Conference Recap: The Joy and Heartache of Coaching

The story of our conference meet is a synthesis of the narratives of two of our athletes, John Bynan and Yuji Cusick, and the emotions I felt watching them both kick to the finish in the JV race: simultaneously,  joy and heartbreak.  Here are two of the hardest working athletes on our team, both of whom have devoted countless hours to their pursuit of self-improvement, both of whom literally have pushed themselves to the breaking point, and both of whom have had to endure extensive regiments of physical therapy and cross training in their desperate quest to be healthy enough to compete at Conference.  In short, these two are emblematic of the many HCXC athletes throughout the years who have invested heavily into our program – who have contributed more to us than we could possibly repay.

Bynan, as I’ve stated in previous blogs, was the only guy who never missed a single day of practice over the summer (or over the course of the season either – he literally has perfect attendance).  Of all athletes on our team, only Blake has put in more miles this season.  But Cross Country is an unforgiving sport, and it exacts a cost on all who have the courage to test their limits – in John’s case, the required toll was a nagging peroneal tendon, an injury that has sidelined him for periods of both his Sophomore and Junior campaigns.  In the week leading up to Conference, John harbored doubts about his race readiness, acknowledging on his logarun page: “ Left leg is hurting but powering through for this race tomorrow.”   Even a mile into the race, I too, feared injury would prevent John from realizing his goals, as he lagged behind our top pack, composed at that early stage of Jan Erick Naess, Ben Schnieders, Michael Gates, Zach Sayre, and Ruiling Ge.  But then, something started happening.  The next time I saw John pass by, he’d closed the gap in half.  By the two and a half mile mark, he trailed only his companion Ben Schnieders (they’d finished seconds apart from each other in more races than I can count) who was also, clearly, having a great race, and both men were charging hard.  I positioned myself at the final straightaway to get my last look at our runners as they dashed by, and when JB came into view I saw a changed man – a normally affable lad with the most determined look on his face I’d yet seen.  He sprinted home for 5th with a time that would have put him in our top 7.  I felt chills.

That look of fierce determination could also be read on the countenances of our next pack of runners, as Schnieders, Gates, Naess, Sayre, and Ge finished in a clump, capturing places 9-13 and setting history in the process by giving us 6 all-conference runners in the open race, our most ever at that level, and 15 overall on the day, also a team record, eclipsing the mark of 13 set by both the 2013 and 2014 state championship teams.

Next came Yuji, fighting to the end.  He raced as he trains – with courage, persistence, and pride – but in the end (for this season, as well as his junior year) he fell achingly short of his goal.  Yuji and I had talked the day before his race about his hopes and his strategy, and I encouraged him to take a risk at the meet – to race with boldness and aggression.  “What is the worst thing that could happen?” I asked, thinking I’d help him get perspective with a reminder that a subpar race is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things – but his answer brought me up short: “that I won’t make the top 12.  That I peaked sophomore year.”  Though I assured Yuji that his best races remained far in front of him should he choose to continue running beyond high school, there was not much I could say to provide comfort should he not make the top 12.  Though it seems like an arbitrary goal and not a completely fair one to hold one’s self to (as you can’t control how other people race, only yourself), in Yuji’s case, I understood what he meant completely.  He’d been in that top 12 as a Sophomore, and got to be up on stage with our first state championship team.  I am sure that as he helped his teammates hoist the trophy, he imagined himself returning to the stage as a member of the top 7, knowing he had two full years of high school left – plenty of time to improve and develop.  That is how it is supposed to work.  And in his last two years of high school, Yuji did work harder than he ever had before.  Yet the outcome was the worst possible: a severe stress fracture during his junior year which he still has not fully recovered from.  Perhaps no athlete I ever coached has sustained a worse injury.  Very few have shown the determination and patient grace required for the hundreds of hours of rehab he undertook in order to be able to return to the sport he loves.  After a miserable junior season spent on crutches, Yuji hoped for redemption as a senior, setting a goal to make the top 7 and doing what was necessary every single day (in his training, in his diet, in his sleep patterns, in his care for his body) in his attempt to achieve it.  Through it all, he retained a positive disposition, was the senior leader we needed him to be, and kept a good balance between sport, school, family, friends, and rest.

