This summer, Zach Kinne moved away. We haven’t talked about it much publicly because the bold-face things one might say—that we were losing an all-state runner, the public face of the team, and a true friend—were obvious. But more critically, we all understood that’s Zach’s departure threatened to define us before we had even taken a single stride. We would not be the team of Michael Madiol, Chris Keeley, Michael O’Connor, or Matt Jett; we would be The Team That Zach Left. The Also-Rans. The No-Names.
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It was a fitting moniker, first suggested by legendary North Central coach Al Carius during a talk this summer. It’s disingenuous to say that no one in the state had heard of our athletes—Madiol and Keeley both ran the State Meet in 2017, and Dovalovsky was an alternate on the 2018 State Track Team. But Kinne’s shadow was long; he had so often been the focal point of team previews and recaps that his teammates had never had to develop a competitive identity. More pointedly, they had never had to confront the burden of legacy on their own. How are you going to expect others to know who you are if you don’t know yourself?
When it was finally time to tell the team, Coach Vandersteen gathered the top runners after a June workout and delivered the speech he’d been rehearsing since just after the Track State Meet. “We’re going to have some fun this season,” he promised. “There are no expectations for us now.” “Aw [expletive],” said Michael O’Connor afterwards. “Steen just gave up on us!”
But he hadn’t; just the opposite. He was challenging those left behind to invest in one another. The night before the State Meet, the top 14 gathered for a final meeting. In that session, we saw just how deep their bond had grown. To a man, each testified to his love and commitment to his brothers, often moved to tears and silence by the exercise. “I’m not running this race for myself,” said Nicholas Dovalovsky. “I’m running it for you. The seniors.” The next day, he showed the state just how seriously he meant those words.
Every team’s State story is impossible to communicate in a Tweet or a blog post; it’s the incalculable accumulation of tiny moments, quiet revelations, and grayscale epiphanies spread out over hundreds of otherwise unremarkable miles. But the beauty of our sport is that over those miles, you figure out who you are, and so does everyone else. Thus, to properly capture a season, we need to explain the journey to self that the runners undertake. The English-American poet W.H. Auden once wrote that “proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” What follows is the meaning of those names.
BRIAN JETT, Sophomore: Fire
Brian is the third Jett to come through our program, and by far the brashest. He joined like lightning, electrifying some, burning others, and short-circuiting just about everything around him. There were days where he could be callous or disrespectful, and non-contact days where he ghosted. We called him “swear-jar” for much of his freshman campaign for reasons that are probably obvious.
But something happened to Brian over the course of the past year: he grew up. He overcame injury and disappointment; he showed his teammates deference and good esteem. He showed up for every workout ready to test himself and carry others. He listened to his coaches, honored his family, and improved both his times and his grades. He was our top sophomore finisher at Twilight, and our second finisher at Conference, and watching him comfort his brother after the State race showed that he had traveled much farther than the soles of his trainers could reveal. To be sure, he is still Brian, and his trademark “Let’sGO!” echoed out from the stage as he accepted his medal. But like the flame trimmed for a lantern, he found that he could still offer heat and light without burning everything down.
RYAN HORN, Sophomore: Consistency
Our sophomore team fluctuated wildly over the course of the season. Often, Dovalovsky ran up; sometimes he was joined by Vasant Fong. Leif Anderson spent time injured, as did Jett. Some weeks Luke Mennecke, Luke Suman, and Stephen Smilie rose to provide heroics; other days, they missed the race’s critical summoning.
Yet Ryan Horn remained the fixed point around which our success revolved. He is not a flashy runner. No one talks about the Ryan Horn finishing kick. His haircut is competent and unobtrusive. But there might not be a more important ingredient to our future’s cohesiveness. Ryan has a meaningful relationship with everyone; he is quick with praise and even faster with a joke. He cares about the team’s success and the individual performances around him. He understands the science of running and takes seriously the art of mental preparation. Most critically, in workouts and humdrum runs, Ryan shows the same methodical commitment, the same discipline and personal responsibility, the same wordless acceptance that there is work to be done, and it must be done well.
It wasn’t until the Conference race that Horn stepped forward and led his team in point-scoring. But those who had watched him closely since June understood that he’d been leading all along.
