Summing up the 2015 Illinois 3A Boys’ Cross Country race is going to take some work. To do it right, we really need to explain what happened on the day of the race, which requires us to reconcile how we could run a race unlike any all season that somehow ended up exactly the same. To do that, we need to unpack the past six months, which includes explaining our weird, eclectic, inimitable senior class. And to do that, we need to answer an important question: What makes a family?
It’s a common trope in our sport. No one could miss the theme of family at the State Meet, as every team in every class paid tribute to their own throughout the day. Over the years, great champions and aspirants have all spoken about the close bonds that form between runners over endless miles, how shared commitment to a central cause fuses men and women, coaches and athletes, smoothing the rough edges of race, ethnicity, background, and gender that feel more pronounced outside the sport. But the team that raced on Saturday didn’t look like kin-- each guy who laced up was as different from the man boxed next to him as blue is from gold. Caleb Ferguson is gregarious; Matt Milostan is taciturn. Aidan Livingston is as brash as Connor Horn is restrained. And Jackson Jett… well, there’s really only one Jackson Jett. How could this kaleidoscopic assembly be a family?
The Class of 2016
In many ways, it started in June four years ago. From the first handshake, the class of 2016 clicked with one another; by the end of their initial practice they were already developing a secret language of inside jokes; within a few weeks, many of them could perform devastating impressions of one another. They were preternaturally talented, and their first race at Hinsdale showed off enviable depth. Led by Shiva and Vishy Singh, 11 freshmen raced two miles under 12:00, the ninth fastest of those times belonging to Dominic Dina. With more than 35 members, it was our largest freshman class in years, and they quickly bonded over hackey sack and Super Smash Brothers tournaments.
Yet as they grew and developed, their differences became more pronounced. Some runners-- like Matt Wolff and Aidan Livingston-- found success early. Others-- like Peter O’Neill and Matt Murray-- took years to grow into their potential. A few-- like Camden Laehy and Patrick “Coach” Conway-- moved smoothly and easily between different social groups, while others-- like Joey Hynes-- honorably embodied the disciplined identity of runners. Some teammates left to pursue other passions, but somehow new recruits-- like Anand Haran, Tyler Hughes, and Darius Haery-- assumed their places so organically that it felt as though they had always been around. Two of the most important members of the class joined us as juniors-- Austin Kinne, who embodied toughness, leadership, and good cheer; and Patrick Wolak, who is as brave and dogged a runner as we’ve ever coached. Of course, there was Connor Horn, who ended up running 15:08 in the 2012 State Meet, at the time the most decorated freshman to ever wear Neuqua’s colors. But Connor’s steady, steely presence was often eclipsed by the dizzying carnival of his teammates. By senior year, these differences were at their most pronounced; the goals set by Dina, Horn, Wolak, Kinne, Livingston, and Caleb Ferguson were far removed from the individual goals set by their JV teammates. It could, at times, feel like two separate teams.
It is to the credit of these seniors that despite these disparate threads, they remained determined to bind together. One story from the summer perfectly embodies this class. After a searing workout, Dominic Dina settled into a rigorous session of planks designed to build stamina and mental toughness. It was clear that Dom had retreated inward to steel himself for entire twelve minute interval, and the exertion was withering. Robby Oakley saw this. Robby is a senior whose social circle is a few degrees removed from Dom; they have different dispositions, hobbies, talents, and senses of humor. None of that mattered. Even though his workout was over, Robby silently dropped into plank position beside Dom. He held himself up until his arms gave out, then picked himself up again. Minutes passed silently, Dom immobile, Robby flagging, then resetting, lending his strength to help his teammate get better. When twelve minutes elapsed, Dom exhaled and unclenched, and Robby collapsed. He was weaker than Dom (that’s no shame-- most are), but in that moment he had proven his heart and solidarity, his commitment and love were stronger than oak. This was family.
The 2015 Season
We entered the season smarting from a one point defeat at the 2014 State Meet. No one could call that race a failure, given the talent of the teams we outpaced and the heroic efforts of our runners, nor can we take anything away from Hinsdale, Sandburg and Lyons. But the distance between the trophy stage and the spectators’ field felt immense, and we were resolved to never let our fate come down to a single place again.
