to defend the individual title he earned last year.  Knudsen took the pace out hard, but Blake ran savvy, patiently running his own race.  In conversation afterwards, he acknowledged that he’d had moments of doubt during the race, but, like the championship athlete he is, he managed to keep those doubts at bay.  With around 300 meters left in the race, Blake made a strong move to pass Soren and never looked back, crossing the line in 14:48.6, the fastest time ever on the newest version of the course.  Echoing Caveney’s sentiments, he said to me “that was hard.”   Truth teller that my role requires me to be, I replied, “it’s not going to get any easier.”  Conference opponents Kern, Loud, Zona, Kilrea, and Danner await, new tests for Blake to face in the weeks ahead.

Here is another HC success story: Ben Schnieders.  Consider Ben’s performances at HRD over the past three years:

2014-17:40-17th man on team

2015-16:52-13th man on team

2016-15:48.0-4th man on team


Young runners, that is how you do it.  Methodical consistent training is what got Ben to where he is.  Some guys are talented from the get go, but others, like Ben, grind it out.  I could not be prouder of him.

Senior Jacob Belgrad had a solid race, finishing 16th overall as our second man.  His decision to start out more conservatively paid dividends for him and he hung tough.  Fellow senior Jan Erik Naess may surprise some this season.  Barely two weeks after running 10:33 as our 12th man during our early season 3200 fitness test, Jan was our 6th man today and 28th overall.  He is whipping into shape fast, and hoping to make the most of his last year with the Red Devils.

Another Solid race was also turned in by junior Neil Cumberland, who finished 20th.  I’d remind him that Keegan’s older brother TJ was 19th at the HRD as a senior, and later finished 25th at state (for that matter, Jacob Belgrad might take note that Soren Knudsen was 16th last year at the HRD and went on to finish 11th at state!)  And while KLM tried to derail the efforts of Charlie Gelman who, like O’Connell, lost his shoe during the race (Charlie opted to then take off his other shoe as well and run barefoot, Tarahumara style) it was Gelman who won the fight, running a huge PR of 18:50 while beating his 3200 PR en route.


The Sophomores

Here is the most salient fact about the Sophomore race:


2015-Freshman team results

  1. Naperville North 58, 2. Naperville Central 81, 3. Palatine 124, 4. Metea Valley 134, 5. Neuqua Valley 146, 6. New Trier 172, 7. Wheaton Warrenville South 186, 8. HINSDALE CENTRAL 216, 9. Evanston 219, 10. Highland Park 282


2016-Sophomore team results

2016 HRD soph results

From eighth to first in one year!  This is a group that has a lot to be proud of.  The pieces began falling in place this past June, with the announcement from Keegan Caveney that he’d decided to take a leap of faith and join Cross Country instead of soccer.  Keegan had just come off a very strong freshmen track campaign, where he’d bonded with his freshmen teammates and started to become aware of his ability.  It helped that he comes from a running family: Dad, older brother TJ, and older sister Molly all ran for the Red Devils.  Perhaps part of explanation for the success of this 10th grade group is that four of the top five runners have older brothers who ran for us, so XC is something they’ve long been familiar with.  Our top man yesterday was Alec Hill, whose older brother Nathan just left this past Monday for his freshmen year at Middlebury College.

Alec pic

The KLM creek tried its best to conquer young Alec Hill, but what he lacks in size, Alec makes up in stature. Like Mo Farah in the Olympic 10K, Hill got right back up and finished strong in 3rd overall, leading the Sophs to victory.  Note to AD Jones: Cross Country is NOT too fun when you are towards the end of the race – it’s really hard(!) – but it sure is fun after, especially if you have the satisfaction of doing your best.

Our #4 man was Brandon Belgrad, younger brother of Jacob.  Brandon was 70th place last year as a freshmen and 12th this year, a testament to how committed he has become to the sport.  Our #5 man was Kevin Hopkins (nicknamed “K-Hop”) whose brother Jeff is entering his junior year at Auburn.

The one athlete of that top five who does not have an older brother is Matt Kusak, who perhaps had the race of the day yesterday.  After finishing 36th his freshmen year, Matt ran a spirited race to finish 4th overall.  Since I started coaching, the only HC athletes to finish higher in the Sophomore race (aside from Alec yesterday) were Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk, both of whom were all-state athletes.  My favorite moment from yesterday’s meet was seeing a pack of Caveney, Kusak, Belgrad, and Hopkins about 1200 meters into the race trailing only Hill and three other frontrunners.  It was the realization of a goal the Sophomore group made with each other, independent of the coaching staff: to win HRD and redefine the identity of their grade level.  The Sophomores join the 2009 team as the only other champion at that level to win.  Tom and Michael Lyons, two members of that Sophomore team, were in attendance to watch the proceedings, their first time back watching the HRD since they graduated back in 2012.  In many ways, that 2009 Sophomore group changed what we believed to be possible at Hinsdale Central.  They were the first genuine champions we’d coached.  By improving so much in a single year, this current group not only gets to savor a victory, but has provided evidence for future teams of what can be accomplished through determination, focus, and commitment to teammates.


