The 2016 Cross Country season officially began in mid-June, and as a kick-off event we hosted a guest speaker, Donn Behnke, the former head coach of Wisconsin Stevens Points High School and author of the recent book “The Animal Keepers.” The idea for brining Behnke in to Illinois to speak to high school cross country athletes originated with Paul Vandersteen, the wise and genial coach of Neuqua Valley. Paul knew that I had enjoyed Behnke’s book because I’d posted a note on social media about it, and on that basis, he asked if we wanted to coordinate the event with him.
This was long before the results of today’s meet were known to anyone, and though Neuqua appeared to have many good returning runners, we’d had, at that point, no inclination of the immense success they would come to enjoy, capped off by this afternoon’s state title, their third since 2007.
The theme of Behnke’s book, though, is not about winning (not really) but rather about the power of team, the virtue of inclusion, and sport as an ennobling pursuit. It’s a story about a misfit kid from a group home who came out for the team, how he defied his coach and teammates’ expectations by being a fearsome competitor, and about how they, in turn, rallied to provide the network of support and care that he’d been deprived of in his life to that point.
In his speech to the gathered runners (which included athletes from future trophy teams Downers Grove North, Minooka, and Neuqua, as well as many of our athletes) Behnke recalled that 1985 season, one which was also marked by the birth of his daughter. He talked about how, in that season, he made the transition from ‘Coach as big brother’ to ‘Coach as parent.’
One year ago, as we headed to state, my wife Megan was 8.5 months pregnant. This year, as I left the house on Friday morning, I kissed goodbye to her and our 11.5 month old daughter Clio. Like the season Behnke documented in his book, this was my first as a parent. And like him, I felt the transition from being viewed by the boys I coached as a cooler older sibling to being viewed more as an authority figure – by turns disciplinarian and compassionate.
This season was not an easy one, but, now that the results are known, it is one of which we can be proud. What made this year more difficult than the last few was that, after three years of legitimately being in the trophy hunt, this year we learned through some particularly difficult lessons that earning top three in state was not going to be a very realistic goal. And, in truth, it was harder to stay motivated and to face the challenge of weeks of rigorous training in face of the knowledge that a trip upon the podium was not likely to be our reward. As a consequence, our team struggled to find our footing early on. Though our finishing places were toward the top at all meets we ran, the truth was that throughout the regular season, we did not have a single meet where we felt we’d run the best we were capable of on the varsity level. What ultimately got us back on track was changing our focus from outward to inward. As we approached state, we had a new and more meaningful goal: to run in a way that left us with no regrets.
No mention was made of place goals in our team meetings Friday Night and Saturday morning. We focused instead on the process, one aspect of which was to appreciate the opportunity to run in the state championships at beautiful Detweiller Park, a place heaving with the weight of history. Detweiller Park’s golden hued trees are an integral part of the state cross country experience. Those leaves, Autumn’s emblem, call to mind the inevitable passage of time. Our current top 7 were once freshmen and sophomores who came down to watch the state meet on the team fan bus. Several of the current freshmen and sophomores came down this year, and a few of them will, in a year or two, be the new top 7. The first year we qualified as a team during my coaching tenure, 2008, I was dating Megan but not yet engaged. Now we are married and parents. The first year I ran in the state meet was twenty years ago, in 1996. My coach, Mr. Newton, was than 67 years old. Now he is 87 and tomorrow I will attend his retirement celebration at York High School in Elmhurst. The Cubs just won the world series. The world turns. A new era is upon us.
Of Mr. Newton, let it be said, that no man ever did more for the sport of Cross Country in the state of Illinois, let alone the nation. That the Illinois State Meet has become the festive, electric, and competitive event it now is would never have been possible without him. His success as a coach will, of course, be unmatched, but the success of our state is also to his eternal credit.
When I ran in my first state meet two decades ago, our team finished 5th, and we left the course hanging our heads, believing that we’d let down our coach and the legions of York runners who’d come before us. Shockingly, 5th was at that point the worst York finish in 27 years. If there is one way I depart from my old coach, it is in thinking it unfair to measure each new team I coach against all those that came before. The only appropriate measure can be whether each group of kids became the best they, collectively and individually, could be. So, 20 years ago, the team I ran on finished 5th and felt despondent, while today, the team I coach for finished 6th, and I feel proud, at peace with the reality that the boys I coach earned an end result that represents pretty damn near close the best finish of which we were capable.
I am proud of Blake Evertsen, who mustered every reserve he had to finish 19th in state. I know his aspirations were higher, that he finished 4th a year ago. But I saw him with 300 to go and it was clear his tank was empty. I feared he would fade into the 30s or 40s, or jog in having seen his dream of a top finish elude his grasp. Instead, he fought on. In the end, that helped our team immensely, as the gap between 6th and 7th place was a mere 2 points. He is the best runner I’ve ever coached. Hell, in the first race of our season he outkicked Soren Knudsen, who today become the state champion with a blistering time of 14:02. He is headed to Harvard next year, so it is safe to say his future is bright. I hope he will take pride in his performance today and in his preparation this season.