And this year, we felt confident that we had the talent to do it. A spirited winter training season had yielded impressive growth in Jackson Jett, Scott Anderson, Jake McEneaney, and Danny Winek. We were returning Horn, Livingston, Wolak, Austin Kinne, and Caleb Ferguson, each carrying a sizeable chip on his shoulder. We were seeing impressive stirrings in Josh Mollway, Ryan Kennedy, and Matthew Milostan. Plus, we were joined by Zach Kinne, a freshman dynamo who could match these athletes stride for stride.
It was the deepest team we’d ever fielded, and workouts became almost machine-like in the solidarity of execution. No one wanted to break from the pack; senior, junior, sophomore, and freshman pushed one another to hold fast and unyielding. Taking inspiration from our 2009 team, our pack burst out of the box at Hinsdale as one unit, surging over the hills and spilling across the creek in unison. After years of scuffling along, trying to find the right pieces for the right moment, we felt we were achieving a tipping point where the depth of our team would allow us to swap in and out effortlessly.
And then Scott Anderson broke his foot. And we lost Connor to a stress fracture.
Look, every team goes through these things. It’s not just Cross Country-- every sport must train their athletes at the edge of breaking. “Injuries are an exam to see if we can rise from theory into direct experience. Despair is a test to see if we can see beyond it. Doubt is an exam for our vitality.” Blah blah blah…
But COME ON, RUNNING GODS! Our top two guys? Connor Horn? Hasn’t he paid you sufficient tribute? Hasn’t he suffered enough?
This is, of course, pointless and indulgent whining, and it looks petty when we are clearly so rich in talent. So we got back to work. We knew we had enough pieces. We believed in our training, our plan, and in one another.
We rolled into Conference and incredibly duplicated our 2009 feat of finishing 1-7 in the Varsity Race. In fact, if you added in the Open Results, it’s probable that we would have finished 1-9. Our depth remained intact, our pack inseparable, and our 1-7 spread (15 seconds) was slimmer than any we could recall. While some runners-- like Caleb Ferguson-- seemed to be taking small steps back, others-- like Dominic Dina-- felt like they were ready to assume the mantle of world-beaters.
Regionals proved a bellwether race for Aidan Livingston, who finally looked to be living up to his grueling training habits. It was likewise a statement day for Wolak, who outran the ghosts of bad races left behind two seasons before. It was, however, a test of Jackson Jett’s resolve, as a rolled ankle broke him from the pack and shook the very confidence that had soared only a week before when he nearly chased down Dina. Jett’s season-long struggle to reconcile his ambition with his faith seemed to be at a crisis point.
The next week felt like Ragnarok. A steady deluge and shivering wind made everything seem precarious, and we saw previously unshakable runners brought low by the conditions. Zach Kinne-- who had in many ways been our steadiest performer-- was leveled by a sharp elbow to the head and a bone-shaking bout with hypothermia. Jake McEneaney stumbled and dove across the line. Yet even amidst the bedlam, surprising surges began to crest. In a time trial, Caleb Ferguson outkicked Danny Winek, improbably posting the fastest time of the day. And Scott Anderson triumphantly returned to the lineup, pushing Aidan and Jake to challenge the formidable Keagan Smith.
Six months of tumult and elation now came down to the most difficult lineup card the coaches had ever decided. Twelve runners had overcome doubt and weakness, fear and timidity through the unity of the pack and their individual steadiness in their personal trials. Twelve runners had earned a legitimate spot in the State race. We had seven slots to fill.
