This is how it ends

Roughly 2800 athletes compete at the IHSA boys’ state track meet.  Each one of those young men has envisioned the dream ending to their seasons.  They have coaches who share those dreams.  The cruel logic of track and field dictates that the vast majority of those dreams will not become reality.  Though almost everyone can leave feeling proud to have had the honor of competing at the highest level possible to them at this stage in their lives, most will nonetheless leave with a gnawing sense of what might have been.  A track race seems controlled, but there is an element of randomness and chaos at play.  You can control your own training, but you can’t control the weather conditions or the pace chosen by your competitors.  Some athletes handle heat and humidity better than others; some run better in a race that gets out fast, while others prefer to sit and kick.  Run any race twice, and you are quite unlikely to get the same results.

For coaches with multiple athletes, the odds of leaving fully satisfied are even longer.  A coach may be thrilled about one of their athletes while desperately wishing things had gone better for another.  Consider Oak-Park River Forest, who had much to celebrate after finishing fifth in state this year, yet will leave pondering what might have been.  I saw OPRF’s assistant distance coach Abel Reyes looking devastated after the 4*800 team came achingly close to earning all-state, then saw him ecstatic less than an hour later after his sophomore phenom Irwin Loud ran a massive PR to pull out a surprising silver in the 3200.  That’s track for you: one moment you’re up, the next you’re down.   To have literally all events go as well or better than you planned is a genuine rarity.  This makes it all the more sweet when it does happen – but offers little comfort for the many more times that it does not.

Of course, the shape of each athletes’ dream can vary widely.  For some, it may be to qualify for finals.  For others, it may simply be to finish the season with a personal best.  For those who achieved impressive marks throughout the season, the goal may be to earn all-state.  For a precious and fortunate few, the end goal remains that most elusive of all dreams: a state championship medal.  The best prize of all would be to win state both individually and as part of a team.

Yet, while each individual athlete has their own unique dream, the state track meet is unquestionably a communal experience.  For me, what is most rewarding about coming to Charleston each May is the opportunity to see so many coaches from other teams, to learn about the dream season endings each of their athletes have, to congratulate them and their athletes when those dreams are realized and to offer support and solace when they do not.

Here are a few people I was genuinely happy for:

Coach Jim Dickerson of Hinsdale South and his athletes Charlie Nodus and Roman Drabchuk.  I don’t think anyone would have guessed that Charlie and Roman would both end their season as all-state athletes, but that is indeed what happened.  I ran with Coach Dickerson on Friday morning and he mentioned that Roman’s goal was to break the school record – that he’d be thrilled if Roman ran 4:19.   The lanky junior instead ran a savvy and confident preliminary time of 4:16, then came back a day later and ran even faster to finish 6th in the state.  Charlie (cousin of our very own Nick “Carl” Nodus) made a late surge in the 3200 to nab the final all-state spot and finish 9th.  Dickerson had pretty close to a perfect meet.  The Hornets will no doubt build on that enthusiasm as Charlie and Roman both return next season to lead them on a quest of the 2A state cross country championship.  How great would it be if both Central and South could be up on the podium next fall?

The men of Neuqua Valley.  I don’t know Ty Moss, but man is it fun to watch him run.  Some twitter users I follow refer to him as the “golden child” (not, I’m sure, a name he’d give himself).  Think about this: he won the 800 by .11 seconds – then an hour later brought his 4*400 relay back from 8th place on the anchor leg all the way to 2nd, a slight .13 seconds ahead of Evanston.  If he’d been passed by one person in either race, Neuqua Valley would have finished 4th place and just missed a trophy.  So he is the golden child, but also the silver child – as his happy teammates will all get silver medals to wear an account of his heroics.  Neuqua Valley is a team we have always respected, and let’s not forget that in Cross Country, they fell on the other side of the trophy divide, finishing 4th place by a single point.  That reality no doubt makes their state track trophy all the more meaningful.  Now the only question that remains is whether Moss will participate in the upcoming HC/NV milk mile…

