Though our schools are separated by less than six miles, few of Neuqua’s athletes or coaches were familiar with Waubonsie Valley’s home course, the site of our 2017 Sectional. When we last raced there in 2003, senior Ryan Kennedy wasn’t even four years old, and Coach Rossi was still in college. Despite our long rivalry with the Warriors, we knew very little about their grounds—the alleyways between fields, the adjacent grounds still verdant with prairie life, the mammoth hill towering over it all. In a season where so much seemed a reprise of previous seasons, this was new.
Fortunately, our effort, luck, and finishes prevailed again, and we were proud to claim our third straight Sectional title, and our seventh as a program. It was not an easy day—the field of runners trickled out of the chute wet, chilled, and splattered by mud. But as we all made our way back to the fieldhouse, our spirits lifted. October was ending, and we were headed back to State.
Much of the credit belongs to Kennedy (15:36) who, despite never quite finding his rhythm, made a series of critical in-race decisions that secured him a 4th place finish. Chris Keeley (15:43) showed similarly canny instincts, breaking from the pack at the midpoint to mount a furious charge on the second loop. From there, it fell to the trio of Alex Johnson (15:53), Tyler Bombacino (15:54), and Michael O’Connor (15:54) to shut the door. Followed by seniors Danny Winek (16:00) and Keanan Ginell (16:17), the Wildcats fended off an impressive challenge from a determined Naperville Central.
In some ways, this all feels familiar. This is our 16th straight trip to Detweiller. Danny will be the third Winek to race at State in blue and gold. Ryan’s been around high-stakes competitions for as long as his father’s been coaching. Yet, like so much of this gray-skied day, everything is new. Michael Madiol, O’Connor, and Ginell weren’t even in our top 12 a year ago. Six of our top 7 have never raced the first weekend in November.
Like so many athletes they’ll share the line with, State racing has thus far been only a hypothetical, nothing more than a square you circle on the calendar in June. But the now mud is real. The cold, the wind, the distance from the chute. ‘We’ve never been here before,’ they’ll all think before the gunshot. ‘Let’s see what all the hype is about.’
This week, we were visited by the legendary Dave Walters, a remarkable athlete whose nearly five decade running career has taken him all over the world, most recently completing the Chicago Marathon in 2:52 at the age of 62. From the hillocks of Brussels to the crushed-lava footpaths of Waikiki, Mr. Walters has lived a true runner’s life, and he shared with us some of his life lessons, which our athletes took to heart in our Regional Race.
Own the Race: This is a simple but elusive mantra. It means to take responsibility for every aspect of your competition, from training and preparation to execution and result. Good races aren’t accidents—they are the result of a courage to accept the challenge and the results, whatever they may be. From the outset, we could tell that Zach Kinne (14:43) and Keanan Ginell (15:30) were prepared to do this. Kinne led from gunshot to finishing tape, as he often has this season, and Keanan positioned himself in a lead chase pack, defeating through sheer will and nerve many runners of superior pedigree.
Set Meaningful Goals: Runners must have a plan—one that combines aspiration with a realistic assessment of what their training has prepared them to do. Before the race, it was clear that Ryan Kennedy (14:55) expected to do something special—and he held himself to this audacious standard by executing perfectly. Coming through the mile two seconds off of Kinne, Ryan ran one of his most complete races of the season, besting the next competitor by more than ten seconds. It was a race that he had readied himself for for many months, and teases a hopeful symmetry for the races to come.
Respond to the Moment of Truth: As Craig Virgin is fond of saying, every race contains a moment of truth where a runner, beset by pain and doubt, must choose whether to surge or retreat. This tick of the clock has nothing to do with muscle or aerobic capacity—it is decided by pride, grit, and confidence. That is why it was so thrilling to watch Michael Madiol (15:22) and Michael O’Connor (15:28) come through the two mile—both answered the challenge of exhaustion with a champion’s resolve, and were rewarded with PRs on a gusty day.
Be Extraordinary; Use the Results: Our races teach us about our limits, and, when met with the dispassionate eye of acceptance, can guide us to greater heights. In his second varsity race of the week, Dakota Getty (15:58) improved on his Conference mark, setting a new PR by making adjustments in his plan. And although Danny Winek (15:18) finished an impressive 6th place, he knew almost immediately that he had more to give, and a better race within him. Danny is looking forward with purpose by looking back with thoughtfulness.
