School of Hard Knocks

I am a strong believer that, even when you don’t run well (especially when you don’t run well) it is important to use every competition as a learning experience.  Some of the work of coaching involves detailed planning and some of it involves thinking on the fly – in the immediate aftermath of a race, what do you say to your exhausted runners as they stumble out of the finishing chute that will be impactful?  What message gets conveyed to each level once they’ve reassembled near the team area?

Within minutes of the conclusion of their race at Behrens Park in Elmhurst this past Thursday, I had the freshman runners gather in a circle around me to let them know my visceral reaction to the way they’d raced: tentatively – without aggressiveness and well within their comfort zones.  “400 meters into the race, and all I saw was Green jerseys” I shouted at them, with more passion than anger, alluding to the mass of Glenbard West and York runners who’d gotten out far better than we had.  I told the wide-eyed young runners that I knew they were capable of more – that I believed they had the potential to develop into a special group, but that it would require them to reach down into reserves they’d not yet discovered they had.

Happily, the freshman group proved to be quick studies.  At the Palatine Invitational this morning, they applied their understandings from the recent lesson, starting out with much more assertiveness and positioning themselves much more favorably, as we asked them to do in our team strategy meeting yesterday.  In the absence of a few injured runners (Alec Hill, Michael Horton, Josh Terry) an identifiable top 7 is starting to coalesce: Kevin Hopkins, Matt Kusak, Brandon Belgrad, Will Ricker, Fletcher Spillers, Anshul Sankaran, and Charlie Carter.  These 7 all finished within 20 seconds of each other today.  Most amazingly, our top 5 freshman crossed the line with an unheard of 3 second split.  We were 2 for 3 on achieving our goals for the meet.  We aimed for 5 in the top 50, and exceeded this by putting 5 in the top 41 and having 6 guys in the top 50 (Anshul, who looks better with each race, finished in exactly 50th).  We also achieved our goal of taking a risk by running more aggressively.  We fell short of our other goal of 3 in the top 25.  Our runners packed up between 33-41.  We would have needed each guy in our top 5 to improve 15 seconds to get there.  In the end, we finished 6th place with 183 points, only 21 points behind 4th place York who’d handily beaten us just two days before.  We were ahead of several schools with excellent cross country programs, including New Trier, Palatine, Hersey, Jones College Prep, and Lake Zurich.  All things considered, it was a huge step forward for this group.

For our other three groups – the Sophomores, Varsity, and Junior Varsity – the races taught us some tough but important lessons.  One obvious lesson for our Sophomore group is that we will not perform well so long as our team remains incomplete.  We put forth a depleted squad – with several key members missing today’s action (fully 5 of our top 10 were not in the lineup).  The lone highlight of the race was the performance turned in by Steven Zaher, who led us with a 13th place overall finish.  Steven moved up nicely and picked guys off over the past half mile, which was an area that proved to be a weakness for us collectively on this day.  Sean O’Connell, our usual top runner, struggled in the heat and held tough for an 18th place finish, though he’d been in the top 5 at the halfway mark.  He is too tough of a runner not to bounce back.  Colin Yandel had a breakout race two days ago at York, when he broke 17:00 for the first time ever, but may have used up some of his reserves.  On this day, he ran as best as he was able, but finished farther back then he hoped to in 17:10, just breaking into the top 50.  Sam Schiavitti and Alex Choi did a nice job finishing as our 4th and 5th men today, helping to fill the void.  Sam broke 18:00 for the first time ever, and helped narrow the gap between our 3 and 4 guy from 1:25 at the York/GW tri to 50 seconds.  Alex is just coming off an injury and showed that he has the potential for huge improvements provided he puts in consistent training.

In the end, we finished in 12th place out of 26th, pretty far back from where we want to be.  If we can get our entire group to the line healthy for the last two major meets of the season – the Naperville Twilight Meet and the Conference Meet – we should show a lot better.

In the open race, like the varsity race it followed, we looked great at the halfway point: Jacob Belgrad and Jan Erik Naess were leading the race at that point, with Michael Gates and Ruiling Ge not far back.  The Palatine course folds back on itself, and finishes with a 600 meter sprint back towards the starting line – by that point, only Ruiling Ge looked strong, methodically passing runners one by one.  The enthusiastic senior who completed his first several workouts for our team in high tops when he joined us as a sophomore stormed home to an 8th place finish in a personal best time of 16:35.9, about 1 second behind our lead runner Jacob Belgrad, who was 7th.  Jacob is working his way back from an injury that had forced him to cross train for a few weeks: though he struggled in the final half mile, he is clearly on his way back and simply needs to get a few interval workouts under his belt.  He may yet be in the mix for a spot in our varsity top 7.  For that matter, so might Jan Erik Naess.  Though Jan, too, paid a high price for taking the lead early on, he managed a respectable 11th place finish, just two days after finishing as our top man in our tri meet against GW and York (we held out our Varsity).  Perhaps there is no more social trio on our team than Jan, Ruiling, and Jacob.  Certainly no three who smile more often.