So, when I saw Yuji at the halfway point of the JV race, desperately trying to cling to his teammates but wincing in pain, my heart sunk.  Moments after the surge of adrenaline came from watching JB and Ben finish, I felt pangs of sadness as I came to the realization that Yuji’s dreams for his senior season would not, in the end, be realized.  I felt similarly for Emmett Grundberg, another team member plagued by injury who’d emerged in the early parts of the season as a legitimate top 7 candidate after an excellent race in Peoria.  For Emmett, I could at least take solace in knowing he was a junior, and would have another season to prove himself.  For Yuji, we’d have to accept reality.  He may yet experience the joys of seeing his work pay off, but it will not be as a member of the HC Cross Country team.  I am completely unashamed to acknowledge that I shed tears with him after the race.  He’d given his all for us and didn’t get the reward he deserved.

In this sport, we preach two somewhat contradictory mantras: hard work pays off, and hard work is its own reward.  To be completely truthful, the first statement is not always accurate, at least if one is looking for a neat equation where hours and effort put in equates assuredly to your hoped for result on race day.  A coach can always cherry pick cases which perpetuate the myth.  We had in attendance at Conference two of our programs’ best recent examples in Josh Feldman and Griffin Gartner, teammates on the 2014 state championship team, and two guys who are living proof that sometimes dreams do come true for those who set out to achieve them.  Chris Kennedy was also at the meet.  Chris was our first EVER member of the 1000 mile club.  He ran 70 mile weeks, but never once a varsity invitational.  Chris helped build the foundation that would lead later teams to the top of the mountain, but when we hoisted our first state champion trophy in 2013, Chris was not on stage, but rather looking up from audience, having driven up from Champaign where he was a freshman to cheer his former teammates on.  Chris’s efforts were never rewarded with medals or trophies, headlines or the enhanced status that comes with finishing at the front.  Yet Chris perfectly illustrates the second maxim: hard work is its own reward.  Chris still runs – he is a member of the club team at Illinois, along with Josh as well as two other former HCXC standouts, Nick Tandle and Ryan Somerfield.  He is in charge of the Club team’s twitter account and blog (a man after my own heart), is on the sidelines for football and basketball games as a reporter, has travelled to Peru, and maintains excellent grades.  In short, he is doing great.  I genuinely hope all the athletes I coach will be as happy, accomplished, and supportive as Chris is when they leave us for college.

All of which is to say that Yuji will be OK, though Saturday was a really tough day for him.  But I think about what my old coach, Mr. Newton, was fond of saying: “It’s nice to be great, but it’s greater to be nice.”  Yuji is nice.  JB is nice.  Emmett Grundberg is nice.  Chris Kennedy is nice.  As we grow up, we’ll all slowly lose the athletic abilities we once enjoyed.  The medals and trophies we won in high school and college will collect dust, and it will be our character that remains.  Honest to goodness, JB and Yuji are men of outstanding character.  To their parents: thank you.  You should be proud of the young men you raised.  I can say this about so many of our athletes, though space and time prevents me from doing it here.  So let those two stand in for the rest: though I hope and will work my hardest to try to ensure that everyone gets a JB-like outcome (or, an outcome like the 2013 and 2014 teams enjoyed), I will never tire of coaching so long as I get to work with people who are contributors to our team culture the way Yuji and JB have been.

Returning, now, to Mr. Newton, one could not help being amazed at the feat his team pulled off on Saturday.  After the worst two consecutive state finishes of his entire 50-year tenure at York, the Dukes are officially back after pulling off the victory at an incredibly close varsity conference meet.  Just how close?  These results tell part of the tale:


As you can see, the results were not the ones we were hoping for.  Admittedly, we were down a man, holding back Nathan Hill who has been managing IT-band pain.  That was a hard decision, as we knew we’d need him to have our best chance for contending for the win, but discretion proved the better part of valor and so we decided not to test him before he is ready so that he’ll be there in two and three weeks when we need him most.  It is not unreasonable to think that his presence in the race could have altered the outcome considerably – perhaps he’d have run 15 seconds faster than our #5 man Ryan Doorhy (who ran 15:00) in which case there would have been 4 teams whose total time for their top 5 runners all came within 3 seconds.  In such a scenario, we’d have finished 2nd rather than 4th, though I’m not sure we’d have felt much better with such an outcome.  In truth, our varsity ran timidly, failing to execute our race plan by letting others dictate the race’s pace.  Blake took the pace out hard, as expected, and was the only athlete in the race to challenge front-runner Irwin Loud, though he was bested by his conference rival this time around.  After that, there was a lead chase back and a secondary chase pack, and all our athletes save Andrew Irvine opted for the comfort of the latter.  Sam Fathizadeh moved up methodically from the second chase pack and ran a gutsy race to finish 14th and all-conference, a truly remarkable feat when considering he was 33rd in Sophomore conference on year ago.  Chris Brenk kicked hard for 10th, but by his own admission ran too tentatively early on.  Irvine deserves credit for getting out hard, but it took all his reserves to hold on for the tough luck spot of 17th, one place out of the medals.  Planson and Belgrad, who were 2nd and 3rd at sophomore conference a year ago, ran flat – each will strive to redeem themselves next week at Regionals.