All that separates an ordinary life from greatness is contained in the 15 minutes of a three mile course. The lessons of life that will make men of honor, valor, and integrity in adulthood are taught by high school sports. And whether you’re a fourteen-year-old lacing brand new shoes or a seasoned runner battling marathons when most seek retirement, there is always another lecture of the race. As the old mariner put it: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
There are 63,360 inches in a mile; a little more than 190,000 in a high school Cross Country race. That’s so many inches that it’s hard to pay much attention as they’re swallowed up, dozens per second. No one inch is really any more memorable than any other, and you the pain of running is such that you forget every single one the instant it’s behind you. But, as we are so often reminded, in Cross Country, sports, and life every inch matters.
Just ask our Varsity. After the DVC Title had been decided by relatively comfortable margins the past couple of years, the 2017 race came down to a lean at the end of a final sprint, a surge past a determined, focused competitor. Two talented teams scrapping like alley cats for position. As he has all season, Zach Kinne (14:50) led the charge, with the Wheaton-Warrenville South team keying off 4th place Ryan Kennedy (15:04), effectively earning a tie through the first four places. The race was then to be determined by each team’s 3-4-5, with Wheaton South’s #3 sneaking in two places before Chris Keeley (15:12). Danny Winek (15:23) struck next, and Alex Johnson (15:30) stepped in just ahead of Wheaton South’s #4. By the time Tyler Bombacino (15:32) and Dakota Getty (16:02) finished, the score favored the Wildcats by three points. Two teams’ seasons, built of millions of inches, and it all came down to the last clutch.
The clash of inches was less fraught at the Frosh/Soph Race, where we finished a distant 4th. Still, the race proved a fitting cap for many athletes’ seasons, as several PRs came out of the race. Led by the ascendant trio of Vasant Fong (16:45), Ramsay Johnson (16:47), and Collin Searls (16:47), the Wildcats also welcomed strong performances from Leif Anderson (17:06) and Dylan Bushelle (17:12). Stephen Smilie (18:12), William Fu (19:29), Jack Wharton (19:29), Guilherme Reginato (19:36), Ethan Lockwood (19:38), Hadi Moukallad (19:55), Jack Ashby (19:58), Max Keenan (20:38), Dominick Gramarosso (20:50), Zaid Fakhruddin (21:03), Pranav Rajaraman (21:06), and Ted Walsh (21:58) all bested their Twilight marks, turning in season’s best times. Perhaps the best part of each of these races was the finish, as the young runners flew into the chute, straining for place, unwilling to yield. Though there are many miles laid out before them, they are already mastering the careful accounting of millimeters that proved so essential in the Varsity race.
The Open Race showcased the reaping of such sowing. Taking the pack out hard, a crowd of Neuqua runners took turns leading the pack, each seeking to end his season a Conference Champion. There was Keanan Ginell (15:52), the gnawgahyde-tough mile-chewer; Michael O’Connor (15:51), the single-shoed legend-in-the-making; wily senior Quinton Quaglianao (15:57) and nervy juniors Matt Jett (16:12) and Nick Drechsler (16:18). In the end, O’Connor seized the final straightaway, and his second-straight JV title. Joined on stage by Jack Orengo (16:31), Kevin Daneliak (16:37), “Professor” Matt Lindell (16:41), and Evan McVittie (16:43), the Wildcats proudly claimed their third straight DVC Open Championship.
The day belonged, however, to the seniors: Ginell, Quagliano, Lindell, McVittie. Danny Speckels (17:02), Paul McIntyre (17:14), Calvin McIntyre (17:18), DJ Sauer (17:21). Michael Dy (17:52), McKenzie Mitchell (18:00), John Kubicki (18:01), Chris Wiemer (18:12). Matt Thomas (18:54), Joseph Walwer (19:27), Kai Thomas (19:34), Patrick Hong (19:38), Carter Stradling (19:45). Stephen Potoksnak (19:51), Mitch Donahue (20:06), Jeremy Hagerman (20:15), Matt Cowen (20:28). Norman Dong (20:35), Darren Huang (20:37), Ife Oketona (21:40), Ajay Smith (21:44), and Brandon Chow (24:28). For some of these men, it was the end of their first season as Wildcat distance runners; for others, it was the last mile in a journey of four years. As they finished their races, bodies spent and emotions full, they took a little longer to recompose themselves and moved more slowly from the field. It’s not every day that you remember a moment for the rest of your life. Seniors get this.