VASANT FONG, Sophomore: Service
"The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant."
— Max DePree
Vasant has been afraid before every big race he’s ever run, starting with the first one his freshman year. Entering the box at Hinsdale, he was suddenly seized by crippling stomach pains. Yet Vasant controlled his breathing, re-centered his focus, and took the line. He finished third in that race.
Nothing since then has come easy, and yet Vasant has met the challenge of the moment more consistently than anyone else in his class. Coming off a F/S Conference championship in the 3200 meter run, Vasant had early varsity ambitions, and he put in an impressive summer to ready himself for elite competition. His sophomore races draped him in medals. He finished seventh at Richard Spring, fifth at York, and second at Forest Park and Locktoberfest.
But his Varsity races forced Vasant to confront the limits of youth. He was no longer leading the race or the chase pack. In lesser runners, doubt and resignation might reign. It is Vasant’s consistent response to these results that elevated him to the rank of our eighth man. He reflects on his effort, confers with coaches, and humbles himself the very next day. Vasant is a servant to the God of Long Miles, and his example reminds everyone that all gods demand patience, faith, and sacrifice before they reward their followers, and that the men who master these virtues will be most favored of all.
QUINN KENNEDY, Junior: Self-Assurance
For Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the problem with defining people through opposition is that it robs the individual of choice and self-definition. Slaves only exist in relation to masters, and masters only exist so long as they have subordinates. In The Breakfast Club, Bender tries to show himself strong because he’s a rebel, but he’s only relevant as long as there are Brians to bully or principals to annoy. Bender’s great shame is that he’s completely defined by his father.
Like Horn and Jett, it would be easy to define Quinn Kennedy in relation to his older sibling. And yet Quinn is wonderfully, stubbornly his own man. He is a musician with unique tastes, blending classical strings with contemporary guitar. He makes his own dinners and seasons his own chicken. Most critically, he runs his own race. Following inconsequential races at Forest Park and Richard Spring, Quinn shifted his racing mindset and began to see improved results. He was third in JV races at Locktoberfest and Twilight. He PR’d in the Conference race. Most critically, he was doing it his own way, for himself and his teammates.
The night before the State Meet, Quinn sat in our meeting, the only one not wearing an NVXC shirt. Yet he spoke of commitment, fellowship, and brotherhood in the same voice as his teammates. He was confident and assured, at once one of us and unlike anyone else. And that, of course, was the point.
BLAKE STOROE, Senior: Determination
Perhaps the most reserved member of our top-14, Blake has also traveled the farthest. He finished 160th at Twilight as a freshman; in 2018, he was 9th. He cut three minutes off his PR in four years. On September 29th of this year, he won the Open race at Locktoberfest by eight seconds. For context, All-State runner Chris Keeley has never won a race.
In a sport that covets phenoms and endlessly hypes the latest up-and-comer, Blake represents the most valuable archetype: the self-made champion. There is no secret to his climb, and there is not much to say about it that isn’t familiar. He had a little bit of talent, steadily applied himself, bought into team culture and values, reflected on failures and resolved to correct them. He listened to his coaches, respected his teammates, and refused excuses. And at the end of the odyssey, Blake Storoe was onstage with a hand on the trophy.
Blake, too, spoke on the night before the State meet. He talked about the thrill of running open races with his JV teammates, of taking control of a race. But of course, that meant more to Blake than most. He also knew the view from the back.
KEVIN DANELIAK, Senior: Fellowship
The hardest element for a coach to control is chemistry. There are workouts for aerobic thresholds and VO2 max, for mental toughness and conditioning. We can even correct strides with the right buy-in. But you can’t make teammates come together. You can’t run intervals for ‘liking one another’ or fartleks for friendship. Runners can be cliquish and standoffish, and the same qualities that help champions separate themselves from their competitors can also isolate them.
This is why an athlete like Kevin is so vital. Like Quinn, he has staked his own identity separate from NVXC (check out “Chillin’ With Kev” on YouTube!). And like Blake, Kevin has traveled the longest road to JV and Varsity success. “People give me a hard time for telling so many kids that they could be top 7,” joked Coach Vandersteen. “I don’t know if I would have ever thought to say that to Kevin as a freshman. It just shows how far he’s come.” Indeed, Kevin was second in the Open race at Richard Spring, and the JV champion at Twilight.