In the week leading up to the HRD, we have been trying to teach our freshmen about the history of Illinois high school cross country and the relationship of Hinsdale Central to that history.  Historically, we have never fared particularly well at our first big meet, but we have ample examples of athletes from our program making huge leaps from their freshmen to sophomore year (see above).  That said, we presented our freshmen with the following challenge: earn top 3, and they’d be the highest placing freshmen squad for Hinsdale Central at the HRD of the new millennium.  We fell a bit short of that goal, but the freshmen had a strong debut and finished fourth overall, which ties the 2012 freshmen for the best we’ve finished in this meet since before 2000.  This group ran a tight 17 second split off their top 6 runners to best teams from such storied programs as Neuqua Valley, Palatine, and Naperville North.  Chinmay Amin and Aaron Lu, former teammates from Westview Middle School, led us in 24th and 25th, with Steven Rakos, Will Fahy, Charlie Brubaker, and Carter McCarroll close behind.  We placed 12 runners in the top 100 of a race that had 247 total athletes, which speaks to the depth of this group.  Anand Yallapragada, Addison White, and Jack Kinsey all took over TWO FULL MINUTES off the time they’d run just four days earlier at DGN – as they are learning fast how to race.  And Daniel Skora, the smallest of our dimunitive freshmen group, took on an opponent a foot taller down the final straightaway, trading places several times in the final 100 meters before eking past in the final steps, a triumph I was pleased to witness.  Training will get you so far, but at moments like that, you must also have heart, and Skora showed his in that revelatory challenge.



When evaluating the overall team performance, I must say that I am very proud of how we competed at our first major invite.  Balancing all three levels together, this is the strongest team we’ve ever had:

Historical Overview of Hinsdale Central’s performance at Hornet-Red Devil Invitational

Freshman team place Sophomore team place Varsity team place Total combined place
2001 8th 7th 4th 19
2002 6th 5th 6th 17
2003 7th 2nd 12th 21
2004 9th 6th 4th 19
2005 6th 5th 11th 22
2006 8th 6th 9th 23
2007 5th 5th 10th 20
2008 7th 8th 5th 20
2009 7th 1st 6th 14
2010 6th 5th 5th 16
2011 8th 4th 4th 16
2012 4th 3rd 4th 11
2013 7th 3rd 1st 11
2014 6th 3rd 1st 10
2015 8th N/A 2nd 10*
2016 4th 1st 2nd 7


And of the 54 athletes who competed this past Tuesday in a tri-meet against Downers North and OPRF, literally all 54 improved their times by 40 seconds or more!


Every single athlete improved their time by at least 40 seconds from Tuesday’s meet at DGN. Athletes who improved by 2 minutes or more are highlighted.

So we return to work, spirits buoyed, reserves of resolve spilling over, ready anew for the hardest fifteen minutes of high school sport.

Summer Running Review – 2016

August 3, 2016 – End of ‘Summer Running’ Review


Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog in which I stated the following:

               In less than two weeks, we’ll all be back at school, books stuffed into backpacks, assignments begrudgingly sketched into crisp new student planners, the carefree days of summer no more than distant memories.  Actually, though, for a runner, the summer (or any season really) can never truly be carefree, as every new days brings a new workout to manage, and those precious unscheduled hours often include rolling out or ice cupping.  The transition to the school year is thus sometimes easier to manage for us, especially as it brings the promise of the official cross country season, and thus the beginning of meets we’ve been working towards for months.  Like any transitional period, now is a good time to reflect on where we’ve come from and look ahead to where we hope to be.  

As self-appointed team statistician, I proceeded to share ‘the data’ on our summer training, as I will shortly do again here.  As HCXC alums know, in 2012 we initiated the ‘1000 mile challenge’ in an effort to incentivize better training, a solid aerobic base being a prerequisite to late season success.  The aim is to run over 1000 miles between the first day of summer running and our Conference meet.  Of the hundreds of athletes who’ve been through our program over the past half-decade (the most successful period in the history of our program) only a handful dhave achieved this distinction.   They are:


*All seniors unless otherwise noted

2012: Chris Kennedy, Jack Keller, Ryan Somerfield, Ankit Aggarwal, Emmett Scully (jr)

2013: Emmett Scully, Kevin Huang, Aria Darbandi, Billy Magnesen, Josh Feldman (jr), Andrew Irvine (so), Matt McBrien (jr)

2014:  Matt McBrien, Josh Feldman, Stefan Rosas, Alex Lambert

2015:  Blake Evertsen (jr.), Chris Brenk , Andrew Irvine, John Bynan (jr.), Ryan Doorhy (jr.), Nicky Midlash (jr.), Nathan Hill


