This was not the most talented group we’ve ever coached. We returned only our #2 and #7 from last year’s 6th place team. Based upon returning 3200 meter times, we were beginning the season from a weaker point than any of the past four years. Since last year, we knew that for the team to be successful we’d have to depend on factors other than talent: hard work, integrity, humility, cohesiveness. In January, I had a meeting with Alec Hill, Sam Schiavitti, Sean O’Connell, and Neil Cumberland. I read them passages from “The Boys in the Boat.” Winter break usually affords me the opportunity to read a book, something I usually can’t manage during season, and my selection that December was this non-fiction work about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team, first recommended to me by Kevin Gummerson, head coach of Minooka, and a social studies teacher like myself. The excerpts I selected emphasized what could be accomplish when individuals sublimated their ego for the good of the team:
“What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”
Like a well rowed boat, these 2017 varsity team was steady all year: 2nd at Hornet- Red, 2nd at First to the Finish, 3rd at Palatine, 4th at Twilight, 3rd at Conference, 3rd at Sectionals. We entered the week of state with the goal of running the best we were capable of on the day. We knew we could not control how anyone else did. We also knew, though, that a top three finish, while unlikely, was at least within the realm of possibility. We decided to look at that prospect as an awesome opportunity, one not often afforded. Come what may, we wanted to know that on the day we met the challenge in front of us, did not cow in fear.
Our first advantage came from the collective wisdom from our alumni. I specifically asked all Hinsdale Central runners from the modern era who earned all-state to share advice and encouragement with the team. What these men shared in common is that all of them rose to the occasion in a championship situation. I figured they more than anyone would have useful ideas for how to execute when it matters most. Amazingly, of the 22 people who fit this criteria, fully 16 of them wrote to us – and I’ve no doubt their words helped spur us on today. From a tactical standpoint, TJ Caveney reminded the boys:
“Get out fast. The race gets out very fast; you’re going to here this from a lot of people. Make sure you don’t assume it will come naturally. I must have heard it 100 times before running my first state meet, but I ended up not getting out fast enough, which was a fatal error. Have ‘get out fast’ going through your head all morning and as you wait for the gun to go off. Everyone around you is also trying to get out fast, so you’re going to have to be extra fast. I don’t believe its possible to go out too fast, as long as you’re sprinting with controlled form and breathing well.”
Josh Feldman wrote for a page and a half, covering all topics from pre-race mental preparation to every detail of the race itself, reminding our boys:
“You should want this race to be incredibly hard. Harder than mile repeats at Kenosha, than 5 x mile, than 25 x 400. You should be thinking ‘I really hope I push myself to the point where this is the hardest race of my life, because it should be.’ That should be your goal. That way, you will know that you are giving it everything you have. There’s no reason to fear the pain, because it will only last 15 minutes. You want to be in pain because you want to give it everything. Pain is the key to your dreams. Seek out the pain, embrace it.”
Kevin Haung focused more on the ‘why’ of running, imploring the boys:
“During that last mile on Saturday, when you are hurting and think you have nothing left, I want you to remember your teammates… the teammates who have run over 1000 miles with you, talked and laughed with you on a Waterfall loop, who have pushed you through every KLM repeat, cheered on your best races, and picked you back up when you had a bad one. Think about who you are running for, and who is running for you.”
And Tom O’Shea, an all-state middle distance runner for Hinsdale Central in the 1980s who went on to compete at Loyola University echoed Kevin, urging our guys to remember the power of TEAM:
“Your lungs, legs, and arms will all help you Saturday but ultimately your minds as a collective group/team is what will make Saturday successful or just another average race.”
And while it was indeed a genuine team effort, the guy that made the race for us was Neil Cumberland. I have never seen him run so well as he did today. Neil has not had an easy path. He has dealt with plenty of poor races, inconsistency, and self-doubt. He ran in state last year as a junior and succumbed to the pressure, never factoring in the team scoring and finishing well below potential. It was a humbling but clarifying experience. No guy on our team moved up more places in the final mile than he did (28 spots) and no team other than Downers North had a higher placing 5th man. He was the first guy I saw coming out of the chute and I ran to him, hugged him, and shouted at him: “You did it!”
A few seconds ahead of Sean was our other returning state runner, Sean O’Connell. I worried about Sean given that he’d come down with a cold mid-week. He stayed inside on Thursday while the rest of the team ran their workout, started taking cold medication, and even packed a humidifier to keep in his hotel room on Friday night. Sean ran smart, not getting out too fast, and moved up nicely in the second half of the race. I can say with certainty that no athlete on our team worked harder in the 365 days since last state meet. While his overall individual place today was, I know, not what he’d hoped for, our team place was. And in the end, that is what we’ll remember the most. Sean did his part by being a quite humble leader. He worked hard and inspired others to do the same. That will be his lasting legacy.