The team that finished just ahead of Neuqua Valley in state cross country was Lyons Township, and their 4*800 team’s performance was another that I was excited to witness.  The LT/HC rivalry is well-documented, but I know the distance teams have a mutual respect for each other.  The Lyons led after the first exchange and had a terrific anchor leg from senior Alex Lima to rally back for second overall.  We saw coach Danner shortly after the race, and he (a man even more stoic than myself) could not help smiling.  Finishing second does not always need to be a case of dismay – in this case, it was a huge accomplishment and I know all the LT runners were proud.  Two of them – Vince Zona and Connor Maddell – will be back in the fall, and they will challenge us to be our very best.

Which brings me to Sandburg.  Over this past year, the Eagles have emerged as our top rival in distance running.  They were an incredibly formidable opponent in Cross Country, and we were extremely humbled to have bested them on the day of state cross country.  I have watched in awe as Coach O’Malley had developed a deep and fast crew of young runners – and, though I do not know him as well as Coach Sipple (his high school teammate) I can appreciate how frustrating it must have been for him and his runners to finish second in the 4*800 last track season and then second again at state cross country, both races which they knew they had a chance to win.  Those guys persevered, and yesterday they got to have their long awaited moment of victory.  Like LT and Neuqua Valley, they will push us next year – we will be a better team knowing the high standards these other teams will set.

Ryan Clevenger and the DGN distance coaches – Ryan answered his doubters by running by far his best race of the season to finish fourth in an incredibly competitive 1600 in 4:11.22.  Coach John Sipple, Jill Blondell, and Eric Buhot always have their athletes ready for state track, and this year proved no different.  Ryan carried on a tradition begun by his older teammates Ben Eaton, Zach Smith, and Tony Zea of rising to the occasion at state track.  I am fortunate to call John a great friend and am always happy when his athletes run well

And a few teams/people I felt for-

-Coach Kurt Frazier and the Glenbard West 4*800 team-GW is a team that has emerged in the distances only in the past few years, starting with the success of Mike Lederhouse, who graduated in 2012 and has since gone on to break 4:00 for the 1600.  GW’s 4*800 finished 10th in state last year with all juniors.  The four runners were on a mission, and at conference on their home track a few weeks ago broke their school record running 7:46.  Unfortunately, times run throughout the season mean nothing when it comes to determining state place.  GW ran solid in prelims, but in finals once again finished in the hard luck place of tenth.  From 2009-2013, the average time for earning all-state was 7:54.56.  Glenbard West in the past two years has run 7:50.83 and 7:52.87 and in both cases just missed all-state.  I know and respect their training and wish their ending result had been better.

-Graham Brown and his Coach, Chris Quick.  I’ve met few runners from other teams as preternaturally mature and charismatic as Graham Brown.  He has probably logged more miles than just about any runner in the state over the past four years and I know Coach Quick would not hesitate to use the word ‘love’ to describe how he feels about his protégé.  I’ve watched Graham race enough to know that he always runs to win.  He is a risk taker.  He has never been one to sit and kick.  The 3200 proved no different – and he, like Blake (as you’ll read) paid for pushing hard early.  He finished out of the medals, farther back then I know he wanted.  He rallied back for the finals of the 1600 and pushed valiantly, but finished 10th, one place away from all-state.  Of the 9 runners ahead of him, only Jessie Reiser was also doubling off the 3200.  Though he won’t have a shiny medal to commemorate the occasion, he ran true to who he is.   I wish him luck as he moves on to Arkansas next year.

As for the Red Devils, the ending is not the one I would have scripted, but it is one I can be at peace with.  Steven Chun was our one real genuine highlight.  The senior pole vaulter matched his PR, clearing 14’3” and finishing 6th place in state.  He may be the first ever Hinsdale Central pole vaulter to earn that honor.  I started my track career at Hinsdale Central coaching that event, so I have some appreciation for how daunting the event is, how much time must be devoted to mastering the technique.  I had nothing to do with Steven’s success (though he did start his career as a cross country runner!) but admired from afar his work ethic and dedication.  His all-state medal was hard earned.