One way to quickly compare our team this year to past seasons is to consider July mileage.  I have compiled averages for most athletes dating back to 2012.  Here is the top 30 from 2012-2016

mileage pic 1


To be on pace for joining the 1000 mile club in 2016, a runner should have logged 392 miles by this point.  As you will see, we have 5 athletes currently ahead of pace, with 5 more not far off.  Current mileage is below for the 10 athletes with the highest summer mileage at this point in the season.  For basis of comparison, I have also included their mileage from previous seasons, when that information was available.

mileage pic 2


Our final few days of summer running were spent, as they have been the previous three seasons, in Kenosha, where we stay on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to take advantage of the solitude as well as the nationally-renowned Cross Country course and attendant monster hill.  This year, the mini-camp featured a guest speaker, Don Kopriva, a journalist (for several decades he has been a correspondent for Track and Field News) and author, most recently of the book ‘Coming Back Strong’ which features interviews with 75 of our nation’s most accomplished male distance runners on how they dealt with injuries.  In discussing the book, Don recalled a conversation with a coach he encountered while selling his book at the annual ITCCCA clinic:

Random Coach: “Oh, I don’t need that book.  My guys don’t get injured.”

Kopriva: “You’re not a very good coach, then.”

His point was that, in our sport, those who want to be the best are always walking the proverbial ‘razor’s edge’ between excellence and injury.  No runner who stays in the game long enough will walk away unscathed.

A related topic discussed in Kenosha was “Grit.”  I’ve recently finished the book with that title by the psychologist Angela Duckworth and was eager to share what I learned with the assembled crew.  In short, what Duckworth discovered is that the best predictor of who will be able to regularly accomplish truly difficult tasks in not physical ability nor intelligence but rather, simply, a ‘never-give up’ attitude.  It’s not the person who never gets knocked down but the person who, every time they do get knocked down, gets right back and keeps fighting.

The connection here is that getting injured is the most difficult test any committed runner will face (far more, I think, than regular training and racing).  The successful individual and team will be the one that has the mental fortitude to keep going through the isolating periods of cross-training that injuries force.  And, like every previous season, we face that.  We’ll see how we manage.  Of Steven Zaher and John Bynan, two of our athletes dealing with injury right now, I can say that two grittier individuals would be hard to find.  If any two runners can endure the drudgery of cross-training, it is they.  As for the tests we’ve faced collectively, our grittiness is yet to be determined.  What identity will the 2016 team assume?  That’s why we run the races…



-I am excited about our incoming freshmen.  And a special shout-out goes to Coach Josh Vance and his Westview Middle School team, the source of two of our top incoming freshmen and many other younger athletes who joined us this summer.  Aaron Lu and Chinmay Amin, a duo I last year dubbed “Chindia” (referencing both their respective ethnic backgrounds, Chinese and Indian, and the projected future dominance of that region in world economics and of these two young runners within our state) have run 3200 times this summer that rank among the fastest anyone in our program has ever run at their age.  Will Fahey, a freshman who moved with his family to Hinsdale from Arizona, looks like a young Josh Feldman.  Carter McCarroll ‘bought in’ to Cross Country within one month of joining us, and has become our most consistent freshmen on logarun.  Emmett Drew, younger brother of alum Patrick, is excited to make a name for himself.  Will Rakos is eager to mix it up.  Danny Hoffman, Tom Borys, Lorenzo Jennings, Mason Steere, and Lincoln Virant all put in quality summers and should help us have one of our stronger freshmen squads in many years.


-The Sophomores, likewise, are looking strong.  We received a huge boost in June when we learned Keegan Caveney had decided to ‘make the leap’ from soccer to Cross Country.  Keegan, who first joined us last Track season, comes from a running family (his older brother TJ was all-state for us on our 2013 championship team, his older sister is one of best runners on a strong girls’ team, and his father Andy ran for HC in the mid-80s).  His addition solidifies a squad featuring Alec Hill, Matt Kusak, Fletcher Spillers, Brandon Belgrad, Bradley Davis, Anshul Sankaran, Chris Deligiannis, Charlie Carter, Josh Terry, Jack Gerami, Matt Sayre, and newcomer James Giltner.  Watch out for Bradley Davis, who had the most consistent summer of any Sophomore (and who brought younger brother Mitchell with him) and who will no doubt be on the PR train this fall.