That is the thing about 190,080 inches, of course. Stretched out before you at age 14, they seem infinite. There’s no way you’ll ever run them all. But the gun is raised, the shot calls out, and off you go. Across the field, around the flag. Into the woods, and out again. Hill and dale, shale and lea. On, on, on—faster, harder, as your coaches, your friends, your parents cheer you on. Until all of a sudden, there’s the chute, the strip, the end of the race. Eighteen years old already. All those inches gone. And not a one was wasted.
Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem is “Do not go gentle into that good night.” A villanelle said to have been composed upon seeing his sickly father, its verses famously implore its subject to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Although the poem is elegiac in tone, it holds special value for runners, who compete not just against their rivals, but also their own limitations, fragility, and doubt. It is a fitting lyric to consider on the occasion of the annual Twilight Invitational, a race that grows more heated and intense as the sun drops off.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The meet opened with a sensational dogfight, where senior Michael Dy (17:37) caught and out-kicked Naperville North’s Matt Cherry, crashing into the turf as he crossed the sensor, his body totally spent. He was pursued by teammate John Kubicki (17:56), Chris Weimer (18:12), Joey Klaips (18:14), Carter Stradling (18:25), and Nate Spencer (18:34). Michael, John, Chris, and Carter were soon joined by Mac Mitchell (18:43) and Vincent Kim (18:52), a sestet of seniors who have more races behind them than ahead. In ten days, they will race one last time in Neuqua colors, a week and a half to prepare n to peak.
The lions’ race soon gave way to the cubs of the freshmen/sophomore contest. Vasant Fong (16:34) earned another PR, trailed closely Quinn Kennedy (16:38) Collin Searls (16:53), Ramsay Johnson (16:55), and Ryan Horn (17:01). Dylan Bushelle (17:12) rebounded with a solid race, while David Tassone (17:23) and Brian Jett (17:39) began preparing their case for State Travel Team. A 5th place team finish gave the boys plenty to work on as they make plans to pile the miles on this winter.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Mindful of the ripening of the season, the JV Team challenged themselves to finish their race without regret. Top finisher Michael O’Connor (15:45) ran his previous race with just one shoe; runner-up Matthew Jett (15:46) returned to racing after two weeks on the shelf; third-place finisher Quinton Quagliano (15:51) pushed himself to exhaustion in one of his final senior races. Each of these runners understood their own fragility and the fleeting nature of the opportunity, and each pushed back against the fatigue and doubt that accompany those anxieties. Several juniors followed their example, including Nicholas Drechsler (15:54), Blake Storoe (16:11), Spencer Teske (16:11), and Jack Orengo (16:13). And there, too, were the seniors--Evan McVittie (16:31), DJ Sauer (16:32), and Matt Lindell (16:40)—seizing their last gleaming under the lights to cover themselves in glory.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
But the lights grew brightest once the sun had vanished—the eyes of the Illinois Cross Country World fixed upon the Varsity Race. The hype had been breathless, and the atmosphere grew more fevered with each races’ eye-popping PRs. “It’s going to be close,” the coaches whispered. But even the most seasoned onlooker couldn’t have guessed how thin the final margin.
Zach Kinne (14:33) led a small lead pack early, threatening to create space, but never quite breaking away. Downers Grove North took it out hard, overcoming an early tripping and proving that the strength of their team lies in the bond of their pack. But the Wildcats found each other and began to once again slowly move up. By the end of the second mile, the team points were nearly even, Zach’s low score offset by the aggressiveness of the Downers Grove pack.
Pouring into the stadium like chariots through the gates, it came down to a man-to-man scrap. Jacob Ridderhoff stepped around Ryan Kennedy (14:45), who pushed past three Downers Grove runners. Chris Keeley (14:59), Danny Winek (15:00), and Alex Johnson (15:03) set season’s-best marks, but were narrowly clipped by Downers senior Nick Chudzik. In the end, the race was decided by a single point, the advantage going to Downers Grove North. It was the very best of Illinois Cross Country—two teams embodying the greatness of Illinois, running to the point of collapse, every second precious, every place pivotal. Both teams turn their eyes to Detweiller, knowing that each has more to give, and that this rivalry has already brought out the best in both programs.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As we waited in the parking lot for our bus, the light towers dimmed and packed away, we reflected on this moment in the season. The remaining miles are numbered; the endless months now seem finite. A few more gunshots; a few more dashes across the line. We’re in the early evening now, but renewed in faith that—with luck and hard work—the brightest moment is yet to come.
Video of all 4 Races