Lay Your Cards on the Table

“Cross Country is harder than soccer.”  This is the report sophomore Keegan Caveney gave to his parents after finishing his first ever high school race.  Caveney is fairly positioned to judge, having played ‘the beautiful game’ for both his high school and club teams last year.  Among the possible athletic challenges available to students across our nation, it is hard to argue against the looming imposition of three miles over hill and dale as the endeavor most requiring of fortitude.  As fans cheering the racers on, we have only the slightest sense of the internal battles waged in the minds of each and every harrier swiftly passing by.  The racer must contend against the elements, their opponents, and their own body’s natural tendencies.  With due respect to football and soccer players, I suspect they do not quite understand how it feels to have over 400 meters left in a race and sense a rival pull even.  Your body aches, sweat pours, breath heavy – and you must make a decision: can I summon reserves of strength to hold off this challenger?  How will I manage to hold this pace for another minute and a half?!   Wait, now it’s not enough to maintain, I have to somehow run faster?!   As all Cross Country runners know, the last two minutes of a race warps conventional notions of time, which stretches out in ways unknown to the sedentary.

Yes, Cross Country is an unforgiving sport, and our home course at KLM is particularly unforgiving. KLM exacts a yearly toll: it is a beast in search of victims.  Last year at the Hornet-Red Devil Invite, Neuqua Valley’s Scott Anderson finished an amazing fourth place after breaking his foot during the race.  At the Sectional meet two months later, Sandburg’s sophomore sensation Dylan Jacobs was the next to fall prey, sustaining a hamstring injury which prevented him from competing at full strength a week later at state for the eventual champions.  And we who call KLM our home are not immune to its proclivities.  KLM reached out its maw and took its first swipe at us the day before the Hornet-Red Devil as we were jogging the course for practice.  Nearing the creek jump (the most blatant of KLM’s many snares) senior Sam Fathizadeh took one false step and resprained an ankle he’d twisted the past summer.  He let out a yelp, and a bit of the air of confidence we’d built after an excellent week of training was released.  Sam gamely walked back to school, and after icing and meeting with the trainer, learned the injury was not severe – if he felt fine during the warm-up, he’d be cleared for competition.

So, we’d dodged that bullet, but KLM was not done with us yet.  The first race at yesterday’s Hornet-Red Devil Invite was the highly touted varsity boys race.  I had been particularly looking forward to this race, as I was anxious to see how we matched up against other teams in the state and against previous iterations of our own team in an authentic environment (only so much projection can be drawn from practice results).  This is the first weekend in Illinois of major invitationals, offering up an initial glimpse of which teams may have the pieces to contend for a trophy.  After holding cards close to their chests, many coaches throw down what they have for all to see.  After watching the varsity race, I can say this: Neuqua Valley’s top-3 national ranking is indeed merited.  The Wildcats ran a disciplined race and served notice to the rest of their state by placing four runners in the top eight without Anderson, their top returning runner from last season.  We were not in their league.

And we may not be this season.  And that may be OK.  What is not OK is racing in a way that is below our capability, which proved the case for several of our top athletes on Saturday.  Momentum builds or is lost throughout a race, and we lost ours early.  I will let Sean O’Connell explain: “well today didn’t go the way i hoped it to. Right at the start I tripped over plan (Ethan Planson) and when I tried to get back up, someone stepped on my heel and my shoe with the chip in it fell off. I stopped to see if I could get it back but there was a stampede behind me so I had no chance and getting it back on. After that, I lost all focus.”   While I believe our #2-#9 guys will be interchangeable all season, no one from that group had looked better in practices this week than Sean.  That he still managed to finish 33rd overall despite running with only one shoe speaks to his talent (big props to freshmen Magness Naess for having the presence of mind to grab Sean’s spike with attached timing chip and then tossing it to Sean right before he crossed the finishing mat!) and certainly makes me wish for a do-over, which one does not get in our sport (there are no timeouts in XC)!  I really do believe teammates feed off each other’s energy during races, and Sean’s early tribulations threw his teammates a curveball to which they had trouble adjusting.  I saw the team first at the 1000 meter mark, where we actually were in the lead, but that fast early pace took its toll, and we’d faded badly by the next time I saw the group.

