2015 distance/mid-distance preview

Forecasting is an imperfect science.  The weathermen are calling for a foot of snow tonight.  Warnings of a dire blizzard which was to have pummeled New York City earlier this week proved to be vastly overstated.  I hope the blankets of white expected to descend upon us tonight prove equally illusory.  I’ve a run planned with some coaching friends tomorrow morning, and I’ll be bummed if we have to take a ‘snow check.’  And though Coach Westphal and I have already finalized a contingency plan for if we are unable to utilize the outdoor track for Monday’s planned intervals (a return to the sparsely trafficked streets south of 63rd street, near the Feldman and Planson homes), it would assuredly not be our preference.

Like most track coaches, I check the weather reports compulsively, ever attuned to how the conditions might impact the planned training session for the day.  I have some understanding of how these forecasts are developed: data is collected, computer modeling takes place, extrapolations are made.  Our alumni will remember well that I have a fondness for extrapolation.  I’d like to think I have developed some talent in predicting which athletes on our team will emerge onto the scene in a given season.  My process is to consider previous training, sources of motivation, and work ethic, and then to consider where the athletes times match up to previous runners from our program.  Sometimes, it is quite easy to identify who is ready for a breakthrough.  For example, I wrote in last year’s season preview Most consistent of all has been Josh Feldman, who has strung together 7 weeks of 50+ miles and who has not missed a single day of running since the first day of the “Deep Freeze Club” started on the Monday after Thanksgiving.  Josh was our 9th man in Cross Country but likely would have been in the top 7 had he been on ANY other team in state.  Having gotten a taste of victory as a state meet alternate, he is highly motivated to return to Peoria next fall as an active participant, and has certainly shown the work ethic necessary to make that dream a reality.”  When Josh fulfilled his dream this past November of achieving all-state honors, many people were surprised, but I was not.  The evidence had been there all along.

At other times, though (and these are often the most gratifying moments), one of our athletes turns in a performance that completely takes me by surprise (I think of Matt Tobia, as a sophomore, unleashing a ferocious kick to pull an upset victory in the Proviso West Invitational 1600).  Such was my reaction when Michael Gates emerged the victor of our season-opening 3200 time trial last weekend.  Had I been given ten chances to predict the winner of that race, I’d not once have chosen Michael.  I feel sheepish having underestimated him, but thrilled at the same time.  His early success is one of the storylines of winter conditioning thus far.  Michael has endured more than his fair share of ups and downs through his first two and a half years of high school athletics, suffering through a stress fracture, enduring surgeries on his feet, battling to get healthy enough to join his teammates.  What I saw in the final 200 was this much-beleaguered athlete opening up his stride and charging confidently past Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk, two all-state athletes.  Minutes later he’d returned to his usual self-effacing persona, but not before he’d let his guard down enough to accept the sincere congratulations of his friends.

CHANGE IS NOT PERMAMENT, BUT CHANGE IS

What can we expect of HC Distance in 2015?  I cannot say where we will end up or even how we will get there, but I can say where we hope to be.  On a macro level, we have several concrete team goals.  As ever, we hope to have 100% of our athlete run personal bests in the three major distance events: 800, 1600, 3200.  Michal is already 1/3 of the way there.  So, too, is freshman Sean O’Connell, the only other athlete to run an outright personal best in our time trial.  Sean’s time of 11:02 is markedly better than any freshman from the 2012 and 2013 teams ran (the previous best was held by Tyshaun Hamilton, who ran 11:38 in 2013.  We did not do a 3200 time trial in 2014), and he was not even the fastest freshman of the day, that honor falling to Neil Cumberland who crossed the line four seconds ahead.  These two freshmen have both put in an excellent winter of training (as have many others: Steven Zaher, Colin Yandel, Liam Bots, Jack Borys, Ethan Mortenson).  Past seasons suggest that the freshman will make a big jump from cross country to track, so I am eager to see what these young men will do this spring.

Another major team goal is to break our school record of 35 athletes running sub 5:00 in a single season.  As an additional motivator, we have challenged cross-town rival Lyons Township to a friendly competition to see which squad can produce the most sub-5 runners.  Last year, an impressive 41 LT runners hit the mark, so we will have our work cut out trying to equal them.  We have 25 athletes on our roster who have already run this fast at one point in their careers (though for purposes of our competition, each athlete must break the mark this season).  It will be fun to see who on the team that has not yet broken the 5:00 barrier will do so first.  Likely candidates include sophomore John Bynan (lifetime PR of 5:02), junior Jacob Chin (running track for the first time after making the conversion from Volleyball), Emmett Grundberg (another track rookie, with a 5:09 PR), Joe Miscimara (a 5:07 runner with a stack of consistent mileage weeks under his belt), Jeff Hopkins (a senior who has matured into a tough runner with some good zip in his stride to boot), Zach Sayre (yet another track newbie who proved himself a successful XC runner in his rookie campaign), and the aforementioned Cumberlad, O’Connell, and Zaher.

A few athletes I will particularly be rooting for in their quest for this mark are Brendan Krupp, Garrett Schmidt, and Sunil Dommaraju.  Brendan ran 5:13 last season so should have a very good shot.  As of late, Brendan has been wearing light blue tights to practice, making him bear a slight resemblance to Superman (sans red cape, of course).  Additionally, he showed up in Josh Feldman’s dream, wherein he took the championship in the JV 30 meter dash, held as an event at the Illinois state track meet.  I will take both these facts as good omens.

