October 24, 2014-Regional Recap

 

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Yesterday we had a team meeting to discuss our approach to today’s Regional competition.  As is our custom, we handed to each team member a ‘prep sheet’ that included information on the day’s schedule, our goals, our strategy, reminders on meet preparation, and closing thoughts.  Towards the bottom, we’d written: “the best teams are those which find a way to overcome unexpected obstacles.”  It proved a prescient – and accurate – statement, as the boys weathered challenges both expected and unanticipated en route to winning their third Regional title of the past four years.

The Regional meet generally functions as a funnel, whittling down the all the state’s teams into 5 Sectionals composed of 18 teams each.  At our Regional, 9 teams were competing for 6 advancing spots to the Marist Sectional.  We are fortunate to have a deep team, and expected to qualify easily; we thus determined to use the opportunity to provide Chris Brenk and Matt McBrien additional time to recover from mild aches they’d been experiencing after a bruising conference race.  In their stead, we pulled up Ethan Planson and Jacob Belgrad from the Sophomore level to see how they’d fare at the significantly more competitive varsity level.  We’d approach the starting line without two of our top three, but with the belief we could emerge victorious if everyone ran solidly.

The race started similarly to last week, with DGN’s lanky Ryan Clevenger, one of the state’s elite, bursting forth into the lead.  Blake Evertsen, under instructions to race aggressively, pulled in tow, but it was evident early on that he’d need to settle into his own pace rather than trying to match Clevenger stride for stride.

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After Blake came the pack of Josh, Alex, Griffin, and Nathan.  They were in a larger mix featuring athletes from Downers North and South as well as Morton and Lyons Township.  It was only at this point of the race that I learned LT, too, had withheld some of their best runners.  Perhaps our path to victory might be smoother than we’d anticipated.

That thought was dismantled rather rapidly near the final creek jump, as I watched a gap open between Josh and Alex, who were towards the front, and Nathan and Griffin, who’d settled in with a small pack somewhere between 12th-15th.  I yelled at the two to use the downhill portion of the course to close in on a Downers South runner about ten yards ahead.  They seemed about to respond when, suddenly, Nathan crumpled to the ground, literally three feet from where I was urging him on.  In full panic – and misreading the situation – I screamed at him to get back up.  It took a few moments to realize the fall was not just an inelegant trip from which one quickly gets up, brushes their knees, and gets back to what they were doing, but a collapse precipitated (I later learned) from banging his foot against a poll that he’d been pushed into (unintentionally) by a competitor.  As Nathan groaned in agony at my feet, the excitement of the race drained out of me and I figured at that point our hopes of winning had evaporated.

Tim McDonald, the head coach of the Downers Grove North girls (and a colleague I respect greatly) happened to be nearby, and he told me to go watch the end of the race – he’d stay with Nathan until the trainer arrived.  I did as instructed, sprinting towards the course’s concluding small loop and trying to figure out calculations in my head – I’d thought it’d been a close three-way race between us, DGN, and LT before Hill went down.  Was there any way we could battle back?

The best teams find a way to overcome obstacles.  We’ve emphasized this point often this season.  Every time one guy has gone down, another has stepped up.  Griffin Gartner came out of nowhere to be a solid 5-6-7 guy for us.  John Bynan stormed back from injury to seal a victory for us at the Sophomore level last week.  When Blake has been down, Chris Brenk has been up.  When Chris has struggled, Matt McBrien has filled the void.  Josh Feldman has been a rock.  Today, it was Alex Domiano and Ethan Planson who rose to the occasion when we needed it most.  Alex had a breakthrough race, finishing 6th overall and within 15 seconds of Blake.  Here is a guy who’d been consigned to the dungeon of cross training for weeks in August and September, who’d had to miss the first two major meets of the season, who’d been left out of every mention of the team made on dyestat and milesplit.  All he’d been doing during that time period was quietly and methodically working his way back.  He is emerging on to the scene at the best possible time, and will only get faster in the season’s two remaining weeks.

As for Planson, he must have passed ten athletes in the final mile of his race.  He is the epitome of a race-saavy runner –he continues to be unfazed by big meet situations, and responded to his varsity race with the same poise and demeanor he has approached any other race.  He finished 17th today, just ahead of DGN’s fourth runner Jack Diamond.  In doing so, he not only helped secure a victory for our team but earned himself 5 points of extra credit in East Asian Studies class (I offered extra credit to all his classmates to attend the meet, but told him that, in his case, just being there was not sufficient – he’d need to finish top 20).

As I watched Planson cross the line, hopefulness returned.  It looked like we might have escaped with the win on our home course.  The feeling was a subdued one, but mixed with relief and purpose.  I was able to follow up with Nathan, as he lay on the trainers’ table, ice wrapped around his foot – and I apologize for not realizing what had led to his dropping out of the race.  I watched him walk back to the team area under his own power, not favoring the wounded ankle too much.  His teammates were already assembled in the team area and welcomed him back, patting him on the back and telling him not to worry and to put the race behind him, before heading off together on a cool down.

In the meantime, I had my first chance to chat with some of the many parents, fans, and alumni who’d come to cheer the team on at our beautiful home course.  About 50 students from Hinsdale Central who’d never attended a cross country meet before came out to support us, an effort spirited by the ‘Red Devil Nation’ group at our school.  It was fun, I am sure, for our guys to run in front of their friends and classmates.  The football team, too, fresh off a season ending victory over DGN came out to show their support.  I also got to see former HCXC star Doug Moore and his father Scott, and reminisced with them about the last time we’d hosted a regional meet at KLM – it was Doug’s senior year and we finished 2nd to Downers North, an achievement which, at that time, we’d not equaled since 1998.

I spoke briefly with Zach Wilder, back for a short visit from Penn State, where he is a freshman – and received congratulatory handshakes from the Scullys.  I smiled widely as I watched many of the freshman on our team horse around with each other during the lull between the end of the boys race and the start of the awards ceremony.  Here were Neil Cumberland, Sean O’Donnell, Colin Yandel, Steven Zaher, Nathan Saltzman, Ian Stevenson, and Donald Brorson tossing around footballs and challenging each other to short foot races; a few years hence, it may be them on the starting line, with hundreds of friends and family gathered to cheer them on.  It’s the natural life cycle of cross country – as sure as the leaves fall from the trees each October, so too will the racers race, one group of kids a year older than they were the previous, taking their own shot at a glory unique to our sport, unexplainable to anyone unfamiliar with it.

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