Something similar can be said about Sam Schiavitti. Sam was our 7th man today. Late season illness and a nagging injury prevented him from having the state race he wanted. But, he, like Sean, worked tremendously hard to get to this point. If Sean ran the highest mileage of anyone in our top 7, Sam was definitely in second place. He is probably the most gregarious member of what has to be the most quiet and serious varsity group we’ve had in a long while. When I told the team about my twins back in September, it was he who came, on behalf of his teammates, to tell me they were thinking about me. When the race was over and we were packing up, it was Sam who stayed behind to make sure all water bottles were thrown away and that everyone had grabbed all their belongings. The point here is that you can contribute to your team in a lot of ways, and Sam certainly enriched ours.
Our juniors, too, were steady as could be today. Alec Hill finished 37th, pretty darn good considering he’d been 18th in conference just three weeks previous. As they say about Rudy, the famed former Notre Dame kicker, Alec is “five foot nothing, a hundred and nothing.” Actually, less than 100. He might be the smallest guy out there, but what a heart. Alec broke 15:00 for the first time today and will be an unequivocal leader in the year ahead.
As will Matt Kusak, our hyper-focused fourth man. Matt, too, struggled this season finding competitive fire for the finals stages of his race. The transition from sophomore year to junior year is a tough one, as an athlete used to being at the front of most races usually finds themselves junior year in the uncomfortable middle. Matt ran fairly well throughout the season, though had some races where he underperformed. He used each subpar race as a learning experience, adjusting his strategy based on his previous performance. By Regionals, he’d begun to gain his confidence back. As we approached state, I knew he was ready to run well. He finished 54th today and has a new PR to show for it. He’ll join Alec as the beating heart’s core of next year’s team.
As a junior at state in 2012, TJ Caveney ran 15:33 and finished 126th. As a junior at state in 2017, younger brother Keegan ran 15:33 and finished 121st. Those who know our team’s history know how TJs senior year finished out. As mentioned earlier, TJ wrote in his advice to the team about the importance of getting out fast. Of all our runners, Keegan least adhered to this advice. When I saw him after rounding the first turn, he must have been in 200th place. From there, though, he moved up nicely and earned a big PR on an even bigger stage. Keegan joined us as a sophomore after playing soccer freshmen year, and it is fair to say that decision has and will continue to pay huge dividends!
And what can I say about Colin Yandel? I’ve never had an athlete improve as much in a single season as he has. He entered the season with personal best of 2:15 in the 800, 4:45 in the 1600, and 10:03 in the 3200. He finished 16th in JV conference as a junior and was the 12th man on our roster of 12 travelling down state.
His form is gangly, he has long legs and no waist, and he was the last guy of our returning top 12 we ever expected to be leading us this season. But lead he did. And it was not accidental. As he began to understand himself as an elite runner, his habits changed to match the new identity: keeping his distance from coughing teammates, packing his own healthy lunch to eat on our trip down. Colin joins the likes of TJ Caveney, Griffin Gartner, and Josh Feldman as guys who rose up in ways no one anticipated. I will tell his story for the rest of my coaching career. The moral is this: you just don’t know when all your hard work will pay off. You can put in countless miles and hard workouts and see very little payoff, but as long as you keep faith and don’t give into the frustration, the possibility remains of a breakthrough. I promise you Colin Yandel never even dared to believe he could be all-state even as late as the Hornet-Red invite this year. We stand in disbelief at his accomplishment.
To our alternates – Piyush Mekla, Fletcher Spillers, Bradley Davis, Anshul Sankaran, and Will Ricker, you guys played your roles beautifully. You observed, you learned, you protected our troops, and you gained inspiration that will fuel you in the years ahead. Congratulations on a well-earned experience. You are charged now to use it for the betterment of yourselves and teammates.
We had tremendous support from our larger team. Jack Borys and Alex Treankler came through in the clutch to shepherd a crew of guys down state. This crew (plus others) included John Wheeler, Brandon Belgrad, Charlie Carter, Liam ‘Ro’-Bots, Nathan Saltzman, Andy Munoz, Tom Kusak, Aaron Lu, Patrick Hsiao, Mac Anderson, Liam Walsh, and Joe Glasby. If I could figure out how to do it, I’d mandate every guy on our team to come down state. How could you not leave inspired? Illinois’s state XC championship is second to none. I know the guys who came will not for a moment regret the five hours in the car. Thanks, you guys, for your support. You share in this outcome 100%.