A few other runners in the JV race deserve special mention (all deserve credit, though time prevents me from recognizing everyone by name in today’s blog): Yuji Cusick raced for the first time in over two years, and finished 60th overall in 17:19.  There are few individuals I admire as much as Yuji, as he’s managed terrible and frustrating injuries with patience and grace.  He has some way to go before he regains the level of fitness he had before stress fractures and other injuries struck him, but he took a great first step by mixing it up in what Coach Quick called “the deepest JV race in the state.”  Solid performances were also turned in by newcomer Rayed Yasin (56th in 17:13), Andrew Denos (69th in 17:26), and Luke Northey (who ran a PR of 20:16).  The JV ended 3rd overall, despite running short-handed (Zach Sayre, Emmett Grundberg, and John Bynan could all have been counted on to score low points), a testament to how deep our team is.  The team finished just ahead of York, though a ways behind New Trier.  It will be interesting to see how we fare at Conference, as no HC team has ever won on the JV level.  If we’re healthy, we may have a legitimate shot.   Which bring us to the varsity…

The Varsity race lived up to its billing as a showdown between us and our respected conference rivals from York.  Both teams scored less than half as many points as third place New Trier, but in the end, the Dukes emerged the victors in this early battle, nipping us by 9 points.  Frustratingly, we looked to be in the lead at the two mile mark, but, with the exception of Blake Evertsen who further solidified his credentials as one of the elite runners in the nation with his second place finish, we faded hard down the final straightaway.  This is partially a fault of the decision made by Coach Westphal and I to insist that we push hard from the gun (a strategy which we paid the price for later in the race), can to a degree be explained away due to the weather conditions (the 87% humidity and extreme sunlight took a toll on some of us), and may be in part due to the emotional energy expended earlier in the week due to assorted homecoming festivities.  Whatever the reasons (and these are not excuses) we did not show the fight that York did and thus deserved the place we finished today – 2nd, for the third major invite in a row.  Hats off to coaches Newton, Kern, Mimlitz, and Hedmen for getting their men ready.  The Dukes ran a far better performance than they did a week ago in Peoria and stole a race that was very much ours to win.  While we did not run terribly (we actually narrowed our split to 45 seconds, which was one of our goals) we did not fire on all cylinders – and in a state as strong as Illinois this season, there is no margin for error.

Palatine’s Coach Quick, the one man the in state who has done more statistical analysis of meet results than myself, informed us that the conversion between Peoria and Palatine is about 18 seconds – if you run within 18 seconds of your Detweiller time, you’ve had a pretty good race.  Here is how we fared:

Name                   Detweiller Time                Palatine Time                    Difference

Eversten              14:25                                   14:46                                   +21

Brenk                    14:56                                   15:20                                   +24

Hill                        15:26                                   15:21                                   -5

Fathizadeh          15:07                                   15:28                                   +21

Doorhy                 15:27                                   15:31.5                               +4.5

Irvine                    14:56                                   15:48                                   +52

Planson                15:21                                   16:14                                   +53

Total                                                                                                               +170.5

And here is how York ran:

Name                   Detweiller Time                Palatine Time                    Difference

Kern                      14:40                                   14:56                                   +16

Denning               15:09                                   15:14                                   +5

May                      15:11                                   15:16                                   +5

Devereaux           15:20.5                               15:42                                   +21.5

Tomaska              15:21                                   15:28                                   +7

Davies                  15:38                                   15:27                                   -11

Wolff                    15:50                                   16:16                                   +26

Total                                                                                                               +69.5

Pretty obvious which team had a better race today.  So, we lick our wounds, put this one behind us, and look ahead.  We will see York again in three weeks, and one can be sure that the Dukes will once again be ready for the challenge.  Blessedly, we will return to practice on Monday with the craziness of homecoming behind us (this is not to minimize the value of homecoming, but simply to recognize that we all have limits to the number of demands on our attention).  We can refocus, get back to basics.  The good news is that on a day we were not our best, we came within striking distance of an excellent York team.  In talking with a few of my coaching friends at the meet – Andy Adelman of Jones College Prep, Andy Derks from Plainfield North, Coach Quick – all of whom are at least my equal in their passion and knowledge about cross country – I was reminded that to score less than 100 points at such a loaded meet and refer to it as an off-day is a position envied by most.

So we’ve now finished 2nd to Neuqua Valley, Lyons Township, and York.  The best news, though, is that we get the chance for a rematch – with NV in a week and a half at the Naperville Twilight Meet, and with York and LT in three weeks at Conference.  And, of course, we’re likely to battle it out with all three of these teams and Sandburg (among others) for the three available trophies at state six weeks from today.  Fall officially started just three days ago – we got a lot of season left.  Plenty of time for our senior leaders Nathan, Chris, and Andrew to take control of the reigns and steer the team back on course.  The ultimate significance of these three second place finishes has not yet been determined.

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