The first race of the season is more than just the payoff for those halcyon summer miles. It’s the turning of a page, the realization that those you once looked up to have moved on, and now there are younger eyes looking to you for direction. Senior runners aren’t just pitting themselves against rival teams; they’re also racing the memory of upperclassmen who towered over them just a few autumns past.
Having graduated six of our top seven, the Neuqua Wildcats arrived at Katherine Legge Park dogged by thoughts of ascension, tradition, and legacy. Amidst a quiet warm-up and the busyness of tying laces, several questions went unspoken: how do we follow last season? What will they say about us when we’re gone?
Of course, all of that is so much nervous energy; when the gun fires and the stampede begins, there’s no time for anything other than the next breath. And so memories were filed away to make room for the immediacy of green hills and gray dirt, a merciless hill and an infamous creek. Same as it ever was, but somehow brand new.
One thing that remained the same was junior Zach Kinne. Coming off all-state performances in last year’s XC and Track seasons, Kinne (15:07) executed his Varsity race plan with precision and economy, becoming the first Hornet-Red Devil champion for Neuqua since Aaron Beattie in 2009. He was tailed impressively by senior Ryan Kennedy (15:10). His second place finish likewise echoed a remarkable precedent-- it was the first time Wildcats finished 1-2 at Hinsdale since Beattie followed Danny Pawola in 2008 and Jimmy Riddle trailed Chris Derrick in 2007. Senior Tyler Bombacino (15:29) ran an almost identical time to Taylor Soltys in 2010, and Junior Chris Keeley (15:39) wobbled across the finish looking uncannily like Nick Bushelle in 2011. And there was senior Alex Johnson (15:45), as steadying and methodical a presence as Carlton Folster in 2009, who shared Johnson’s time. Michael Madiol (15:51), Matt Jett (15:58), Michael O’Connor (16:20), Quinton Quagliano (16:24), Keanan Ginell (16:54), Blake Storoe (17:16), Matt Lindell (17:31), and Paul McIntyre (17:35) all ran races that might have been inscribed in previous seasons’ end-of-the-year highlights. Even Mac Mitchell (18:58) got into the nostalgia act, completing a creek-jump every inch as impressive as Tyler Hughes’ legendary leap of 2015.
The Sophomores’ race similarly echoed previous campaigns, matching the 6th place finish from a year before. Led by the stoic Ramsay Johnson (17:02) and the buoyant Quinn Kennedy (17:05), the Wildcats also received promising races from Dylan Bushelle (17:49), David Tassone (18:19), Josh Rodriguez (19:10), Luke Janek (21:05), and Ethan Smetana (22:08). If there is any symmetry between how the Sophomore campaigns of 2016 and 2017 opened and how they finish, then each of these runners have big PRs waiting just a few miles ahead.
The Freshman Race was its usual mix of comic pratfalls, jangled nerves, and thrilling suggestion. With little sense of pace and just a few months of training under their soles, the new kids set out to earn the logo on their jerseys. They responded with an encouraging 2nd place finish behind 3rd place finisher Vasant Fong (10:35), the surging packof Colin Searls (10:54), Ryan Horn (10:55), and Leif Anderson (10:55), and the hero-of-the-people Daniel Gutierrez (11:35). Brian Jett (11:53), Stephen Smilie (12:14), Aleksandras Majus (12:15), and Luke Suman (12:19) all ran races commensurate with past all-conference and all-state Wildcats, and the furious finishes of Guilherme Reginatto (12:44), Jack Ashby (13:09), Jack Wharton (13:09), Akshat Maheshwari (13:44), and Evan Schmidtgall (13:47) showed that though they may not yet know the stories, they understand the team’s legacy. It’s worth noting that their second place finish to Naperville Central mirrors the results of the same race, five years ago, by the Class of 2016.
The freshman cool-down was full of laughter and storytelling, as the events of the previous half-hour were slowly set down as mythology. They were establishing their own stories, their own traditions, claiming an ambition and path for themselves, even as it follows a familiar course well-traveled by runners they’ve never met. So be it. The past is names, times, and memories. This is a new team, and their race has just begun.