Our 4*200 ran a season best time and finished 19th overall.  Three of the four members return for next season, and I hope that they learned from the experience, were able to study the teams ahead of them, and come back in 2016 motivated to make it to finals – something no sprint relay has yet done for HC in my decade of coaching.

Blake Evertsen had a busy agenda at state: he was to run our leadoff for the 4*800 on Friday (more on that later) and then compete in the fast heat of the 3200 on Saturday.  Our hope for Blake was an all-state finish (top 9) with the ‘dream’ race having him finish among the top 5.  He ran his race like a man attempting to do just that.  From the gun, Blake moved (probably a tad too fast) up to the front, and settled in with a group featuring defending champ Jessie Reiser, conference rival Irwin Loud, and the class AA cross country champion and runner-up, Jake and Luke Hoffert of Yorkville.  The pace was fast, with the leaders coming through the first lap under 62 seconds.  Blake blitzed through the 800 in 2:11.  The pace eased a bit in the third and fourth laps, and Blake fell back with a chase pack that included Neuqua’s Connor Horn , Buffalo Grove’s Kevin Salvano, Grayslake Sophomore Jack Aho, and Naperville North’s Kerry Gershwinder.  In the back half of the race, the humidity began to take its toll on Blake and several others.  He fought on gamely but the fight against physiology is always a losing battle, and the best Blake managed was to hold on for 14th.  He ended about 4 seconds away from all-state, but ran to be among the leaders rather than shooting for 9th.  On this 40th anniversary of the death of Pre, it is worth remembering that America’s most iconic distance runner didn’t have the perfect Olympic ending either –he went for gold and ended 4th.  Blake ran in a similar spirit.

Our 4*800 was technically disqualified due to a lane infraction, but I could not have been prouder of how we ran.  We struggled with this event all season, but we managed to put the best pieces we had in place at the very end, and ran our fastest when it counted the most.  Blake ran a tough leadoff leg where he learned his first lesson on how aggressive state distance relays can be; he fought being boxed and jostled and had to expend energy fighting for positioning – charging hard down the final straightway, he lost some momentum when he had to chop his stride to avoid crossing paths with another runner as he sought to get the baton into the eagerly awaiting hand of Nathan Hill.  Nathan, who was injured much of the season (he ran only one indoor meet and did not run again outdoors until the McCarthy)  ran an outstanding leg, closing the gap on the leaders and closing hard to finish in a PR of 1:57.2.  He got the baton to Max Maydanchik, who ran 1:59.5, a PR by over a second, and kept us in the race.  Griffin Gartner was chosen to be our closer.  He tried valiantly to catch the New Trier runner on the final straightaway, but simply could not quite do it.  New Trier went on to finish seventh in finals.  Had we beaten them, we’d have had the 12th fastest time and would have thought we’d pulled off a shocker and nabbed the last spot to finals.  Then we would have learned of our disqualification, and ‘crestfallen’ would not begin to describe how we’d have felt.  Ironically, the DQ stung less knowing we’d just missed finals.  So, instead, we can feel satisfied that we showed we belonged down state despite our 8:05 sectional time.  This foursome ran our best time of the season by two seconds, and finished with the 8th fastest 3200 relay time in the Westphal/Lawrence era.  Truly, we came a LONG way from the days before Conference, when I doubted we’d even qualify.

And consider the trajectories of the two seniors on that relay: As a Sophomore, Max’s best 800 was 2:12.9.  Junior year, he lowered it to 2:04.7.  He ends with a 1:59.5.  I’d be curious to know how many other guys in the 3200 relay never broke 2:12 as Sophomores.  I can’t imagine it would be that many.  Max got to where he was through my two favorite words: grit and tenacity.  What a great example of patience and hard work he has set for our younger athletes.