But it’s Kevin’s ability to bring together people that makes him most valuable. No one is quicker to defuse tension with a joke, and no one is better at inventing games on long runs. He deflates Varsity anxiety with laughter and inflates JV brio by involving everyone in the gag. It was Kevin at the center of so many pre-race circles, Kevin leading the cheers, Kevin setting the mood on the back of the bus as we traveled to Alexander’s.
The knock on ‘chill’ is that it’s a mockery of accountability; it’s a vacancy, a muting; it seeks to excuse people from caring about things. But in Kevin, Chill is just the opposite—it’s a young man who laughs without ambivalence, competes without restraint, and loves without apology.
JACK ORENGO, Senior: Courage
“Can a man be brave when he’s also afraid, father?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave.”
--Ned Stark, A Game of Thrones
On most days, Jack Orengo can be found running as though his limbs were made of balloon-art and his bones filled with wind. He has a charming smile, kind eyes, and contagious laugh. He likes video games and cartoons, most especially in the company of others.
But like all of us, Jack also has episodes of fear, doubt, and anxiety. He worries what others will think of him. He fears that his successes are fraudulent, his relationships are conditional. He feels, at times, like an imposter.
We know this because Jack has told us. He has shared with his teammates and coaches what he sometimes goes through. And he is honest about how difficult that can make his life.
This is why Jack’s season is so remarkable, why his impact runs deeper than times and places. Jack improved throughout the season, correcting earlier race strategies and learning to trust his own legs. He let go of consumptive expectations and celebrated the race above the results. He joined six other seniors to race at Sectionals, bettering his mark from two weeks earlier. He was never free the quiet voice of worry, tugging at him like webs. But Jack ran past it all. He found another voice.
He spoke with it the night before State, tremulous at first, but increasingly with confidence and coherence. He talked about the program, his teammates, and the journey they’d shared. He sounded like a survivor, a winner, a champion. “Wow,” said Jack. “That’s like, the best talk I’ve ever given.” Of course, he was right. He’d spent four years learning it.
SPENCER TESKE, Senior: Integrity
As a freshman, Spencer was adrift. Frustrated by injury, left out of lead training groups, and suffering from personal losses, he found himself at one of those fractal moments where any number of paths were possible. Yet something kept him lacing up, joining his teammates, plying his efforts. A promising track season became a strong sophomore summer, which led to a breakthrough fall campaign. And Spencer never looked back.
What made the difference was his fidelity to training. Spencer’s commitment was unshakable, his habits methodical. On mornings when the team didn’t meet, he’d hit the sidewalks on his own, sometimes joined by his father on bicycle. Spencer made the decision not to let anything else in his life define him save for the loyalty he showed his friends and the team.
He set PRs at Richard Spring, Culver, and Locktoberfest, later finishing 12th in Conference. And while his race at Sectionals was off from two weeks earlier, there was never any question that Spencer would be one of our seven at Detweiller. He’d been there all along.
NICHOLAS DRECHSLER, Senior: Faith
Nick’s first race this season was one of his best. Pinned back from the lead chase packs, he steadily moved up throughout the 5k, seemingly floating above the muddy fray and rollercoaster drops of the Forest Park Invitational. Nick was our third man that day, finishing 15th and just two seconds back of Keeley. A week later he PR’d at Richard Spring, but had faded back from the pack. It was a conundrum—how could both races belong to the same athlete, exerting the same effort?
Coaches always tell their athletes to run their own race, but it’s a hard edict to obey when the margin for error is so narrow. A number of race strategies were proposed before only the original truth remained: let Drechsler be Drechsler. Released to run according to his own rhythms and judgments, Nick found a new confidence, running some of his best races at Conference and Regionals.
In the end, Nick saved his fastest race for the State Meet, besting his previous mark by 20 seconds. Once again, he was the lone gold-and-black jersey amidst a hostile throng; once again, he seemed to dart between the bodies, somehow drifting to the front in the final straightaway.
