Season of Change

The class of 2016 faces an almost unfair challenge.  Most of the current seniors joined the team as freshman, with a few joining first for track, and a few others joining Sophomore year.  This means they made the decision to run at a time when our program had no significant history of success on a state level.  What drew them to the sport was not the opportunity to be part of a winning tradition, but rather more prosaic (and pure) motivations: to become faster, to join a social network, to engage in a structured and healthy activity.  The success we’ve enjoyed the past two years has, of course, been in part due to their efforts, but in other ways, they’ve been swept up in changes none of us could have clearly foreseen.  Winning state the past two years has been an amazing journey, gifting me with some of the fondest memories and greatest thrills of my life.  However, there is no denying that past success has changed the dynamic of our daily team meetings.  To borrow phrasing from Tony Jones, we are no longer the hunters but have become the hunted.  This is not a boast or a complaint, but rather recognition that the current senior class is beginning their season with external pressure that simply did not exist when they entered our program.  We can – and do – preach the virtues of ignoring what others are saying (DBTH!) but we’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that much more is expected from HC runners (both within and outside of the team) than used to be the case.

So, the challenge for the current crop of HC runners is to add to the legacy bequeathed to them by previous classes while at the same time defining success anew.  As such, we realize that we must follow the advice that Emmett Scully, the spiritual leader of our first state championship team, gave to the class below him: “There is more than one way to skin a cat. By that I mean that this year’s team does not have be exactly like how we were last year…”  Emmett reminded his younger teammates that they needed to find their own path – and indeed, the journey last year felt very different than it did during Emmett’s senior year: much rockier, more exhausting, and ultimately more surprising.  No one knows yet what this upcoming season will hold, yet I would submit two propositions:

  1. This years’ team truly does have the potential to be the best team in HCXC history.  I think we could have a faster average for our top 5 and top 7 at Detweiller than any previous team.  I believe this will be the deepest team we have ever had.  For the first time ever, we return two all-state runners (Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk).  We have 7 returning guys who have run faster than 9:56 for 3200 (Blake and Chris, along with Nathan Hill, Ethan Planson, Ryan Doorhy, Andrew Irvine, and Michael Gates) – another 5 who have run faster than 10:08 (Sean O’Connell, Yuji Cusick, Zach Sayre, Jacob Belgrad and Ben Schnieders) – and 3 others right at 10:15 (John Bynan, Sophomores-to-be Steven Zaher and Neil Cumberland).  We have guys relatively new to Cross Country who have tremendous potential for improvement, including returning Sophomore Conference 800 champ Sam Fathizadeh and (we hope!) former soccer player and soph-to-be Luca Karginov.  We have guys who haven’t yet run in the low 10:00 range but who lead by demonstrating an incredible work ethic and an insatiable desire to improve – athletes like Nick Midlash, Emmett Grundberg, Ben Anderson, Joe Miscimara, and Michael Chadwell.  And we have athletes who set a strong moral example, like Ruiling Ge and Graham Reid, who daily act out their values of courtesy and humility.  In short, we have a lot of strengths to draw from.
  1. We may fully realize the first proposition and yet still not earn a trophy.  Sandburg looks to have a team for the ages.  Neuqua Valley is hyper-motivated after missing a trophy by a single point last season.  Lyons Township believes they may finally have the right group to win the title.  York has a chip on their shoulder after finishing out of the trophies the past few seasons.  Lake Zurich has the most talented youngsters of any team in state.   The depth of competition seems, at this early point, better than it’s ever been.  Perhaps, Tony Holler, we are (re)-entering a golden age for distance running, too.

One reason I decided to become a teacher and coach is because the business world never held much appeal for me.  Public education seemed a good fit – as I didn’t think I had the temperament or motivation to excel in the corporate world.  Ironically, I have come to learn the best teachers and coaches are like entrepreneurs.  Following the model of companies like Amazon, Apple, or even Coca-Cola, the best athletic programs have been those which simultaneously adapt to a changing world while holding true to their core values.  We as a program must change and adapt to our new situation, while maintaining the qualities of our program that are most central to our identity: consistent hard work, compassion for each other, a self-reflective approach to our training.