-This summer I also initiated the first ever HC Boy’s Summer Track camp.  We had 12 high school athletes who came for three weeks, along with 18 middle schoolers who participated for one.  Anthony Carta, Colin Jay, Alex Ritz, and Jimmy McKay emerged from the camp as senior leaders, while the hurdle crew represented particularly well, with Jay, Ritz, Colin Chval, and newcomer Andrew Novotney getting in some key technical work.  The highlight of the camp was our first ever summer Community track meet held on July 15.  I invited alumni back for the event, so many were on hand to witness the festivities, including one Ted Owens, a star on our 2011 team who I hadn’t seen in a few years.  Owens recently graduated from Dartmouth and just moved to San Francisco to start a new job doing coding.  Owens led off our last 4*800 team to make finals.  One of his teammates, Jack Feldman, could not be in attendance, but emailed me earlier in the week to say hello.  Jack just started a job in Princeton, New Jersey at Bristol-Meyers-Squib.  Amazing to think these guys are college graduates.  Jack’s younger brother Josh was on hand, and participated in an unlikely event: the 110 hurdles (he dabbled in steeple chasing this past spring).  Doube-G Griffin Gartner doubled up by running both the open 400 and the 4*400.  Maxie Maydanchik showed he still has it outkicking Ryan Doorhy to win the 800 in a very respectable 2:08.

Moving the other direction in age, we also witnessed the Track meet debut of the young Belgrad twins, age 5.  Both boys raced each other in the 60 meter mini-hurdles and later in the ‘toddler 20.’  One decade hence, they’ll be at HC, where I hope and expect to still be.  Jacob and Brandon will be the alumni then, adding length to the growing ‘red line.’


HCXC and Track, past and present, gathered for the first annual Hinsdale Central Summer Community Track Meet, held this past July 15th


-Thanks to the initiative taken by Neuqua Valley head XC coach Paul Vandersteen, our summer started off with a speech from Donn Behnke, former coach of Stevens Point (WI) high school and author of the recent (excellent) book “The Animal Keepers.”  Coach Behnke shared the story of his 1985 team, a special one due to the arrival of Scott “the animal” Longley, a student living in a group home who made up for his lack of social awareness with his fierce competitiveness and love of team.  Coach Behnke’s speech reminded us what makes Cross Country such a unique sport – by joining the team and meeting its physical demands, Scott found a sense of belonging he’d never had before; in turn, he helped his teammates achieve at a level they’d not have been able to accomplish without him.

On a personal level, Behnke’s book, as well as his speech, hit close to home.  He referred to the 1985 season as the one in which he transitioned from “Coach as big brother to Coach as parent.”  I find myself in a similar transition.  Gone are the days when I could lead every workout; gone, also, the hours of time to devote to writing blogs.  In its place, a newly earned maturity that comes with being directly responsible for another individuals’ life and well-being.  The fact of the matter is that my relationship with our current runners will likely be different than the one I have with Billy Fayette, Zach Withall, and others of their era.  I hope, though, to help each runner realize their own individual potential, the same hope I share for my daughter.


-And speaking of Neuqua Valley, a recent national ranking released by (using some kind of complex algorithm) ranks them as the #1 team in the country (we are, surprisingly, ranked #26).  With all the usual caveats about the futility and meaninglessness of pre-season rankings, I can say this with absolute certainty: Neuqua Valley will have a great team this year, as they always do.  And we get to face off against them at our first invitational of the season, the hallowed “Hornet-Red Devil Invitational” on September 3, exactly one month from today.  Let the games begin!

What I learned as a Distance Coach by working with Sprinters

This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage down to Charleston for the final meet of the season with my Assistant Coaches and our 10 state qualifiers.  Most of those state qualifiers were distance runners.  One was a high jumper.  None were sprinters.  That should give some context on how successful I was in my first year coaching the fast kids.  That being said, the sprint corps and I made halting progress together this year.  We succeeded in getting many of the better football players to join us, won in the sprint relays a couple of times on the lower levels, and only twice all season dropped a baton (the one measure by which we are better than the US National team).


The Track/FB connection

A far better blogger than I, Tony Holler, has written extensively about how crucial it is for Track teams to partner up with Football, and how often ego, stubbornness, and antiquated thinking prevents this from happening:  see here, here, and here.  Being well-read in the ‘Holler’ canon, as soon as I took the position of head Track Coach, I knew the very first action I needed to take was to go directly to our head football coach, Dan Hartman, to ask what I could do to earn his support.  I had a few things going for me: first, Dan is a former Track guy, a sub-40 300 hurdlers in his high school days in Indiana.  Second, we teach in the same department – in fact, in the same room (believe it or not, Hinsdale Central has inadequate facilities, so sharing of rooms is commonplace, though these unhappy circumstances proved fortuitous in my case).  Third, we have another colleague in our department, Chris Korfist, who is at the forefront of bringing Track and Football together, and who is unquestionably one of the very best sprint coaches in the nation.  Dan and I both lean heavily on Chris for advice on how to improve the speed and strength of our athletes.  And Chris, to his eternal credit, has been incredibly open to sharing ideas with us – within days of my promotion to head coach, he began feeding me journal articles and links to current research and helped me develop a training program, and throughout the season has offered encouragement and support.  That Chris, Dan, and I all teach in the same department is an unusual but happy coincidence which smoothed my path by making it easier for me to earn trust.  I’d established some credibility by helping to build up our Cross Country program and was able to gain more simply by interfacing with Chris and Dan each day, keeping them abreast of our progress and comparing notes on our shared athletes.