Garrett Schmidt has already broken 5:00 (he achieved the mark as a Sophomore).  However, for him to do so again will require the hardest athletic battle he has yet fought.  As readers of this blog know, Garrett suffered from a particularly serious case of pneumonia this summer, fluid filling up 80% of one of his lungs.  It took him the entire cross country season before he could once again finish a race.  Over the winter, he managed to run his first six mile run since before his illness.  He has been getting a little better each day, but still has a long road ahead.  Garrett is a gutsy competitor and committed to his teammates, so I know he will do everything in his power to be counted among 2015’s sub-5 guys.  When he hits the mark, it will be a thrill for all of us.

Then there is Sunil.  Last year, of 43 guys on our team, he had the 43rd best 1600 time….but it was a pretty darn good time of 5:34, and world’s better than the 6:44 he ran as a freshman.  Sunil is one of our most dedicated athletes, and I have seen him make slow and steady improvement with each passing season.  We set out a goal of him breaking 5:00 at the conclusion of last track season, and I think he is capable of it, though it will not be easy.  As a test of his progress, I made him run an all-out 400 this week, after every other athlete had returned to the fitness center for general strength exercises and it was just he and I alone on a partially snow-covered Dickinson field.  Winds blew south to north, pushing him forward on the first half of his circuit (he crossed the first 200 in a speedy 32) but blasting in his face on the final straightaway.  I clocked him at 73.2.  We left that track knowing he’ll have that in his arsenal if he can get through the first 1200 of a 1600 race near 3:45.  If Sunil breaks 5:00, well, it will feel like winning state again.

Other team goals: 10 sub 10 in the 3200, and 20 sub 10:30; have 30 guys break 2:15; qualify a 4*800 to state finals and earn coveted all-state honors by finishing in the top 9.  We’ve now qualified to state in the 4*800 for four years in a row, one of only 7 teams in the state to do so (the others are Prospect, Sandburg, Lane Tech, Crystal Lake-South, New Trier, and Neuqua Valley), yet we’ve only made finals once, and never yet earned all-state.  There is a coterie of athletes on our team who could help us get over the hump.  The one returning athlete from last year’s state squad is Nathan Hill.  Nathan had a very productive winter, but suffered a setback recently after sustaining an injury that occurred in his PE class; we are waiting to hear from the doctors on how long he will need to be out, but optimistic that we will have plenty of time for him to return to shape before the championship phase of our season begins in May.  Griffin Gartner is also in that boat: he has been fighting an ankle injury, but should be back to full strength soon, and could be a major contributor for our middle distance crew.  Before Griffin made a splash this fall with our XC team, he was better known as a solid middle distance athlete.  As well as he ran in this fall (earning ‘5th man of the year’ award from dyestat) I still believe his best event will be the 800.  We’ll be in good shape if that proves true.

Blake Evertsen proved to be one of the best cross country athletes in the state this fall, and we believe that having him train with the middle distance group will help him improve his foot speed and help him develop a nasty kick to throw into his tool kit (alongside his already impressive stamina).  Blake loves competition, so the tactical and exciting nature of the 4*800 should serve him well.

Others we are looking to contribute to our 4*800 include Matt McBrien (getting stronger every day after a tough stress fracture he sustained in cross country), Matt Tobia (one of the team’s strongest milers who seems to be a natural track guy), Jacob Belgrad and Ethan Planson (two of our top sophomores from cross country), and Max Maydanchik (who ran 2:04 last season and is a year stronger).  Of course, this list is far from finite (no would have predicted Dylan Palo would eventually run the 4*800 his senior year, to cite just one example) and no spots on the relay are secured.  Whoever does earn the right to represent our team in this event will face mighty challenges from within our conference, as three of the top ten teams from last year are WSC rivals: DGN, Glenbard West, and Lyons Township.  We wouldn’t have it any other way: iron sharpens iron, as they say.

2015’s UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

-What will a healthy Yuji Cusick be able to accomplish, given all the repressed competitive juices he’s stored over cross country season?

-In the even matchup between Ben Schnieders and John Bynan, who will end the season with faster PRs?  And how will these two sophomores matchup against their WSC rivals?

-Which Zaher: freshman Steven, or state champion Anne, will end the year with faster 800, 1600, and 3200 PRs?  Few runners on the entire team had as productive an off-season as Steven did.  How will that pay off for him?

-Will Joey Griffin take the title for all-time fastest Griffin?  He’ll need to improve his 3200 PR from 10:34 to 10:15 and his 1600 from 4:56 to 4:40.  Jack Griffin, down in Champaign-Urbana, waits and watches with bated breath.

-Can the freshman tie or break the record for most sub-5 9th graders?  O’Connell and Cumberland seem likely candidates, with Zaher and Yandel not far behind.  But can Kiril Kuzmanovski or Luca Karginov add to the total?  What of Liam Bots or Jack Borys?  Nathan Saltzman?  Brand new runner Kaidi Hu?

-Can the Sophomores break the school 4*800 record?  With Blake, Ethan, and Jacob, they have a solid start.  Ryan Doorhy had a solid XC season – can he match it with quick foot speed?  Could someone like Sam Fahtizadeh or Andrew Denos drop a 2:05-2:08 to give the team a chance?  Perhaps a healthy Jack Kanzler?

-Who will earn the 3200 spots for Conference and Sectionals.  With Josh Feldman, Alex Domiano, and Chris Brenk (among others) all capable of running under 9:15, we’ll have great competition within the team for invitational spots.  This is a good problem to have, and will only make us stronger.

-The LT/HC sub 5 challenge will all come down to one night: the 2nd annual JV distance ‘under the lights’ meet scheduled this year for May 13th.  Who will be this year’s version of Stefan Rosas and be the hero of the evening?

-Will Nick ever forgive Colin for pouring wax into his beach shoes?  It’s getting hard to handle the Tandle Yandel Candle Sandal scandal.

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