In that spirit, we have some exciting changes to announce for the 2015 season.  First, we have significantly altered our schedule.  In part, these changes came about due to new rules adopted for the West Suburban Conference: this season the conference will roll out a new dual meet system in which competitions begin earlier in the season and do not count towards final standings.  For the first time since I have been a coach, we will not begin our season with the Hornet Red-Devil Invite.  Instead, we have a dual meet against Lyons Township on the Tuesday preceding HRD.  For our Varsity, that will be a highly anticipated matchup against a spirited rival.  For our lower levels, though, it will be a much better way to ease into the season: a lower key matchup, on our home course, against just one other team before the beautiful chaos of Hornet-Red.

We are also dropping the Locktoberfest invitational (held this season on October 3rd) and picking up, instead, the Palatine Invitational on September 26th.  While we enjoyed the challenge and scenery of Lockport, it makes less sense to attend the meet now that Lockport is no longer a potential Sectional location.  The Palatine Invite, being held a week earlier, actually fits better into our schedule this year, and we are excited for the chance to compete against some teams we would not usually get to see (including a few from out of state).  Coach Quick and Parks have done an amazing job of building the Palatine Invite into a truly Midwestern meet that will garner national attention and give us a strong sense of where we are at that point of the season.  It will also be a fun trip down memory lane for me, as I ran at the Palatine Invite all four years of my high school career, back when it was held at its old location of Hamilton Reservoir.

Another exciting change to the schedule (pending, but likely) is the addition of the Naperville Twilight Meet in early October.  Like our ‘under the lights’ meet for track, this is a Cross Country meet held at night which finishes under stadium lights.  The meet was founded by Neuqua Valley a few years ago with the support of Nike.  This year, Naperville North has taken over the duties of hosting the meet and New Balance is the new sponsor.  This promises to be a unique, fun, and different type of meet – and we feel incredibly fortunate to have been invited this season.

Our hope is that these new meets will add to the ‘fun’ quotient of the season.  Knowing how much pressure many of our athletes will feel, it was important for us to keep at center the joyful and exciting aspects of our sport.

As we often preach, we cannot control what other teams do.  Our primary goal thus should not be to win state, since we have only partial control over that equation, but simply to be the best team we can be.  It is incredibly gratifying to know that we are in a position where, should we succeed in our goal of being better than we were before, a natural outgrowth will be that we’ll be in the mix for a trophy at state.   For now though, it is the process goals which matter.  And given how workmanlike our team seems to be at this early point in the summer, a good goal to embrace is to approach even the hard workouts with a spirit of playfulness – choosing to view the coming pain as a familiar friend rather than a source of dread.  I hope guys will smile often at practice, continue the tradition of cracking jokes and keeping the atmosphere light-hearted much of the time, and serious only when we need to be.

All that being said (and being very much under the influence of the recent film “Inside Out” which I highly recommend), I also hope this year to encourage athletes on our team to be open to – and about – the full panoply of emotions we encounter as we go about this thing called life.  We want to be joyful warriors, but, there will be times when individuals on our team will be dealing with difficult issues and don’t feel particularly joyful.  We strive to create the space where they can be fully themselves – happy when they are feeling happy, angry when they feel angry, sad when they feel sad.  My hope is that running can be a stabilizing force for young men in the complex ecosystem of high school – a time and place where expectations are clear, the mission known to all, the pain shared.  I think if all team members contribute to creating that space, it’s going to be a highly meaningful season – successful, based on terms we ourselves, determined.

On that note, I will share that I have been, of late, filled with joy and hope.  The final reason this is a season of change for me personally, is that my wife and I our expecting our first child, due November 29th (in this new era that we live, life events such as this must be dutifully announced on social media – and since my wife and I shared our news with our Facebook world this past weekend, it felt like the time was right to share it with all of you).  As we approach the end of our season, I will be approaching ever closer to the beginning of my life as a parent.  Young Lawrence is expected to make his/her debut (we decided not to find out the sex of our baby) shortly after the state meet.  After that, my life will change dramatically, in ways I am sure I can’t imagine.  Yet I am also sure that coaching and teaching at Hinsdale has been the best training and preparation I could ask for on how to parent – I’ve learned by observation, through the example of Coach Westphal and Kupres and through the many loving parents who have supported their children unequivocally – and most of all from my interactions with the boys I’ve been fortunate enough to coach.  You’ve challenged me every day to be the best person I can be – and I will be a better parent for it.

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