I was also lucky to have Christian Bobak as a senior leader.  Christian was Hinsdale Central’s star running back, and was offered a spot on University of Illinois’ roster for next season (he leaves for training camp in two weeks).  He was also a four-year track guy who was not an elite athlete from the beginning, but who became one through focus, determination, hard work, and growth.  Bobak brought instant credibility to the idea that Track and Football are complimentary.  He also proved a great role model for pushing back against the trend, all too common in our school, of seniors in their second semester dropping out of athletics.


Senior Track/Football star Christian Bobak, anchoring our 4*200 at Sectionals

So, of the 10 athletes that competed in the sprint events (100, 200, 4*100, 4*200) at the Outdoor Conference Meet, 7 were Football players.  Our two best frosh/soph horizontal jumpers (Robert Banda and Joey DiJohn) were freshmen football players.  Four of our six throwers at Conference played football (Phil Barrett, Drew Christensen, Matt Bjorson, and Owen Joyce).  On our total roster, we had 40 guys who played football: 4 hurdlers, 5 horizontal jumpers, 5 high jumpers, 10 throwers, 15 ‘pure sprinters’ and 1 guy who joined middle distance.  By comparison, we had only 6 guys on the entire team who played soccer for Hinsdale Central in the fall: Freshman hurdling sensation Ethan Ruth, freshman distance runner Keegan Caveney (whose older brother TJ was a member of our first state champion Cross Country team), sophomore middle distance runner Luca Karginov, Sophomore middle distance runner Matt Alvero, senior sprinter Matt Hillock, and senior middle distance runner Steven Coan (who came out for the first time as a senior and ended up as our top 400 runner, finishing 3rd in conference with a PR of 50.7).


Senior Stephen Coan powers home to a surprising 3rd place at Conference.  Coan was one of only six soccer players to join our team.

From the winter sports, we managed to recruit three basketball players (all of them freshmen: sprinter Charlie Lyne and high jumpers Hayden Waters and Danell Nicholson.  Nicholson finished 4th in conference at the Soph level and had a PR of 5’6”).  We had twelve wrestlers.  We had two swimmers.  Oh, and we had 63 Cross Country runners.

Of those 40 Football guys, only 3 were seniors and 7 are juniors.  The key for our team will be keeping the 30 frosh/soph guys and adding to those numbers each year, while also trying to cultivate the kind of relationship we have with the football team with the basketball and soccer programs.  If we manage that, I like our chances.


Top Speed

Here is one thing distance runners hardly ever do: see just how fast you can run.  I don’t mean see how fast you can cover 200 or 400 or even 50 meters.  I mean see what is the absolute fastest velocity you can reach in a single moment.  What is your top miles per hour you can reach?  I’d previously look at a workout like 4*10 meter flys and just not get it. How could 40 meters of work be sufficient for a workout?  Pretty much every Monday all season consisted of the same workout: a dymanic sprint warm-up with lots of bounding, spiking up, then 4 fly 10s intermixed with prime times or mini hurdles and, by outdoor, 4 block starts of 20-30 meters.  Then, a lacate workout (such as 3*150) on Wednesday and  meet Friday or Saturday.  That’s it.  The goal is to be explosive.

We did use the Freelap system, which I liked a lot.  I love the instantaneous feedback.  I took me some time in the first week to figure out how to use the system, but now I can have it set up and running within a few minutes.  I did find, though, that guys with fast fly 10s or even fast 40s did not always become our best 100 and 200 runners.  A challenge I face is figuring out how to help a kid who is fast over 10 meters carry that through the longer track sprints.  You’ll never hear of a football player rushing for a 200 yard gain.


Sophomore Garrett Oakey and Freshman Luke Skokna are both excellent Football Players who chose to come out for Track.  Skokna was also a state qualifier in wrestling.  Both contributed to successful Sophomore relays: 1st place in the 4*100 at the Bud Mohn’s Invite, 1st place in the 4*200 at the LT Relays, 2nd place in the 4*100 at Outdoor Conference. Skokna was also 3rd in the 100 and 4th in the 200 at Conference; Oakey 7th in the 100 and 5th in the 200.   