As for Griffin, his improvements over the past two years are well known to regular readers of this blog.  As a sophomore, he trained solely with sprinters.  I recall him running 2:06 and finishing second in conference that year.  He joined our distance group as a junior and dropped his time to 2:02.  This year is when he really broke out – we almost certainly would not have won a state title in Cross Country without his emergence as a distance standout.  He had a rocky indoor track season with lots of 2:05s but started to get back into shape by outdoors, and helped us rally back to form in conference before running a personal best at Sectionals.  At state, he came within a few tenths of finishing with another PR.

After the relay team exited O’Brien stadium and headed to collect their belongings near the bleachers south of the track, I had the opportunity to pull Max and Griffin, individually, aside.  I told each of them how proud I was.  It was one of those moments where I was surprised by emotion overcoming me, and I literally fought back tears.  It was validation that we’d done all we could for each other.  Those guys will go on and do some amazing things – Griffin will be a pilot; Max is headed off to Georgetown where he’ll rub shoulders with policy makers and leaders of think tanks.  Their HC legacy will be fulfilled by Blake, Nathan, and a coterie of other HC middle distance runners.  Should we fulfill the dream of earning all-state in the 4*800 next season, Max and Griffin will have played a huge roll.

In looking back over the blog entry I wrote after state last year, I realize even more how much we have to be proud of.  For four years in a row, we’ve lost three 4*800 team members to graduation, yet we somehow have managed to find new guys to take their place.

Year Team members with year in school
2011 Ben Cherry (Sr), Azad Darbandi (Sr), Zach Withal (Sr), Jack Feldman (Jr)
2012 Jack Feldman (Sr), Ted Owens (Sr), Neil Pedersen (Sr), Mike Korompilas (Jr)
2013 Mike Korompilas (Sr), Ryan Somerfield (Sr), Dylan Palo (Sr), Kevin Haung (Jr)
2014 Kevin Huang (Sr), Trent Hyalnd (Sr), Jake Hall (Sr), Nathan Hill (So)

It is also time to consider how we did on our season goals.

As always, we hoped to ‘paint in black’ by having all team members PR in the 800, 1600, and 3200.  This year we had 60 guys on our roster (not counting Nick Midlash, who came to every practice but was not able to compete this season due to recovery from surgery), and of those 55 PR’d in at least one event.  Of the five who didn’t, each one had a legitimate reason (iron deficiency, stress fracture, pneumonia, etc.)  We had 52 of 60 runners PR in the 800, 52 of 60 PR in the 1600, and 50 of 60 PR in the 3200.  Overall, this means we were 86% successful in achieving our goal, which is actually the best we have ever done (we were about 80% each of the past two years).

We wanted to break our school record for most guys sub 5.  We did this, having 39 athletes hit the mark (another 5 were under 5:05).  HC and LT combined had over 80 guys sub 5.  Can any two teams in the same conference in this nation say the same?

We wanted 10 sub 10 in the 3200, including 7 returning.  We had 12 guys run sub 10:00 (not counting Nathan Hill or Matt McBrien, who broke the mark in Cross Country) with 5 more at 10:07 or better.  We have 6 returning runners under 10:00, with our 7th, freshman Sean O’Connell, at 10:01.  Track was productive in helping us prepare for cross country.  2015 appears to be as competitive as ever, with very strong squads from LT, Neuqua, Sandburg, York, and Lake Zurich (among many others) hungrily challenging us for the state title.

In conclusion, I will repeat EXCACTLY what I wrote at the conclusion of last season, as it remains as true now as it did then:  “It’s been a long, hard season.  We’ve accomplished a lot, but I can’t say I have the same level of satisfaction that I did after this fall.  We have work to do in improving our overall team cohesiveness, in keeping our athletes healthy (both physically and social-emotionally), and on building upon the success created by our graduating seniors.  They leave as state champions – an astonishing accomplishment when I think about where they were as freshman.  Their graduation leaves a gaping hole – but I know we have a young group of athletes who have learned from them and who are eager to take their turn as the new team leaders.”

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