By now, much has already been written about this past weekend’s Hornet-Red Devil Invitational. In a case study of the importance of considering multiple perspectives (a skill beloved by us history teachers), you can read relatively balanced accounts from our XC journalist friends at Dyestat and Milesplit, along with carefully composed overviews written by the coaches at Neuqua Valley, Palatine, Minooka and others – detailing what the meet felt like in their respective camps. I’m a bit late to the game in offering up the Hinsdale Central boys’ perspective, but I offer, I think, a fairly legitimate excuse for my tardiness: after helping deconstruct the cross country course (removing poles, spooling flags, taking down tents, etc.) and a quick debriefing with Coaches Westphal, Kupres, and Snee over hot dogs at Portillos, I arrived back to a home already filling up with visitors – extended family in town for the other significant event I had scheduled for the weekend – a baby shower for my wife Megan.
My normal post-race process has been to spend the evening after invitationals with race results spread out across my desk, binders full of previous seasons’ efforts at the same meet ready and waiting in the bookshelf next to me, and Microsoft Word open on the computer in front of me. This was, patently, not going to happen on Saturday or Sunday, as it is a rare occasion at this stage in my life to be surrounded by the warm embrace of so many family members at the same time. Much of the weekend was spent reminiscing, telling stories, and making and eating way too much food. Immersing myself in “stats” (to use the term Megan coined to refer my post-race number crunching) would have to be postponed, which I better start getting used to anyway, as having an infant child pretty well ensures against the long stretches of solitude which best lends itself to the composition of narrative. I did get a short window of time on Sunday morning before everyone returned to the house, which I spent getting in a quick Waterfall loop with my good friend Alex Lyons, a young man just starting his teaching and coaching career at Downers Grove North who, last year, served as student teacher at Hinsdale Central in the English department and taught HCXC alumni luminaries including Alex Domiano and Nick Tandle. It helped to have an hour to talk out the weekends’ results and performances from around the state with someone as geeked out about high school cross country as I am. I returned home, showered, and took a quick glance at the New York Times. Spending a Sunday morning running long and poring over the Times is a ritual I’ll surely miss when parenthood comes, though I know it will be replaced by new traditions I’ll value even more. Yesterday morning, though, I knew I had time to read only one op-ed, rather the entire opinion section and weekly review of books, as I would have preferred. Glancing through the headlines, I decided upon a column entitled “The Myth of Quality Time” by Frank Bruni, a regular Sunday contributor. The article hit home on a variety of levels. In short, Bruni argued that the most important moments we share are often unscheduled. Bonding can’t be scripted, but occurs naturally and unexpectedly, and is much more likely to happen when we make an effort to be present for each other.
For me, this weekend represented new beginnings and old loves. It was the first major invite of the season for the sport and the team that ennobles my vocation and makes “work” something I’ve never woken up dreading; it was also the first family ritual commemorating the upcoming arrival of the newest member of our clan. Balancing work and family is a challenge we all struggle with, but when one finds value in both, it makes that tightrope walk a bit more manageable. Bruni’s article allowed me to reflect upon the parallels between family and team – the two entities our athletes devote the majority of their time towards. Today, for example, was the day of our long run – and what better way to check in and catch up then ninety minutes of time at a pace just relaxed enough to carry on a long conversation. How often do we get 90 minutes to talk to a friend or family member? Yet another reason to love our sport.
Suffice to say, the members of our varsity team have had enough face time with each other to experience the moments of connection Bruni wrote about. The freshmen on our team, should they decide this sport is the one they want to embrace, will come to make those same close friendships their older teammates enjoy. Like their families, they won’t really get to choose – their closest friends will be, to some degree, simply the other boys in their grade who decided, just as they did, to join Cross Country in high school. That choice can change your life. As freshman, neither Sam Fathizadeh, Emmett Grundberg, or Zach Sayre were even out for our team. Each joined as a sophomore. To be honest, I do not know entirely what their motivations were, but I am glad they made the decision to join us. It was these three who saw the largest time drops compared to how they ran at last years’ Hornet-Red Devil Invite. Sam improved 3:35 from last year, while Emmett improved 2:24 and Zach improved 2:02. All three will be in the 10-person lineup representing us next weekend in Peoria at the First to the Finish Invite. All three are classic examples of our favorite mantra: hard work pays off. Their stories represent just a few of the many highlights at a meet that did not represent what we know we are capable of, but which, nonetheless, is a workable starting point for a season we’ve already invested tremendously in. Here are some of the other storylines from this past weekend:
Due to adjustment made to the time schedule in order to accommodate the expected extreme heat and humidity, it was our most mature athletes who would toe the line first on Saturday at the annual Hornet-Red Devil Invite, the meet that most truly represents the start of the competitive season. This group has a written compact which we composed in early December of 2014 to which they are all committed, as well as an unspoken bond forged though thousands of miles, intervals, and minutes spent engaged in general strength exercise, stretching, and ice bathing. We were anxious to see where we were after months of grinding out workouts. We were also eager to get a better sense of our competition, as up to this point the strength of other programs has been merely a guessing game.