And speaking of challenges, probably the biggest adjustment for me this year has been having less time to focus on my own physical well-being, and, relatedly, a loss in the time I have to develop relationships with the athletes I coach.  For the past decade as a distance coach, I’ve run virtually every workout with the team.  Up until my daughter was born (on November 19, 2015) I’d not run less than 50 miles per week in almost four years.  By running with the distance guys on a nearly daily basis most days of the year, I got to know them very well: what makes them tick, their hopes and dreams as well as greatest fears, their personality quirks and outside interests.  You can find out a lot about someone by running alongside them for 90 minutes every Monday all summer and Fall.  Less so when they are running flys.  I tried to make sprint practices short but efficient, and thus simply had less face to face time with the athletes in that group than I do with my distance runners.  There were some opportunities to learn about their lives through informal conversations on meet days or on bus rides, but figuring out ways to develop a genuine bond will take time and creativity.  It is what I felt I had to sacrifice the most this season as I moved to coaching sprinters and also took on the many administrative responsibilities of head coach (organizing home meets, keeping track of attendance and uniforms, managing the budget, establishing and revising lineups, submitting entries, planning the team banquet, etc.)


It was also always an advantage to ask an athlete to do something that they knew you would be doing as well.  I ran 25*400 with the guys, and so when I asked the distance runners to dig deep within themselves to find the reserves to get through a tough workout, they’d respect me for doing the same myself.  I spoke their language.  With our sprinters, though, I have the challenge of bridging cultures: I am 5’7” and 120 pounds and could probably be picked up and thrown by Drew Christensen and Phil Barrett, our top discuss throwers.  I never played organized football growing up.  I don’t know Xs and Os.  My authority this year came largely due to the fact that the football players knew Coach Hartman approved of my leadership.  Trying to earn their respect on my own has not been easy.  It’s the difference between coaching a sport you played yourself versus coaching a sport you haven’t.  I can explain the theory and can administer workouts, but I don’t know the gut level feeling of what a good block start feels like, or a clean exchange. I imagine this is what many coaches struggle with – projecting confidence in an area where you know you are still a relative novice.  It’s a little like travelling in a non-English speaking foreign country.  You do the best you can, try really hard to fit in, smile and nod a lot, but deep down feel pretty self-conscious and insecure.  Feeling adequate will take a lot more time and hard work.

Year one as a head coach has been hard, as I expected it would be.  Indoors, I spent mornings before school working with the sprinters and afternoons running the workout outside in the Midwestern wintry conditions with the distance guys, taught as best I could during the day, and tried to be a supportive husband and father at night.  And Track is a very long season, so this was difficult to sustain.  By outdoors, the weather improved (somewhat) but the intensity did not abate.  Between May 4th and May 15th we competed in 5 meets (three of which we hosted), had the conference seed meeting and held our team banquet.  I owe thanks to my own cross country and track coaches for instilling me with the fortitude to manage such challenges.  Those 11 days were craziest of the season, but offered plenty of excitement which helped sustain me through, from freshmen Matt Kusak, Keegan Caveney, and Alec Hill all running 10:22 at the LT/York tri on May 4th to Jared Neumann earning the 110 Hurdle Conference title at DGN on the 13th.  One great thing about being head coach is it makes every moment of every meet meaningful, as there is always an HC athlete competing.  I not only have a newfound appreciate for sprinting, but for throwing, jumping, and hurdling as well.


Senior team MVP Jared Neumann seals victory in the Conference 110 High Hurdles

In conclusion, the year has forced me far outside my comfort zone, but that, of course, is where the most growth occurs (it’s what we’re constantly preaching to the athletes we coach).  Hinsdale Central boy’s Track has no significant legacy to speak of: one outdoor conference title (in 2004) since World War II, no state trophies, only a handful of all-state athletes over the past decades and no all-state relays yet.  There is tremendous room for growth, and I think I know the path to get there.  But knowing and executing are two very different things and in this sport you are never far away from a clipped hurdle, a step one inch beyond the line, a baton just out of grasp.  Therein lies the challenge, therein the elusive reward.


Mid-season reflections

Let me begin by offering an obvious but important personal statement: my life today is completely unrecognizable from what it was half a year ago.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  It’s a false equivalency to suggest that becoming a parent is like becoming a head Coach, but it’s fair to say that both require tremendous amounts of on-the-job learning, both can bring extreme physical exhaustion but also genuine fulfillment and sense of purpose.


I last posted a blog on January 3rd, one day before returning to Hinsdale Central for the beginning of second semester.  The absence of text here should give some indication of how busy the intervening months have been.  Yesterday was the first Monday I’ve had of 2016 where I was not struggling to keep my eyes open as the clock ticked past 9:00 p.m., mind full to bursting with the list of tasks awaiting for the morrow.  The first day of the week had heretofore started with a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call followed by morning  sprint practice at 5:45, intensely focused class and track prep work from 7:00-8:45, a full day of teaching, afternoon distance practice from 3:15-5:45, then a short and happily tired car ride home for my first chance of the day to see my wife and daughter awake.  Then dinner, usually one parent eating while the other attends to Clio, then switching roles (gone are the days of the long, relaxed meal).  By the time the dishes are loaded, floor swept, coffee made, and tomorrow’s lunch prepared we’d have perhaps an hour together before trying to go to bed, though we’d been stripped of the illusion of control we once thought we exercised over when that precise moment would be.


