“Second place is the…”

It is the second weekend in a row where we have had a major invitational and the second weekend in a row where we have finished second.  At the varsity level of the Hornet-Red Devil Invitational last weekend, we finished ahead of 17 teams and behind a very strong Neuqua Valley.  This weekend, we bested 43 class AAA teams but fell short to our highly respected conference rival Lyons Township.  Looked at in a certain light, our record is 70-2, surely good enough for any boxer to be granted a shot at a title fight.  Such are the expectations that have risen up around our program and within our community, though, that what we notice most is the “2”.

How should one process earning an actual, or even metaphorical, silver medal?  I’ve read studies which suggest that Olympic bronze medalists report higher rates of happiness and satisfaction than Olympic silver medalists.  Earn third, and you are thrilled to be on the medal stand.  Finish second, and you instead ponder what you might have done differently to finish first.  We could certainly play that game for our meet this afternoon.  Lyons Township beat us 80-96.  We had outstanding races from Blake Evertsen (2nd), Andrew Irvine (15th), and Sam Fathizadeh (26th) to keep us in contention, but ran without usual front runners Chris Brenk (16th) and Nathan Hill (46th) at full strength.  Had Chris and Nathan simply finished the same place they did last year (Chris was 7th, Nathan was 29th) we’d have emerged the victors (2+7+16+27+29=81 vs. 3+13+15+22+33=86).  Of course, this is a fool’s errand, as any team can play the ‘what if’ game to intended effect (LT ran well, though senior Connor Madell was a bit further off his teammate Vince Zona than a week ago, to cite just one example).

At this point in the season, finishing second place is easier to process.  The meets to this point are more checkpoints than endpoints.  The results serve as useful feedback that teams can use to gauge the success of their training schemes and allow for honest reflection about the level of commitment displayed by each individual as well as the collective.  While our bus ride home was not quite as insouciant as the past two years’ when we left Detweiller as the ‘First to the Finish’ champions, neither was the mood somber.  The ten athletes representing our team this weekend have displayed a maturity that comes with the wisdom of knowing the season is long – and that we have the necessary pieces to be a title contender and a good stretch of time to figure out how to put those pieces in place.

Today, like last week, proved to be a useful learning experience.  Sam Fathizadeh, Sean O’Connell, Emmett Grundberg, and Zach Sayre all had an opportunity to run the state meet course for their first time.   Blake Evertsen learned what it will take to be a state champion.  He ceded nothing to pre-race favorite Kevin Salvano, and with him, broke from the lead pack fairly early on.  At 300 to go, the two were even.  Down the straightaway, Salvano found a gear that Blake is still yet developing.  The athlete with a 9:04 3200 PR defeated the athlete with a 9:14 3200 PR, but only just.  Blake’s time of 14:25.8 is the fastest any Hinsdale Central athlete has ever run at Detweiller Park.  Few athletes I have encountered have the kind of inner drive he exhibits.  It will be fun to see how his career continues to develop.

Andrew Irvine, today, learned what it truly means to race.  For the first time in his high school cross country career, he ran like the elite athlete we knew he could be.  After a disappointing race at the Hornet-Red Devil Invite last week, where humidity sapped his strength and he finished looking sallow and drained, “Irv” bounced back in a major way, joining an incredibly select group of H.C. runners to break 15:00 at Detweiller in the Westphal-Lawrence-Kupres era (that lists includes Billy Fayette, Jack Feldman, Billy Magnesen, Kevin Huang, Chris Brenk, Josh Feldman, Matt McBrien, and Blake Evertsen…but does  NOT include all-state runners Zach Withall and T.J. Caveney).  Andrew ran 14:56 and finished 15th as our 2nd man today, with teammate Chris Brenk right at his side in 16th.  Chris showed courage gutting it out on a day he did not feel himself.  We saw last week a sneak preview of how good he could become (the athletes who were 4th and 5th today finished behind Chris at HRD).  Knowing Chris as well as I do, I know he will be disappointed with his own race, but cheered to know how well his dear friend and teammates Andrew ran, and motivated to move forward and get back to focusing on the daily process of slow improvement.

