The York Freshman/Sophomore Invitational moved to Berens Park in Elmhurst four years ago. The course—a relatively fast and flat 2.1 miles—loops around twice before bending to the left into a chute at the base of a hill. It can be a disorienting final 150 meters, as runners can’t even see the finish until they’re almost upon it.
After a grueling weekend at Detweiller, that chute may as well have been in Eugene, Oregon. Our freshmen were beleaguered, our sophomores bewildered, and our coaches belabored. But a chance to test ourselves against the rising stars of some of Illinois’ best teams? As the ailing sophomore Brian Jett might have said, “LET’S GOOOOOOO!”
The Sophomores had first serve, eager to improve on a 2nd place finish over the weekend. There was a Jett-sized hole in the lineup, which Luke Suman (11:14) and Stephen Smilie (11:37) would have to fill. Fortunately, they do a good impression; both finished in the top 20, with Smilie taking home a 16th place ribbon and Suman locking down 8th. Ryan Horn (11:16) secured the championship in 10th; Luke Mennecke (9th, 11:15) proved himself a quick study after a freshman football season; and Leif Anderson (6th, 11:12) seeded his tough finish with a new early-race aggression. Team leaders Vasant Fong (5th, 11:06) and Nick Dovalovsky (10:44) executed perfectly, with Dovalovsky winning his second race in three invitationals. The sophs had not forgotten their second place finish the year before, and the team championship embodied the improvement that can happen when freshmen commit to their training and to one another.
Fifteen minutes later, the freshmen took the line, their heads spinning and their hearts throttling. Yet having traveled more than 1,000 miles together in the past 10 days, they were beginning to learn some lessons about racing with one another. Charlie Rook (7th, 11:38) and Sachin Fong (5th, 11:30) took the race out hard, but found a rhythm, and human pinball Noah Schalliol (8TH, 11:39) careened after them, impressively keeping pace with the more seasoned runners. Nathanael Howard (10th, 11:50) once again summoned a burying kick, while the laconic Liam Dorsey (14th, 11:53) ambled in four places later to close the door. Alex Del Genio (32nd, 12:41) and Adam Johnson (34th, 12:44) both set PRs in their first mile, showing their mettle and courage, even when sun-battered and spent.
But it was in the Open Race where we showed up perhaps most impressively, taking the top three slots. The redoubtable Aidan Stone (12:02) took the race, a sophomore who blends Gary Cooper with Rudy in equal measure. Stone has had a long road back from injury, and his win was as inspiring as it was satisfying, demonstrating what young men can do with patience and hard work.
Full results can be found HERE.
There’s a myth that philosophy professors sometimes tell about Rene Descartes and the birth of modern thought. It is said that the celebrated mathematician, sometime around 1619, began to doubt himself. For Descartes, doubt was a serious problem, for he wasn’t just doubting his intelligence or acumen—he was doubting reality itself. “How can I be sure of anything?” he asked. “I could be asleep, dreaming, or even dead.” These are the thoughts that lead men to desperate acts, and sometimes even to genius.
So Descartes did what any of us would do—he found a large German bread oven and climbed inside it like a makeshift sauna. There he sat, literally baking himself, pursuing the sort of reality-bending states of exhaustion he had read descriptions of among Native American vision quests. One can imagine the diminutive Frenchman dripping with sweat, staring at his hands, thinking, “This is happening. This is real.”
It was hard not to think of Descartes on Saturday at Detweiller Park. As the sun climbed the sky and the field began to crisp, doubts multiplied. One week removed from the mud and rain of St. Louis, we began to question our fitness, our preparation, our strength of vision. Elite athletes pawed the dusty earth eagerly, and celebrated teams took their final runouts in unison, their carriage upright and certain. This was Illinois, the heart of Cross Country nation. This was happening.
The Varsity Race lived up to the hype, with Wheaton-Warrenville South dominating the lead packs. Once again, Michael Madiol (15:04) and Chris Keeley (15:04) set a brisk early pace, trailed boldly by the untested sophomore Nick Dovalovsky (15:27). Seniors Matt Jett (15:34) and Michael O’Connor (15:35) paired up early on, with Nick Drechsler (15:48) and Spencer Teske (16:02) fighting through some initial separation. Detweiller’s famous trapezoid is perfectly positioned to test racers, depriving them at the midpoint of crowd support and coaching. In the unwatched quarter mile beyond the treeline, each runner silently wrestles with doubt, this time sapped with every arm-swing by the sweltering sun.
Exploding out of the copses, the Wildcats pushed furiously into the third mile, and team running helped overcome the absence of a low stick. Keeley and Madiol crossed together, followed by a leg-spent Dovalovsky. Jett and O’Connor similarly came through united, the five of them all earning medals for the effort. We were a proud and fortunate third place, solid marks for our first Illinois test, with plenty of work still to be done.