ILXCTF pre-season rankings had us ranked 14th.
Milesplit and ITCCCA had us a little better in 7th and 9th. I would have put us 8-10. It was the first year in a half decade where earning a trophy was not an explicit goal of ours. I knew we were not in the league of DGN, and that other teams had much more returning firepower than us. In the days leading to state, I was asked often what my hopes for our team were. My reply: 7th place would meet expectations. Worse than 7th I’d be disappointed. Better than 7th would exceed expectations. So, there you have it. The guys stepped up when it mattered, fought as hard as they could. We didn’t trophy, but we got damn close. We finished as the third best HCXC team in history, with only the 2013 and 2014 state champion teams doing better. I am as proud of this team as I was of those.
Some other notes from state:
I was thrilled when I saw the results of the girls 3A state meet and noticed the LT Girls finished third and earned a trophy. It may seem odd to hear a Hinsdale Central coach revel in a rival’s success (I was equally happy to see Grace McCabe and McKenna Revord earn all-state) but in this case I was really happy for the aptly named head Coach of the LT Girls, Alex Lyons. I first got to know Alex when he student taught at Hinsdale Central. He sought me out to ask some questions about coaching, and I quickly came to appreciate his passion for the sport, keen intellect, and stoic demeanor. He has proved a quick study, leading his team to fifth place as a rookie coach and to a trophy in just his second year. He is the guy I have run more with on Sunday more than anyone else this season (DGN state champion coach John Sipple ranks a close second) so I’ve learned of his teams’ ups and downs basically in real time. I know his girls finished 9th place at First to the Finish in the second week of September, and that Alex had the patience and faith even then to believe they’d improve by state. Coach Lyons has the wisdom and maturity of someone twice his age, but he may be the youngest head coach in 3A. That should be a scary thought for coaches of girls’ teams statewide.
As we drove our minibus up the crowded road towards our team area, I looked out the window to see Sandburg’s head coach John O’Malley walking across the field, carrying a gift bag with pink tissue paper peaking out of it. I found that to be curious. I was amazed and virtually speechless when, a little while later, after I’d exited the bus and was standing outside our team area, John came up to give the bag to me. It was a gift for my twin girls (who turned two months old today) along with a card from his family. What a truly class act. For those wondering why Sandburg has established such a strong tradition, that act of kindness goes a long way towards explaining it.
Which leads me to DGN. Their performance yesterday was historically good, the lowest score at state since 2007 and the lowest ever in the 3-class era. I was not at all surprised. I had seen their program growing for years, had been watching their dominant seniors Ridderhoff, Chudzik, Christensen, McCool, and Birkmeier since they were little freshmen. They are a talented group for sure. But I must share three separate anecdotes which better tell the story of how DGN became the dominant program they proved to be yesterday:
Story one – We are in the moments after the end of the 2013 state cross country 3A boys awards ceremony. We at Hinsdale our celebrating the first championship in our program’s history. All of the sudden, we here the booming voice of former DGN coach Will Kupish yell out, “hey Hinsdale!” We in red turned to look, and Coach Kup proceeded to lead the entire runner-up squad from DGN in a rousing rendition of ‘for they are jolly good fellows.’
Story two – It is the night of the 2015 McCarthy Invitational, our annual home track meet. The meet has ended, but we had planned to seize upon the opportunity of having access to the Track at night to hold a 3200 time trial for all our JV guys who did not make the invitational lineup. The time trial began just as the last of the competing teams were leaving the track. Coach Sipple and Buhot of DGN, realizing what is going on, turn around and return to the track. They stay and cheer for our JV guys.
Story three – It is this past Monday. Coach Sipple comes to my house at 8:30 pm to babysit for our daughter Clio so that Megan and I can go to the hospital to visit our twin daughters Alexis and Beatrix. It is the five days before state and John is the head coach of the top rated team, yet he volunteers to come babysit for the coach of an opposing team.
Pretty obvious moral here – act with class, make sure you have strong values and that you live up to them, and the results will eventually take care of themselves. Neuqua Valley is equally as good an example of this. We tip our hat to you, DGN. Congratulations on representing our conference so well (and to Lyons Township, York, and Glenbard West as well). Keep it rolling through the post-season.
So wraps up the 2017 season, definitely the most personally challenging of my life. But here it is November 5th, and the season ended pretty close to as well as I’d hoped, my twins are stable and healthier each day (now 3 pounds 5 ounces and 3 pounds 13 ounces), and I’ve never felt so fortunate.