I am proud of Sean O’Connell, who suffered through some very rough races in the early part of our season, but finished today as our second man in a personal best time of 15:10. He will be a leader of our team next season, and I have total confidence in his ability to rise to that challenge. Sean is tough, savvy, cerebral, and witty. He is a super talented athlete and I still don’t know how we managed to be so lucky as to win him over from the baseball team, but I am grateful every day that he committed to us.
I am proud of Sam Fathizadeh, who probably had the most frustrating season of any member of the top 7, but who showed up today when it counted the most and finished as our 3rd man. After Sectionals, we faced a very difficult decision about who would be on our top 7, and gave serious consideration to appointing Sam as our first alternate. We ultimately decided to place our faith in him knowing he’d had a year of experience running at state and that his workouts had been strong. Today, Sam vindicated that decision and changed the tenor of his entire season in a single race. The stress fracture, bad races, and twisted ankles are all now in the past, road blocks overcome by a kid who never gave up.
I am proud of Ryan Doorhy, who crashed and burned in his first two meets of the season before we discovered that he was anemic, with Ferritin levels of 10 (less than 30 is considered unhealthy). It’s been a long road back for this gritty senior. My last observation point during the race was near the tall pine trees which mark the spot where 300 meters remains in the race. Of everyone in our top 7, no one today was kicking harder here than Ryan. He likely passed 20 athletes in the final stretch. That will be my last cross country memory of him, summoning his strength to kick furiously.
I am proud of Jan Erik Naess, who finally decided to go ‘all in’ to Cross Country this season and finished as our all important 5th man. As anyone on our team can attest, no one on our team smiles more than him (for our annual mock awards ceremony, he was presented with maple syrup to honor his Canadian heritage and toothpaste to honor his infectious grin), and his positive attitude was a good ingredient to add to our mix this season.
I am proud of Ethan Planson, who took a risk today by trying to be all-state – it cost him, but he dared to go there, which few too many athletes do. Ethan was our 6th man – the 4th best 6th man in state. He has trained hard for a long time, even when there were times when it was not coming easily to him. Running is a joy for some, a chore for others. For Ethan, I suspect, it is a bit of both, but his allegiance to his teammates is his most important value, and for them he gave his all. We are all richer for that sacrifice.
I am proud of Neil Cumblerland, who, I know, did not have the race he wanted today, but who earned valuable experience which we will count on next season. Neil is studious, methodical, and responsible (an eagle scout!), all virtues common to great distance runners. He finished the entire season without injury, which in itself was a significant achievement and which has allowed him to build a foundation for future success, which I know he will have.
I am proud of Ben Schnieders, Jacob Belgrad, Sam Schiavitti, Colin Yandel, and Alec Hill. These five composed the remaining members of the top 12 we were able to admit to the state series. To earn that distinction was a challenging task on a team as deep as ours. I only wish seniors Ben and Jacob had gotten a chance to run at state. On well over half of the teams that made state, they’d have been in the top 7. Those two did every bit as much work as our top 7, and are every bit as tough. I will miss them both dearly next year. As for Sam, Colin, and Alec, the talk about next year has already happened. It’s been inspiring to watch our neighbors at DGN make a huge jump in one year (from 18th to 2nd). These three boys will form a core along with Sean, Neil, and many others as we attempt to follow suit.
I am proud of all the HCXC runners who showed themselves to be teammates in the truest sense by making the long journey down to Peoria to watch us today. This includes (by memory) freshmen Carter McCarroll, Mason Steere, Magnus Naess, Jack Kinsey, and Lincoln Virant, Sophomores Matt Kusak, Keegan Caveney, Brandon Belgrad, Charlie Carter, Fletcher Spillers, Anshul Sankaran, Liam Walsh, James Giltner, and Bradley Davis, Juniors John Wheeler, Liam Bots, Jack Borys, Alex Choi, Joe Glasby, and Steven Zaher and seniors John Bynan, Michael Chadwell, Nicky Midlash, Joe Miscimarra, and Emmett Grundberg (who earns special recognition for being true to his word of supporting the team even after making the painful decision not to come out his senior year).
And I am proud (always proud) of our alumni. Thanks to TJ Caveney, Matt Tobia, Sean O’Flaherty, and Billy Fayette for your support today. All the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph will eventually join your ranks. It is such a privilege to have coached you guys, such an honor to be able to continue to coach your younger brothers, be they literal (in TJ’s case) or metaphorical.
On Tuesday, we’ll have an election, and the third of three months-long narratives will be resolved (baseball and cross country being the other two). In this time of maximum national division, let us reflect on the power of cross country to bring us together, bound by our common quest of becoming the best we can be.