Neuqua Valley answered that question quick – they ran with a sense of mission and sent notice to the state and country that they will be a force to be reckoned with. Few are the teams we respect as much as Neuqua. Coach Paul Vandersteen is one of our sports best ambassadors and a coach who has never been anything but complimentary to us and all other programs. Several of our athletes are friends with the Wildcat runners – and it was our two programs who (independent of the coaching staff, I assure you) invented and executed the post-season “chocolate milk mile.” At any rate, it was not entirely surprising to see Neuqua run so well, but it was certainly eye-opening for us, a needed reminder that hard work guarantees nothing if one does not execute, and also that our most important team goal must not be to repeat as state champions but rather to be the best HCXC team in history – and as we’ve stated many times, it is quite possible that we could be better that the previous two seasons’ teams and still not win state. And after seeing results from the Sandburg-LT meet, I think it is safe to say we could be the best team in HCXC history and not even trophy!
What does seem clear is that we may be fortunate to have the best 1-2 punch in HC history in Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk. For the first time ever, we took the top two spots at the Varsity level (ironically, the only other time we took the top two spots at this meet in any level was two years ago at the sophomore level, when Blake and Chris first accomplished that feat). Blake ran a controlled race and took command with about 600 meters remaining, powering down the final straightaway to earn his first ever victory at the varsity level in a fraction of a second over 15 minutes, a fine time for this course on such a humid day. Chris needed a ferocious kick to pass all-state runners Connor Horn and Roman Drabchuk in the final 300, along with unheralded NV runner Scott Anderson. We learned later that Anderson, the nephew of HC gym teacher and basketball coach Ed Lynch, fractured his foot during the race and will likely be out for the season, truly sobering news on what would otherwise be a very celebratory day for our respected rivals. Knowing as we do how hard he has worked, our hearts go out to him and we wish him a speedy recovery, despite the fact that he makes our opponents even more scary-good.
Chris’s race was one of the highlights of the day. I knew he was ready to race well, given how he’d looked in workouts, but to see him best such an impressive field and have such a great finishing kick was especially gratifying knowing how frustrating his previous track season had been, shortened by injury and not at all reflective of his talent or commitment level. It will be fun to see Chris and Blake go head to head with the dynamic LT duo of Connor Madell and Vince Zona at next weeks’ ‘First to the Finish’ invite.
The other breakthrough race on the varsity level may have come from Sophomore Sean O’Connell. Our initial plan was to have Sean race at the Sophomore level, but due to the schedule change the sophomore race was replaced by an ‘open race’ and so we decided to use the opportunity to see how Sean would respond to running against more experienced runners (we brought up Steven Zaher, also). Sean started a bit more conservatively than most of his ‘red group’ teammates, but his strategy may have been more effective on this day – in the latter half of the race, he was moving up while many of them fell back. Sean finished a single place out of the medals, earning 26th in 15:52.5. To put this in context, Chris Brenk ran 15:59 as a sophomore, while Blake ran 15:55 as a freshman. Later that year, Blake was 29th in state while Chris was 43rd. Sean is that good. He confirmed his position as a legitimate varsity contender, and may be a guy you see donning the red and white in Peoria later this November. He’ll get his first crack at the Detweiller course next weekend.
Nathan Hill (19th), Ryan Doorhy (23rd), Sam Fathizadeh (28th), and Andrew Irvine (43rd) rounded out our top 7. Nathan had been sick earlier in the week and ran on half a tank of gas, but should be rested and ready by next weekend. Ryan and Sam ran decently well in their first varsity race. Ryan’s time was faster than both TJ Caveney and Matt McBrien ran in 2013, and both went on to have great success that season (TJ finishing 25th in state, Matt finishing in 60th). I pointed out to Sam that he was one place and one second removed from where Griffin Gartner finished at this meet last year. Since early this summer, I’ve encouraged Sam to view Griffin as a model of a converted middle distance runner who became a huge contributor to the cross country team. In a fitting coda to this story, I saw Griffin’s father at the meet. He came to support the team, and I told him about Sam’s race and how I hoped Sam would get to experience the same moments of wonder Griffin amazingly encountered his senior year – hoisting up a trophy topped by a figurine of a runner even though he entered Hinsdale Central as a football player. Andrew Irvine’s time and place were far from where he wanted, but much of that can be explained away due to the humidity, which took a particularly aggressive toll on him. We are excited for him to bounce back in Peoria, as he has consistently been our 4th man in workouts.