“Faith,” observed Martin Luther King Jr. ”is taking the first step, even if you cannot see the whole staircase.” This team learned to trust Nick to ascend, even when only he could see the way up.
MATT JETT, Senior: Sisu
Versatile though English may be, some concepts can only find expression in other languages. “Sisu” is an untranslatable Finnish word that mixes tenacity, persistence, determination, perseverance, and sustained courage: it is the psychological strength to ensure that regardless of the cost or the consequence, what has to be done will be done. It is derived from the word sisus, meaning “guts”; in its first invocation in 1745, it was defined as “the place where strong emotions lived.”
One wonders if upon that publication, the Finnish might have included a drawing of Matt Jett, though he was more than 250 years from being born. From the time that he joined our program, Matt has been driven almost pathologically to perfect himself as a runner. He exhaustively records his workouts and catalogues his races; he is fanatical about his diet, hydration, and sleep habits. At times, his dedication threatened to derail him, for there aren’t many people more aware of the gap between their ideals and their reality.
Yet the 2018 season helped Matt find a measure of peace. He maintained his confidence while battling a stubborn glut injury and kept his composure when early races revealed rust. He grew closer to his teammates and increasingly trusted their pacing. He adopted greater patience and emotional remove. He let loose with a bit more dry wit.
After the State race, he was briefly despondent, worried that his finish had cost the team the deciding points. It was, like much of his worry, unneeded guilt, born of the place where strong emotions live. When the team needed him, Matt was right on time, ready to do what needed to be done.
MICHAEL O’CONNOR, Senior: Love
Aristotle believed friendship to be among man’s greatest virtues, and he defined three types. There are friendships of utility, which exist between yourself and someone useful to you (the coworker who fixes the printer when it jams). There are also friendships of pleasure, the people whose company you enjoy in laughter or activity. But highest of all is the friendship of goodness, which are based on mutual respect and admiration. These friendships take longer to build than the other two kinds--but they're also more powerful and enduring. They often arises when two people recognize that they have similar values and goals; that they have similar visions for how the world (or at least their lives) should be.
Few athletes in our program have more embodied friendships of goodness than Michael O’Connor. He speaks openly and often of his affection for his teammates, praising them with specificity and sincerity. There’s an awe-shucks simplicity that seems positively anachronistic in Michael, like he belongs in another era where people spoke plainly and warmly to those they cared for.
But however cornpone one may find these expressions, they became the lingua franca of the team. One by one, Michael’s teammates joined him in declaring their admiration and appreciation towards one another, so grateful were they to have spent so many years in pursuit of a shared goal. It was an affection that developed over countless miles by slow degrees, and it was Michael who best gave language to what they all realized: they had all been saved by it.
Minutes before the results came in, the team huddled together, a clumsy embrace where they spoke quietly about the race and the oath their effort had fulfilled. It was Michael who taught them to speak this way, to celebrate the bond that was deeper than bone, more elemental than blood.
NICOLAS DOVALOVSKY, Sophomore: Audacity
Twelve months ago, Nicolas Dovalovsky was a freshman soccer player. He had flirted with the idea of Cross Country, but had too long invested in other team sports to seriously pursue his true gift.
But the members of this team stayed after him. The sophomores in particular reminded him daily how much his temperament, talent, and tenacity would be better served running around the soccer fields than on them. It took an act of courage for Nicholas to listen to them and join this team.
That boldness came to define him as a runner. Nicolas won his first race at Forest Park; in fact, he is undefeated at the F/S level, owning victories at York and Locktoberfest. Indeed, his prodigious talents summoned him to Varsity, but here too he seemed dauntless, shouldering his way into the chase pack of more experienced runners.
As the season wore on, Nicolas’s results flagged a little; it had been so easy to overlook his inexperience that it seemed surprising he could tire. But through it all, his teammate’s confidence in him never wavered, and Nicolas rewarded that faith with a stunning 28th place finish in the State race, posting a 14:50, the third-fastest November time for a sophomore in NVXC history. Incredibly, he passed nearly 20 runners in the last mile. It was one final act of defiance for a remarkable young man who had finished 32nd only six weeks earlier at the Richard Springs Invitational. For Dovalovsky, all that was required was a challenge worthy of his courage.