The sophomores took the field next, with the sun a little higher and the course a little flatter. Despite the hundreds of miles spent in preparation, there’s something about staring at the bunting in the northwest corner of Detweiller that shakes the legs and resolve of young runners. Any trepidation, however, was quelled early on by Vasant Fong (15:55), who ran a smart, disciplined race. Leif Anderson (16:15) ran with added aggressiveness; Brian Jett (16:16) with greater poise; and Ryan Horn (16:20) with renewed confidence. Luke Mennecke (16:31) once again demonstrated impressive reserves of determination, closing the door for a second place team finish, then collapsing just outside the finish line, mouth opening and closing in exhaustion. Luke Suman (16:52) and Stephen Smilie (17:06) both set lifetime PRs, a comforting reminder that though it’s always wise to fear a three mile race, they need not doubt their training or preparation.
The Open Race began just before noon, the sun at its zenith, with little shade to cover us. The tilt contained every possible Cross Country story, from the last-chance power-drives of cagey seniors to the wide-eyed debuts of newly-minted freshmen. And while each had their own narrative, their purposes overlapped. Led by the flinty trio of seniors Kevin Daneliak (16:03), Jack Orengo (16:13), and Blake Storoe (16:15) the Wildcats packed the scorebox early and convincingly. Junior Quinn Kennedy (16:47) ran a gutsy race early, only to be joined at the end by a surging Ramsay Johnson (16:38). The finishes were particularly stirring, as freshmen Charlie Rook (17:04) dueled Noah Schalliol (17:05), Erik Thompson (17:41) demonstrated a veteran’s composure and Austin Burke (18:33) a sprinter’s form. Freshmen Sachin Fong (17:36), Nathanael Howard (17:44), Liam Dorsey (18:10), Alex Del Genio (19:06), Jacob Nauman (19:23), Adam Johnson (19:26), Andrew Gutierrez (19:51), Nick Rokosz (19:52), David He (20:06), Ben Serna (20:11), and Henry Golden (20:28) all showed Detweiller promise, while sophomores JD Hastings (18:09), William Fu (18:09), Daniel Gutierrez (18:34), and Dominick Grammarosso (18:33) revealed the benefits of a year’s seasoning. Juniors Josh Rodriguez (17:32), Sam Stuart (17:33), Ethan Lockwood (18:52), and Joey Spencer (19:09) raced with courage, while Patrick Kelly (19:44), Sahil Yemul (18:37), Nate Spencer (19:30), and Joseph Klaips (20:14) all ran with the dignity befitting their seniority.
The legend says that Rene Descartes emerged from his kiln with an unassailable certainty, proclaiming “Cogito, ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” He was dehydrated, exhausted, and spent, but he would not doubt again. Detweiller was not quite an oven, and our Saturday will not change the course of Western thought. But we were different afterwards, carrying a burgeoning conviction that seemed to speak through our posture and our eyes. “This is happening,” it seemed to say. “This is real.”
One of the joys of traveling abroad is the freedom of anonymity. Familiar eyes carry expectations, and our acquaintances own little pieces of our identities. Every graduate and expatriate knows the thrill of walking into a foreign room unburdened by a past. Of course, the danger of unrecognizability lies in losing oneself. So much of a man’s integrity depends on the shared memories of everyone who knows him; how will he know himself when all of them are gone?
This question weighed on us this summer. We graduated a special class of athletes. Some of our friends and teammates moved on. Parents and boosters we’d grown used to were suddenly cheering in other fields, their sons running for new teams. Even the Hornet-Red Devil Invitational abandoned us—how’s a team supposed to start its season without the creek?
Thus, we boarded our bus with a sense of unease on Friday, making the trip down to St. Louis for the 13th annual Forest Park Cross Country Festival. The forecast for storms was prominent. We had never met these teams and coaches. We knew nothing of the course. Our program had never raced in Missouri. And few there knew anything about us.
We introduced ourselves in the JV Green Division 5K. Though still early in the day, the rolling course of arbors and hillocks had been churned to mud, and the rain-slicked hills were more easily descended on buttock than feet. Our pack broke out early, led by sophomores Nick Dovalovsky and Vasant Fong. Dovalovsky (18:18) won the race, his first as a member of NVXC, trailed by Fong (18:35) and seniors Jack Orengo (18:45) and Blake Storoe (18:46) and junior Ramsay Johnson (19:03). The team championship secured, we were further blessed by strong performances from sophomores Leif Anderson (19:07), Brian Jett (19:16), Luke Mennecke (19:16), Stephen Smilie (19:23), Ryan Horn (19:28), and Luke Suman (19:47). Quinn Kennedy (19:54) and Sam Stuart (20:02) further represented the junior class, while Erik Thompson (21:11) and Sahil Yemul (22:05) brought additional glory to the seniors.