Ethan Planson improved 12 seconds from a year ago, but was the other runner who most suffered in the heat. He’ll be hungry to redeem himself in Peoria as well. Grundberg and Zayre ran well as our 9th and 10th guys, as mentioned previously, while Jan Eryk Ness and Ruiling Ge rounded our our top 12 and also cracked the top 100. Ben Schnieders, still coming off an injury, improved by 48 seconds to run 16:52, with Steven Zaher right behind him. Steven surely would have been among the top Sophomores had he gotten that opportunity. Almost all of our other varsity runners improved their times from the previous year: Michael Gates by 42 seconds, Michael Chadwell by 58 seconds, Joe Miscimarra by 33 seconds, and Daniel Hu by 1:45! Meanwhile, Rayed Yasin, a transfer from Plainfield Central, made his XC debut running 17:14. Rayed is an excellent 400/800 runner who decided to join the team to improve his endurance. He is a welcome addition as he has a tremendous work ethic, and we’ve seen remarkable progress from him already.
Perhaps the two greatest HCXC success stories (though it is hard to say) are Zach Withall and Josh Feldman. Zach was actually back in attendance for the HRD for the first time since he was a senior in high school back in 2010, while Josh, the day previous, had made his collegiate running debut finishing as the 5th man for the Illini Club team. His parents joined other alumni parents including the Magnesens and the Cavenys in cheering the boys Saturday. As a freshman, Zach finished 48th at this meet in 12:43, while Josh was 106th in 14:14. Both would go on to become all-state runners as seniors. Both did so through a combination of determination, hard work, and long-term commitment. While the results of our first major invite were not as high as we’d have liked to finish (we were 8th of 16) a closer inspection reveals much to be optimistic about. Four of our runners (Kevin Hopkins, Matt Kusak, Fletcher Spillers, and Will Ricker) ran better than or equal to Zach’s freshman place (and this does not include Alec Hill and Michael Horton, who were our top two freshman finishers at our first time trial but who could not compete due to injury), while NINE others (Charlie Carter, Anshul Sankaran, Josh Terry, Brandon Belgrad, Thomas Monson, Nate Sutton, Liam Walsh, Bradley Davis, and Will DeDobbeleare) finished with a higher place than Josh Feldman did as a 9th grader. This is probably our deepest freshman team ever, and, if history proves a guide, they will make huge gains over the course of the year. The best news of all was that of the 22 freshman athletes who ran in the LT dual meet early in the week, ALL 22 OF THEM improved their time on the exact same course on Saturday. Adam Bagnall ran 2:20 faster. Peter Taylor and Nick Sutton improved by over a minute. Guantong Liu ran 2:56 faster! If these guys continue to improve as rapidly as they have so far this season, we’ll be an entirely different looking squad come conference.
The Open race
As was true for the freshman, our main goal in the open race was for all runners to improve their times from the LT meet. We very nearly accomplished this, with 20 of 23 runners getting faster. Ethan Mortenson had the biggest time drop, taking 1:25 off his time. I saw Ethan with about 800 meters to go in the race, about 10 meters behind an athlete from an opposing school. The next time I saw him was with 300 meters to go, and he’d taken a 30 meter lead over that athlete, and never looked back – kicking stronger than I’ve ever seen him finish before. Senior Scott McLaughlin and Sophomore Kaidi Hu also dropped over a minute, while Sophomore Ian Stevenson shed 52 seconds and newcomer John Wheeler improved by 58 seconds. Perhaps the best race came from another rookie, sophomore Mac Anderson. Mac joined us this season at the behest of his older brother Ben, and like him, may make a huge difference come Sophomore conference. Two years ago, Ben helped secure us the victory with a courageous race finishing as our fifth man. The addition of Mac to our squad certainly strengthens our hand, and if we are lucky enough to get Neil Cumberland back from injury in time, we will hope to repeat that feat.
All except our top 10 will run tomorrow at Schiller Woods against Oak Park and Proviso West, while our varsity will next race this weekend in Peoria. While our first big invite did not result in the euphoria felt in the previous two years, the results were sufficient enough to keep us motivated and remind us of the truism that the process will always be worth it, regardless of the final outcome.