All athletes I coach have busy lives, their parents even more so.  I can look back to previous times in my life when I thought I was maxed out, only to realize that what I was doing then seems eminently manageable by my current standards.  I have a newfound admiration for parents with multiple children, and for single parents taking on the daunting task of providing for their children alone.  In this respect, it is a true privilege to be a coach; I am fortunate enough to have the time, even with an infant, to devote to a vocation I love.  With due respect to the administrator who told me, ‘of course, you are a teacher first and a coach second’ I don’t see those roles as distinct.  In fact, I can now confidently add parent into that identity mix – as all three titles: teacher/coach/parent have the same objective: to assist the growth and development of the young.


And no matter one’s mastery over content, the truest challenge for a teacher/coach/parent is to motivate the young, to light the flame of passion (to borrow a phase) which will help the pupil become self-directed.  And in this respect, I think our track team has made tremendous progress so far, though it may not be fully reflected yet on the results page.


If there is one accomplishment I am most proud of so far after the end of our indoor season, it is the new sense of shared mission we now have.  I have witnessed the slow process of our very large team beginning to coalesce around the idea that we are capable of contending for the top spots in the meets we participate in.  Of all the changes we made from last year, perhaps the single most significant was the institution of weekly team meetings.  We now meet every Tuesday in the Dance Studio, all 165 team members crammed together in a narrow rectangular room with wood floors and mirrored walls (magnifying our size to infinite proportions).  In this intimate space, we convene weekly to cover administrative issues such as uniform distribution or practice times but more importantly to publicly give recognition to those who earned it in the previous week’s meet and to inspire each other on to even greater achievements.  It has become a weekly ritual that we collectively value.


During these Tuesday meetings, we do our ‘shout outs’ to the athletes who shined most brightly in the week before.  This is often an athlete who scored high in their event, though sometimes it is an athlete who saw a massive improvement in their performance even if they did not place in the meet.


One of the challenges of writing about a team as large as ours is that all 165 individual athletes deserve recognition, but that is not a feasible task for a single blog post.  Instead, as a way to tell the story of our season so far, I offer a week-to-week accounting of our ‘shout outs,’ as this will offer some indication of the diversity and depth of our team (text taken verbatim from the weekly powerpoints I composed):


Week Four: Little Four Invite

Matt Cangelosi – 1st place, 400 with only one week of training; Won the frosh/soph level as a freshman in his first ever high school track race


Justin Taylor – 2nd place, Frosh/Soph High Jump; Jumped 5’4” in his first ever high school track meet; This mark would have placed him 4th in WSC Indoors last year, 3rd in 2014…and he has only been jumping for three week


Joey DiJohn-3rd in 200 (26.9); 4th in Long Jump (16’4”); Only a freshmen


Nick Biancalana-3rd in Pole Vault (6’6”); Has only been vaulting for 3 weeks; First time competing in a high school track meet


Kaidi Hu-3rd in Frosh/Soph 400 (62.5); 1st time ever running the event in an open race; Rolling 40 time indicated he might have some ability in this event


Colin Jay-Surprise winner of Varsity 400 (57.3); Also looked good in 55LH


Varsity 4*400 of Bobak, Muhammad, Carta, Hillock-Beat a DGN team that set a school record


Week Five: Proviso Quad

Owen Joyce-Wins Soph level of the Shot Put as a freshman; First time ever competing in a meet


Alec Hill-Wins Frosh/Soph 3200 by 47 seconds!  Sets a PR by 34 seconds! Had a stress fracture that prevented him from competing in Cross Country, but is now fully healthy; Going to be a huge contributor to this team


Liam Burke-3rd place in Frosh/Soph High Jump; PR of 5’2”; Only a freshmen; Ran a great 200 – almost 3 seconds faster than his time from the Little Four


Nicky Midlash-4th place in 3200; Ran a PR by 26 seconds! Also ran a PR in the 400; Missed all of his sophomore Track season due to surgery


Ben Hall-5th place in Varsity High Jump; PR of 5’8”; Missed all of Junior Year due to injury; Second PR in two weeks


Matt Ostrowski, David Vachlon, Alex Smirnov-Finished 4th, 5th, and 6th in Frosh/Soph 600; All are new to Track; Ostrowski also finished 5th in the Frosh/Soph High Jump


Week Six: Proviso West Invitational

Kareem Muhammad-4th in 55 (6.51), 4th in 200 (23.07), 6th in Triple Jump (43’4”); Ran lead leg of 6th place 4*200 (22.6 split); Earned 19 points for the team – this is more than 7 teams scored TOTAL


Sean O’Connell, Steven Zaher, Alec Hill, Neil Cumberland-Won the F/S 4*800 against several of the best distance teams in state; Less than 1 second off 24-year old school record