Our fourth man today was Sam Fathizadeh, which, I have to imagine, must have had that certain subculture of race result scrutinizers scratching their heads in wonderment and asking “Sam who?”  Here is a guy who finished his sophomore track season by running a PR in the 3200 at the ‘race at state’ in Eastern Illinois of 10:26.  Nothing up to that point would have predicted how much he’d improve.  One of the characteristics of our program that I am the most proud of is that every year it seems like somebody unexpected rises up to fill in a gap in our varsity top 7.  This dates back several years to the days when Pete Stubbings and Joe Berg emerged from relative obscurity, to more recent success stories like T.J. Caveney, Josh Feldman, and Griffin Gartner.  After Sam matched Griffin’s time and place last week, I told him he was going to run 15:18 today, just as Griffin did last year.  Instead, Sam, ran 15:07 – and finished in 26th place.  His time and place was nearly identical to what Josh Feldman ran at First to the Finish last year (15:07 for 27th) – and we all know how Josh fared at state that year.  What an amazing story it would be if Sam follows suit.

Ethan Planson, like Andrew, also rebounded nicely from a mediocre first race.  Planson was our fifth man today in 15:21, a Detweiller PR by 17 seconds, and a full 55 seconds faster than he ran last weekend.  His time is one second faster than T.J. Caveney ran here for this meet in 2013.  Caveney, like Josh, would later go on to nab an unexpected all-state spot.  Planson, we hope, will follow a similar trajectory.

So too might Ryan Doorhy and Sean O’Connell, both of whom finished ahead of Ethan last week and who were our 7th and 8th runners today.  Ryan improved his Detweiller PR by 48 seconds to finish in 15:27, about the same that Matt McBrien ran his junior year before he went on to finish 60th at state.  Sean, our lone sophomore to earn a spot on the varsity at this point ran 15:33 in his state meet course debut.  It is interesting to note that he ran the exact same time that Chris Brenk ran as a Sophomore, and Chris would go on that season to finish in 43rd place at state.  We are excited that Ryan and Sean are both young and will likely have more than one other crack at Detweiller before their high school careers are over.

A guy with a similar story to Sam Fathizadeh is Emmett Grundberg.  Emmett’s PR at the end of last track season was 10:53.  At the 2 mile mark today he was at 10:30, en route to a finishing time of 15:42 – pretty darn good for our 9th guy (in fact, better than our 9th runner in both 2013 and 2014).  Emmett improved 45 seconds from last week and finished 73rd overall.  As a junior, he has tons of potential.  Josh Feldman once again serves as a good model.  Josh was our 9th man on our 2013 state title team, when he ran 15:47 at this meet.  A year and 2 months later, well, you know the story.  But what will Emmett’s story be?

Nathan Hill and Zach Sayre were a bit off their game today.  Zach had a breakout race last week, earning his spot to Peoria.  Today was not his day.  But he is an athlete I have tremendous respect for.  He joined our team last year after playing soccer as a freshman and sophomore, making the decision to come out for the team even though he did not know many of the current members.  He has earned their respect through his work ethic, demeanor, and personality, and has become an integral member of our team.  He is still learning the sport, and has tremendous growth potential.

As for Nathan, he got out well, running even with Andrew in the early stages of the race.  Though he faded a bit, he hung on tough, and still managed to crack the top 50 and run faster than last week.  He was our 6th man in 46th place, with a time of 15:26.  To provide some perspective, four short years ago (in 2011) our second man, Ted Owens, ran 15:34.  We had 8 faster than that today.  Nathan, we know, is a genuine talent, the key guy on our 4*800 last season and a naturally graceful runner.  It is especially exciting to know he has two younger brothers, Alec and Colin, who, because of him, are learning to love running at a much younger age than is true for most (and shout out to Colin Hill, who is celebrating his 12th birthday today!)  Nathan, like Andrew and Ethan, will bounce back.  And when he does, we will be a very tough team.   We’ll need to be.  This year is shaping up to be one of the most competitive ever on the 3A boys level.  Two years ago, we ran an average time of 14:59 for our top five finishers and won.  Last year, we averaged 14:59 and won.   This year, we averaged 14:57 and finished 2nd to LT – who is considered by many to be the THIRD best team in state right now.

How does one deal with being fourth?  It’s the one spot that can sting even more than 2nd.  Let me just say this: whatever place we get in state, it will be up to us to define its meaning.  Our goal remains the same: be the best HCXC team yet.  We took a step in the right direction today.  Guided by the wisdom we’ve gained over the past several seasons, we know we’ll be ready the next time we come to Detweiller.  By then, the Fall leaves will be resplendent, the results of this weekend’s race a distant memory, and the stage set for an epic battle.

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