Despite the frustrating results, there were some genuine highlights in the varsity race.  Blake Evertsen won a hard fought battle with Soren Knudsen to defend the individual title he earned last year.  Knudsen took the pace out hard, but Blake ran savvy, patiently running his own race.  In conversation afterwards, he acknowledged that he’d had moments of doubt during the race, but, like the championship athlete he is, he managed to keep those doubts at bay.  With around 300 meters left in the race, Blake made a strong move to pass Soren and never looked back, crossing the line in 14:48.6, the fastest time ever on the newest version of the course.  Echoing Caveney’s sentiments, he said to me “that was hard.”   Truth teller that my role requires me to be, I replied, “it’s not going to get any easier.”  Conference opponents Kern, Loud, Zona, Kilrea, and Danner await, new tests for Blake to face in the weeks ahead.

Here is another HC success story: Ben Schnieders.  Consider Ben’s performances at HRD over the past three years:

2014-17:40-17th man on team

2015-16:52-13th man on team

2016-15:48.0-4th man on team

 

Young runners, that is how you do it.  Methodical consistent training is what got Ben to where he is.  Some guys are talented from the get go, but others, like Ben, grind it out.  I could not be prouder of him.

Senior Jacob Belgrad had a solid race, finishing 16th overall as our second man.  His decision to start out more conservatively paid dividends for him and he hung tough.  Fellow senior Jan Erik Naess may surprise some this season.  Barely two weeks after running 10:33 as our 12th man during our early season 3200 fitness test, Jan was our 6th man today and 28th overall.  He is whipping into shape fast, and hoping to make the most of his last year with the Red Devils.

Another Solid race was also turned in by junior Neil Cumberland, who finished 20th.  I’d remind him that Keegan’s older brother TJ was 19th at the HRD as a senior, and later finished 25th at state (for that matter, Jacob Belgrad might take note that Soren Knudsen was 16th last year at the HRD and went on to finish 11th at state!)  And while KLM tried to derail the efforts of Charlie Gelman who, like O’Connell, lost his shoe during the race (Charlie opted to then take off his other shoe as well and run barefoot, Tarahumara style) it was Gelman who won the fight, running a huge PR of 18:50 while beating his 3200 PR en route.

 

The Sophomores

Here is the most salient fact about the Sophomore race:

 

2015-Freshman team results

  1. Naperville North 58, 2. Naperville Central 81, 3. Palatine 124, 4. Metea Valley 134, 5. Neuqua Valley 146, 6. New Trier 172, 7. Wheaton Warrenville South 186, 8. HINSDALE CENTRAL 216, 9. Evanston 219, 10. Highland Park 282

 

2016-Sophomore team results

2016 HRD soph results

From eighth to first in one year!  This is a group that has a lot to be proud of.  The pieces began falling in place this past June, with the announcement from Keegan Caveney that he’d decided to take a leap of faith and join Cross Country instead of soccer.  Keegan had just come off a very strong freshmen track campaign, where he’d bonded with his freshmen teammates and started to become aware of his ability.  It helped that he comes from a running family: Dad, older brother TJ, and older sister Molly all ran for the Red Devils.  Perhaps part of explanation for the success of this 10th grade group is that four of the top five runners have older brothers who ran for us, so XC is something they’ve long been familiar with.  Our top man yesterday was Alec Hill, whose older brother Nathan just left this past Monday for his freshmen year at Middlebury College.

Alec pic

The KLM creek tried its best to conquer young Alec Hill, but what he lacks in size, Alec makes up in stature. Like Mo Farah in the Olympic 10K, Hill got right back up and finished strong in 3rd overall, leading the Sophs to victory.  Note to AD Jones: Cross Country is NOT too fun when you are towards the end of the race – it’s really hard(!) – but it sure is fun after, especially if you have the satisfaction of doing your best.

Our #4 man was Brandon Belgrad, younger brother of Jacob.  Brandon was 70th place last year as a freshmen and 12th this year, a testament to how committed he has become to the sport.  Our #5 man was Kevin Hopkins (nicknamed “K-Hop”) whose brother Jeff is entering his junior year at Auburn.

