Full credit to Sandburg. At the Sectional meet this morning, they brought their ‘A’ game and served notice that they will be the team to beat next week in Peoria. Message received. All year, we have carried the weight of being ranked 1st in state. We humbly relinquish that burden to the Eagles of Orland Park.
Our stated goal for Sectionals was to finish in the top 5. This was not in jest. We knew the competition at Midlothian Meadows would be intense, with the states’ top 4 ranked teams set to compete. We knew, also, that we would not be at 100%. For precautionary purposes, we made the decision to keep Matt McBrien out of our lineup. Matt’s been a true leader of this team. He’s put in incredible training: between mid-June and the end of September he never ran less than 55 miles a week. He established himself early on as one of our best runners, finishing 5th at the Hornet-Red Devil Invitational before running 14:52 at Detweiller a week later. Most recently, he finished 6th at an incredibly competitive conference race, within 10 seconds of runner up Charlie Kern Jr. This is all to say that we felt his absence keenly – it was not only the low points we missed from him, but an intangible sort of spirit he emanates. Our competing racers did what they needed to, but it is clear we did not have the burning mixture of urgency and desire that we’ve exhibited on other occasions.
Though we tried to convince ourselves that we were ready to bring our best to the Sectional meet, it was evident by 800 meters into the race that it would not be our day. Of our top 7, only Blake Evertsen positioned himself well early. Chris Brenk, I learned later, was tripped when rounding the first curve, a mere 200 meters into the race. He quickly picked himself up, tucked in with Josh and Alex, but his composure had been shaken. At just short of the mile marker, I watched a mass of blue flank Blake, while the rest of our team remained behind, never once responding to Sandburg’s early and audacious move. Very quickly I realized that, at least for today, we’d be racing for second.
At 3200, even second place seemed doubtful. While Blake remained strong and Feldman appeared to be moving up, our remaining runners seemed to be laboring. I noticed that DGN was running well, as their third man, Zac Christensen, was with our second. I exhorted Chris and Alex to work back towards Josh, and, a few seconds later, barked the same orders to Griffin, Nathan, and Ethan.
Given the layout of the Midlothian Meadows course, I only had one more opportunity to see our athletes pass by. I will say that we finished well. Griffin Gartner kicked down two athletes from Neuqua Valley in the final 200 meters, which proved essential, as we ended ahead of the Wildcats by only 2 points. Ethan Planson reminded us of his runner-up finish in the 800 at Sophomore conference last track season by sprinting past nearly a dozen runners in the final straightaway. It was over in a flash, and without seeing any score sheets, we could tell a few things right away: Sandburg smoked us; we’d run well enough to qualify for state. Later, we found out we’d managed to defeat a very tough Neuqua Valley team. This provided some solace. Despite both Chris and Nathan falling during the race, subpar performances from several of our team members, and the absence of our leader, we’d finished runner-up in the state’s toughest Sectional.
In Cross Country, each week is different. Strange things happen in the state series. Today, our respected neighborhood rivals Lyons Township survived a scare: their top guy, Alex Lima, lost his spike early in the race. He finished the race, but was the 7th man and did not factor in the scoring. LT made it through. They may finish higher in state than they did in Sectionals.
Over in Niles, the Dukes of York tied for 5th place. Had one of their athletes ran a single second slower, they’d have not earned an invitation to state for the first time in a half century. What a different experience Peoria would have been without them. Instead though, they will join us, LT, DGN, and Glenbard West (along with Irwin Loud of OPRF) in representing the West-Suburban Silver Division next week. I expect all these teams will respond well.
We now know what we will need to do at state: we will need to run better than we did today, yet not any better than what we know we are capable of. Our goal from the beginning has been simply to be a better team in 2014 than we were in 2013. During most benchmarks along the way, we have been. We were not today. But understand this: Matt will be back. We will head to Peoria with our team back in tact. We will run with the attitude that we have nothing to lose. I will not pretend this year’s journey has been easy: last year was fun, this year is work. Yet for that reason, what we accomplish next week will feel even more well-earned.
It is worth reflecting on how far this team has come in two years. In 2012, we also ran Sectionals at Midlothian Meadows. At the conclusion of that race, we feared we might have just missed qualifying for state, which would have been felt as a devastating blow. We ended up 5th, 12 points ahead of the 6th place team, and bounced back a week later with a 12th place finish at state, at that point the best our program had accomplished since 1998. Had a future version of myself sprinted out of a time vortex situated in the Detweiller Park backwoods circa early November 2012 to tell my present self what the next two years would have in store for our team, I’d of cried tears of joy right there.
On that 2012 team, Billy Magnesen had been our top athlete, finishing 32nd overall. Billy was in attendance today, looking sharp in his U of I jacket, to cheer us on. So, too, was Jack Feldman, our top athlete from 2011. Billy Fayette, our top athlete from 2010 had texted me earlier in the day to wish us luck. We are so grateful for the support shown by Mags and Jack and Billy, by all our current athletes who came to cheer for the top 7 today, and by our parents and relatives of both current and former athletes.
So to our HCXC family, we need your help. As has been our tradition the past few years, we want to send our boys off with final words of advice and encouragement. Please consider composing a message addressed to the men of HCXC (if you’d like to see some examples, see last year’s messages here: https://sites.google.com/site/hctrackxc/the-final-sendoff). Email your message to me at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than Thursday, November 6th. I will collect all the messages together and put them in a packet for our top 12 athletes to read on the bus ride down to Peoria. I firmly believe that this ritual has had an extremely positive impact the past few years, reminding the boys how much we care about them and how proud we are.
And on we go to State!