Cullen Fitzgerald-Wins the Soph High Jump at hugely competitive meet; Sets a PR of 6’0”; Closing in on school record (6’2”) for sophs


Phil Barrett-Sets PR by over 2 feet!  Breaks 40’ Barrier for first time; Senior leader in the throws group


Week Seven: HC Invite

Luke Skokna and Ethan Ruth-Both broke school records; Ethan’s time in 55HH (7.8) smashes the freshman indoor record and breaks the soph record; Luke’s time in the 55 breaks the frosh record; His time in the 200 was very close to breaking school record 24.7 handtime=24.96.  School record is 24.73 FAT; This was Luke’s first high school track meet


Darnell Nicholson-2nd in high jump (5’4”); Only a freshmen; 1st ever high school track meet


Brandon Belgrad and Keegan Caveney-Newest members of ‘sub 5’ club; Both ahead of the pace of their older brothers(Jacob ran 5:06 at this meet freshman year, while Brandon ran 4:53;  Keegan broke 5 in his third ever track meet – TJ, who went on to be all-state, did not break 5:00 until Sophomore year)


Jeff Dang-Finishes 2nd in Shot Put (42’3”); 3 foot PR


Long Jumpers-Every Long Jumper had a PR; Robert Banda was 2 inches from tying the freshman indoor record; Varsity goes 3-4-5, Frosh/Soph go 1-4-5-6


Frosh/Soph Team-Scored in every single event; This is the first time this season we have done that at any meet on any level; Scored over twice as many points as the second place team (195 to 87)


Week Eight: Hinsdale South and Batavia Meets

Wilson Cook – 20 second PR in the 1600


Charlie Lyne -Fastest 55, 4 lap relay split, and 200 of anyone on the team (except Zajeski & Johnson)


Chris Koldras, Donald Brorson, Ian Stevenson, Joe Glasby, Andrew Tobia – All ran PRs despite less than ideal track conditions


From Batavia – Huge 3200 PRs for Kusak, Miscimarra, and Cumberland; Huge 800 PRs for Naess, Coan, Guth, and Schiavitti; Huge 1600 PRs for Hopkins, Frank, and Zaher


Week Nine: Indoor Conference Championships

Varsity-Kareem -> 26 points, Jared Neumann -> 20 points, Blake Evertsen -> 14 points


Sophomore-Ethan Ruth -> 22 points; Robert Banda -> Breaks frosh record in the Triple Jump.  Previous record set in 1989; O’Connell/Zaher -> 17 combined points in the toughest double in Track and Field


JV and Freshmen – Charlie Lyne – wins 55 and 200; Colin Chval – wins 55 LH and 55 HH; MD3 Group – 15 of 15 guys ran PRs!



In reviewing the ‘shout out’ list, I see already the inherent limitation in the endeavor: it simply cannot do justice to all the individual highlights we’ve experienced already.  No mention got made of Garrett Oakey, a Sophomore who was moved up to Varsity for football this Fall and who has already made an impact after making a difficult but admirable decision to commit to the Track Team, qualifying for finals in both the 55 and 200 at Indoor Conference.  Chris Brenk, already an established Cross Country talent, is in the midst of a dramatic comeback from surgery that sidelined him over winter break.  Nathan Hill is emerging as one of the premier mid-distance runners in the state, running within .5 seconds of our school indoor record.  Jack Borys, an unheralded Sophomore, broke through at JV Conference shaving his 1600 PR by 25 seconds in a single race en route to a 5:07, making the 5:00 barrier his logical new goal.  Guys brand new to the sport are now point scorers at the conference level: Bernard Wong in the Long Jump, Sam Schiavitti in the 600, Jack Chen in the Triple Jump, Max Kuropas in the 4*200.


The single analytic that best tells the story of our progress so far is one I have previously shared on twitter and in our weekly team meeting: of all teams in the West-Suburban Silver division, none improved as much in a single year as us.

Most Improved – 2015 Indoor Conference to 2016 Indoor Conference


TEAM 2015 Results 2016 Results Point differential
  SOPH Varsity Combined SOPH Varsity Combined  
Hinsdale Cent. 28 60 88 78.33 77.5 155.83 +67.83
Proviso West 6 58 64 63 60 123 +59
OPRF 98 116 214 148.5 118 266.5 +52.5
Glenbard West 38 54 92 73.83 60.5 134.33 +42.33
LT 110 82 192 79 81 160 -32
DGN 137 41 178 36 80 116 -62
York 110 115 225 45.33 50 95.33 -129.67


We are at the midpoint of a season that I know I will always distinctly remember, with a very specific team goal known to all members of the team and coaching staff.  It is a goal that will not at all be easy to accomplish, but one whose pursuit will bring enough sense of pride and purpose to offset the vast amounts of physical and mental exhaustion yet to come.