With such intense competition, we knew we could not afford to run safely or be off our game, and we were both.  It was a tough pill to swallow finishing fourth in our conference of seven teams after having finished no worse than second in any meet over the past three seasons, but such was the case on Saturday.  We can take small solace in knowing that 4th in the WSC wins almost every other conference in state, in recognizing how fast fortunes can change in this sport (JB and Sam ran terribly in a time trial on Monday before running great 5 days later; we looked awful at Sectionals last year before running our best race of the season one week later), and in celebrating what the day meant for the team as a whole rather than focusing solely on the varsity level.

Just how tough has the WSC-silver become?  16th place in 2015 would have finished 5th in 2009 on the same course and in similar conditions!

Just how tough has the WSC-silver become? 16th place in 2015 would have finished 5th in 2009 on the same course and in similar conditions!

Indeed, our freshmen give us ample reason to be optimistic about the future.  Our goal for the race was to place 5 runners in the top 25 and 10 in the top 50.  We achieved that goal exactly, with Charlie Carter as our surprise 5th man in 24th and Josh Terry kicking down two runners in the final straightaway to earn 48th place as our 10th runner.  For only the second time in the past ten years, we had three freshman runners earn all-conference honors (Matt Kusak in 10th, Kevin Hopkins in 11th, and Fletcher Spillers in 16th).  The only other group to match that feat was our current seniors – Andrew Irvine was 5th three years ago, Michael Gates was 7th, and Tyshaun Hamilton, who moved to New York after his freshman year, was 15th.  Given that we were without our #1 man Alec Hill all season and that the fastest any of these guys ran in our August time trial was over 13 minutes for 3200, this group has a lot to be proud of.

The same can be said of our Sophomores.  We knew from the beginning of the season that we’d have four experienced runners to pave the way for us in Sean O’Connell, Steven Zaher, Colin Yandel, and Neil Cumberland.  The question was whether we could find a fifth.  On Saturday, newcomer Sam Schiavitti proved himself worthy of that honor.  Sam raced with the maturity of a much more-experienced runner and executed the race of his life to finish 20th overall for us.  Pretty incredible for a guy who started the year with a 3200 PR of 13:16.  O’Connell led the charge with a third place overall finish, running his best race of the season to date.  He was followed through by teammates Zaher (in 10th) and Yandel (in 13th).  All three men improved upon their finishes from last year, all earning all-conference for the very first time.  Cumberland, who earned all-conference as a freshman, faced an uphill battle this season, fighting back from a stress reaction which sidelined him for two months.  Though his race did not go as well as he hoped, he helped us get 5 guys in the top 25 to secure us third place overall, a mere 3 points out of second.  These five, along with others like Mac Anderson, Alex Choi, Kyle Jones Shaw, Kiril Kuzmanvoski and our freshman core, give us plenty to work with in the coming years.

A metric I have used to evaluate our progress is to look at our total point value on all four levels at Conference as compared to previous years.  From 2007 to 2014, we managed to drop this score every single year.  I knew from the start that maintaining this streak would become increasingly difficult, and it ended this year.  Had both Hill brothers been healthy, we probably would have kept it alive.  Regardless, our combined score of 258 is the second lowest in school history, and is better than our 2013 team which went on to win state.  And, as mentioned earlier, we had more all-conference runners than ever before:

Year Total points scored at conference (all four levels combined) Total of place finish for all four levels Number of all-conference runners
2005 531 20 4
2006 472 17 4
2007 486 18 4
2008 393 15 6
2009 375 18 8
2010 350 14 9
2011 343 13 9
2012 299 12 12
2013 269 10 13
2014 239 8 13
2015 258 13 15

So, we enter now the championship phase, and no one could plausibly claim that we haven’t been battle-tested.  Our primary season goal, of being the best HC team ever, remains possible, though it will require focus, determination, and most of all, belief.  Yet even if we exhibit all three qualities, no outcome is guaranteed, as the conference meet reminded us.  But, as the deeply felt emotion of the weekend (both joyful and painful) also reminds us: no matter what happens, it will have been worth it to try.

One thought on “Conference Recap: The Joy and Heartache of Coaching

  1. I think this was my favorite post ever!! Nice does matter and thank you for being a coach that recognizes that. Huge Yuji fans here in the Scully house!


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