CHRIS KEELEY, Senior: Resiliency
Last year, Chris Keeley collapsed 150 meters from the chute at State. Here’s what we wrote afterwards:
Chris Keeley left Detweiller with a medal around his neck, and a trophy that would one day bear his name. But for ten minutes before the ceremony, Chris lay on the ground alone and wept.
This is the hardest lesson to learn, and one we would spare our runners if we could. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we convince ourselves that victory is possible when it is completely out of our hands. Chris Keeley loved this team so much that his inability to consummate his vision felt like dying. Yet the foundation of every great thing that Chris will ever do—as a husband, a father, and a man—exists in what happened next. For a long time on Saturday, he lay on his back gasping. And then, after a while, Chris Keeley got up.
Chris most certainly got up. He went on to a successful track season, setting PRs in the 400, 800, 1600, and 3200. He put in a phenomenal summer. He invested in his teammates, listened to his coaches, kept up his studies. He plays the piano like an angel.
But perhaps the most significant change came over the course of several races where Chris learned to relax in the middle and save his intensity for the final push. The act of maintaining his personal intensity over three miles was psychically exhausting, and Chris learned with practice to channel that energy rather than burn with it. Sharing low-stick responsibility with Madiol further lessened the pressure, allowing Chris to become the athlete he always promised: a gritty front-runner with a lethal kick.
The hero’s journey often takes him into the underworld, a process called katabasis, where the light is dim and despair is high. As a junior, Chris Keeley went as low as one can go. That is, of course, what true heroes have to do. After the race on Saturday, the eyes of the Illinois were all on Keeley as he crossed the stage, a pair of medals around his neck. Everyone was looking up.
Michael Madiol, senior: Indefatigability
Here’s what you don’t do:
You don’t tell a kid whose freshman squad just finished fifth at Hornet-Red Devil to quit. You don’t tell him that he can’t improve from a 30th place finish at Conference, almost a minute behind freshman teammate Chris Keeley. You don’t tell him that he’ll never get closer, never get better, that he should talk more—“Be more of a rah-rah guy!”—that he should wear contacts and work on his stride.
You don’t tell him to be satisfied with finishing fourth at Conference as a sophomore, 56th in State the next year, or 82nd at Footlocker Regionals. You don’t tell him that his nagging knee injuries will keep him from elite status, that the Track team already has enough 800 and 1600 meter runners. You don’t say, “Hey, Michael, why don’t you be more like Keeley or O’Connor?”
You don’t tell him that without Kinne, he can’t win. You don’t remind him that no one in the state ever talks about him as a front-runner or fears his finish or even remembers that he was our fourth man the year before. Don’t mention that he can’t beat all those pre-season luminaries, the names highlighted in the first paragraph of every preview and recap. Don’t ask him to sit in the chase pack, to bide his time, to let others do the work for him.
Whatever you do, don’t tell him that he can’t be All-State or lead his team to the most improbable trophy in program history. And don't tell him to do it with both shoes on his feet.
In fact, don’t tell Michael Madiol anything. Just shut up and let him run.
“It’s Doval-OV-sky,” he explained to the announcer. “Doval-OV-sky.”
“That’s what I said,” said the announcer, checking his notes.
“No, it’s Doval-OV-sky,” Nicolas repeated.
Nicolas wanted to be sure. All season long, we had been battling for legitimacy, more in our own minds than anywhere else in the state. We had done something never before accomplished in our program’s history, beating teams that soundly whipped us at Richard Springs, Culver, and the sectional the week before. Now it suddenly felt important that everyone else knew who we were.
But we, of course, had made that discovery months ago. It was planted after that early summer huddle, nurtured in workouts and meets, in mud and flood and canicule. It was finally spoken the night before the State meet, where the boys finally called each other by our name.
The irony, of course, is that years from now, all that will remain of the no-names are the monograms on a trophy. A new class replaces the old, and over time the stories will fade. “Tigers leave their skins, the dead their trophies, and heroes their names,” says the old Chinese proverb. So be it. But for the rest of our lives, the members of this team are part of a secret lattice, a silent kinship made blood through thousands of miles. There are things that last even longer than what we call each other.