The one athlete of that top five who does not have an older brother is Matt Kusak, who perhaps had the race of the day yesterday.  After finishing 36th his freshmen year, Matt ran a spirited race to finish 4th overall.  Since I started coaching, the only HC athletes to finish higher in the Sophomore race (aside from Alec yesterday) were Blake Evertsen and Chris Brenk, both of whom were all-state athletes.  My favorite moment from yesterday’s meet was seeing a pack of Caveney, Kusak, Belgrad, and Hopkins about 1200 meters into the race trailing only Hill and three other frontrunners.  It was the realization of a goal the Sophomore group made with each other, independent of the coaching staff: to win HRD and redefine the identity of their grade level.  The Sophomores join the 2009 team as the only other champion at that level to win.  Tom and Michael Lyons, two members of that Sophomore team, were in attendance to watch the proceedings, their first time back watching the HRD since they graduated back in 2012.  In many ways, that 2009 Sophomore group changed what we believed to be possible at Hinsdale Central.  They were the first genuine champions we’d coached.  By improving so much in a single year, this current group not only gets to savor a victory, but has provided evidence for future teams of what can be accomplished through determination, focus, and commitment to teammates.

THE FRESHMEN

In the week leading up to the HRD, we have been trying to teach our freshmen about the history of Illinois high school cross country and the relationship of Hinsdale Central to that history.  Historically, we have never fared particularly well at our first big meet, but we have ample examples of athletes from our program making huge leaps from their freshmen to sophomore year (see above).  That said, we presented our freshmen with the following challenge: earn top 3, and they’d be the highest placing freshmen squad for Hinsdale Central at the HRD of the new millennium.  We fell a bit short of that goal, but the freshmen had a strong debut and finished fourth overall, which ties the 2012 freshmen for the best we’ve finished in this meet since before 2000.  This group ran a tight 17 second split off their top 6 runners to best teams from such storied programs as Neuqua Valley, Palatine, and Naperville North.  Chinmay Amin and Aaron Lu, former teammates from Westview Middle School, led us in 24th and 25th, with Steven Rakos, Will Fahy, Charlie Brubaker, and Carter McCarroll close behind.  We placed 12 runners in the top 100 of a race that had 247 total athletes, which speaks to the depth of this group.  Anand Yallapragada, Addison White, and Jack Kinsey all took over TWO FULL MINUTES off the time they’d run just four days earlier at DGN – as they are learning fast how to race.  And Daniel Skora, the smallest of our dimunitive freshmen group, took on an opponent a foot taller down the final straightaway, trading places several times in the final 100 meters before eking past in the final steps, a triumph I was pleased to witness.  Training will get you so far, but at moments like that, you must also have heart, and Skora showed his in that revelatory challenge.

 

OVERALL

When evaluating the overall team performance, I must say that I am very proud of how we competed at our first major invite.  Balancing all three levels together, this is the strongest team we’ve ever had:

Historical Overview of Hinsdale Central’s performance at Hornet-Red Devil Invitational

Freshman team place Sophomore team place Varsity team place Total combined place
2001 8th 7th 4th 19
2002 6th 5th 6th 17
2003 7th 2nd 12th 21
2004 9th 6th 4th 19
2005 6th 5th 11th 22
2006 8th 6th 9th 23
2007 5th 5th 10th 20
2008 7th 8th 5th 20
2009 7th 1st 6th 14
2010 6th 5th 5th 16
2011 8th 4th 4th 16
2012 4th 3rd 4th 11
2013 7th 3rd 1st 11
2014 6th 3rd 1st 10
2015 8th N/A 2nd 10*
2016 4th 1st 2nd 7

 

And of the 54 athletes who competed this past Tuesday in a tri-meet against Downers North and OPRF, literally all 54 improved their times by 40 seconds or more!

Improvement

Every single athlete improved their time by at least 40 seconds from Tuesday’s meet at DGN. Athletes who improved by 2 minutes or more are highlighted.

So we return to work, spirits buoyed, reserves of resolve spilling over, ready anew for the hardest fifteen minutes of high school sport.

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