We brought a team of seniors to the line for the Varsity race (digression: as in Track, Missouri Cross Country has their athletes get to the start with a short dash on the starter’s command. This is fun, and Illinois should adopt it!). It was a source of both honor and intimidation to look over and see nationally-ranked Rockhurst in an adjoining box. But it’s all just jerseys once the fight starts, and our team set about trying to find one another in the melee. Chris Keeley, Michael Madiol, and Michael O’Connor got out in the lead chase pack, but Matt Jett, Spencer Teske, and Kevin Daneliak found themselves pinched and fighting for position. Nick Drechsler seemed to drift above it all somehow, looking light on the hills while others seemed weighted by pounds of sod. At the two mile mark, Jett and Teske were climbing, while Madiol and Keeley had fought up to the lead pack. Madiol (17:21) finished 4th, with Keeley (17:49) in 13th and Drechsler (17:52) in 15th. Matt Jett (18:11) charged into 26th, while O’Connor (18:21) held on for 33rd. With Teske (18:23) and Daneliak (19:07) in soon after, Neuqua found itself improbably clutching the team championship.
Of course, the seniors knew what they were doing; the freshmen, on the other hand, hadn’t a clue. Some of them had not logged any summer miles; a few more had never raced before. But a day crammed on a bus and in hotel rooms with upperclassmen can be a fast teacher, and they soon had their own exam to take. A Festus runner claimed first place, followed by Sachin Fong (11:19). Two more Festus runners came through before Noah Schalliol (11:30), who was so spent by the effort that he collapsed. Charlie Rook (11:44) came in 6th, closely trailed by Liam Dorsey (11:46). It then fell to Nate Howard, who was in 25th place with 800 meters to go. Incredibly, Nate (11:50) began passing runners in bunches, bellowing in triumph as he passed Festus’s 4th and 5th man to finish 10th. His kick was no more impressive than many of his teammates, however, including Alex Del Genio (12:46), Adam Johnson (12:48), Jacob Nauman (12:54), Andrew Gutierrez (12:54), Corey Papastathis (12:58), David He (13:03), Josh Kubicki (13:13), Ben Serna (13:33, with one shoe!), and Luke “Pretzel” Balika (13:45). They started the race green and ended gassed, sodden, and caked in mud. But they, too, were champions.
It was comforting to cross the Mississippi and return to the jimsonweed and ale-colored grasses of Illinois. The sun peaked out and dried the road before us, which seems more familiar all the time. “Think you’re escaping, and run into yourself,” wrote James Joyce. “The longest way around is the shortest way home.” He’s right. Sometimes it’s good to take a trip just to remember exactly who you are.
Well, the meet was rained out. It’s a great shame, because the Hornet Red-Devil Invitational is annually one the brightest lights of the Illinois high school Cross Country galaxy. But just because our athletes didn’t race does not mean that we can’t celebrate what might have been. Here are the highlights of the races that didn’t happen:
Varsity Race: Seniors Chris Keeley and Michael Madiol almost didn’t get to run the race, despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, because of something to do with religion. “I believe that God made me for a purpose,” said Madiol. “But he also made me fast, so IDK.” But then senior Matt Jett showed up… he had been running across the country for two years after his girlfriend Jenny left him. And Matt brought with him seniors Kevin Daneliak, Michael O’Connor, Jack Orengo and Nick Drechsler, who had learned how to race picking while strawberries in McFarland, USA. They all convinced Keeley and Madiol to race, so they did. And then they were discovered by this crazy coach named Bill Bowerman, who made them shoes on a waffle iron and let them run for Oregon, and hopefully that story ends well without any deaths.
Sophomore Race: Sophomore Vasant Fong just wanted his chance to race in the big time, but he was just a lowly nobody growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s. But then he got his shot to race the champ, sophomore Nick Dovalovsky. Nobody gave Vasant a chance, but it turns out he had The Eye of the Tiger, and their race was so great that they got a sequel. And then another one. This time, Leif Anderson showed up, and he was crazy and mean, and at first he beat Vasant, but then Dovalovsky gave him some training advice, and Vasant won! But then a giant Russian runner named Ryan Horn showed up, and he defeated Nick, and so Vasant went to Russia and ended the Cold War. Then some other stuff happened… Luke Mennecke, Luke Suman, Brian Jett, and Stephen Smilie were somehow involved. And then it turned out that Nick Dovalovsky had a son named Daniel Gutierrez, and HE wants to race, but that may have to wait until next week in St. Louis.
Freshman Race: Swackhammer, an evil alien theme park owner, needed a new attraction at Moron Mountain. When his gang, the Nerdlucks, came to Hinsdale to kidnap Charlie Rook, Sachin Fong, Noah Schalliol, and the rest of the Neuqua freshmen. Liam Dorsey and Nathaniel Howard challenged them to a race to determine their fate. The aliens agreed, but they stole the powers of the Kenyan Olympic Marathon team, so our freshmen lost and now reside in an alien zoo. Awkward.
Anyway, it was a memorable weekend in Hinsdale. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that our team will never forget the races we didn’t run!