The State Race
We decided to go with McEneaney, Livingston, Anderson, Milostan, Jett, Dina, and Ferguson. Jake and Dom were easy choices-- they had both broken 15:00 and were seasoned, experienced competitors. Milostan, Anderson, and Jett also seemed good bets given the Detweiller bias for speed. Additionally, Anderson and Jett had both shown toughness the week before, and we were confident they could withstand the intolerable mental torture that comes from waiting for 2:00 PM. Livingston was the hot hand-- he was our top finisher two weeks in a row and had definitively put his bouts of inconsistency behind him. Ferguson was the wildcard-- he hadn’t been in the Varsity lineup since before Conference, yet the previous week’s time trial revealed is incredible competitiveness. If we were to outpace the other powerhouses at Detweiller, we needed runners who would fight for every body, who would not yield the final 200. We needed guys who remembered the pain of 2014. Caleb had been there.
The day preceding the race was as rewarding and relaxed as we’ve ever enjoyed. We had long embraced the Friday time trial ritual, allowing all our reserves to test themselves on the legendary course, and this year we delightfully (coincidentally!) found our practice overlapped with several other teams and individuals. The extra competition fueled us to an unprecedented yield of P.R.s and team records. Four runners-- Danny Winek, Austin Kinne, Ryan Kennedy, and Josh Mollway-- bested an eight-year-old time trial record set by Brian Griffith (15:26) in 2008. Indeed, from our seniors (Kinne and Wylie Anderson) to our freshmen (Zach Kinne, Chris Keeley, Nicholas Drechsler, Matt Jett, and Michael Madiol) we were as disciplined and prosperous as we’d ever been, sneaking all but one runner in under 17:00.
The evening ritual of team meetings settled easily into boisterous reminiscing of the season’s hijinks and capers. We adjourned early for our habitual 9.25, secure in the preparations laid over the many painful months.
And then Dominic Dina, obsessive germaphobe, woke up with a fever and chills. Dom, who had refused to shake his coach’s hand when Vandersteen was fighting a cold. Dom, the steadiest presence in a season where almost every other Varsity athlete battled injury and doubt. For the first time in a long time, Dominic Dina was scared of a race.
But there was nothing he could do but wait. When the moment approached, he completed his routine and took his place in the box. He was surrounded by teammates who had prepared carefully for the moment. They were poised, collected, and determined. The gun fired. Nothing went according to plan.
The race was out quick, as many anticipated. Jake adopted his most aggressive pace of the season, pulling away from Scott and Aidan. Caleb, Matt, and Dom found each other in the melee and packed together. Jackson, however, was cut off and isolated, a repeat of his trial at Regionals. The guys paced through the mile in fifth place, but were scattered and pursuing separate strategies for the first time all season. They entered the trapezoid looking like a different team.
When they emerged several minutes later, the season’s training had begun to assert itself. Jake was beginning to feel the effects of the quicker pace, but-- true to his nature-- held his form and will together. Dom and Aidan were also flagging a bit, but Caleb and Matt were holding strong. Scott was on the hunt-- he had already picked off several runners and was setting his sights on the next pack. Jackson remained apart. He was facing a private trial, with only his faith to sustain him.
We came through the two mile mark in third place, but it was clear by then that this race belonged to Sandburg and Lyons. We had nothing up front to match their horses. Other schools-- like Lake Zurich and York-- deployed frontrunners who began to chew up the final lap. Yet in this moment of crisis, our team’s identity powerfully defended itself. Scott and Matt surged, two juniors built for speed and straightaways. Jake and Aidan faded modestly, but still finished with pride befitting the sacrifice the race demanded. Caleb Ferguson, who had not raced Varsity in almost a month, finished heroically, chasing down a spot in the final stretch. Jackson Jett found his teammates at the end, paying off his confidence in the unseen. And Dominic Dina labored through in 15:13, our Conference Champion now our seventh man, yet fittingly one of the most successful seventh men in the history of Illinois. Our top finisher-- Scott Anderson-- was ten spots out of All-State, yet incredibly, improbably, we had put our seventh man across the line before any other teams’ seventh. Our 1-7 split was 18 seconds, almost identical to Conference. It was the most complete team performance in the race.
And, thankfully, it was just enough. We found ourselves tied with York for third place, a team with a long and proud tradition of victory through depth. Yet when it came down to the sixth-man tie breaker, it was the pack-blind performance of Jackson Jett that won the day. We were elated, proud, humbled, and grateful. Somehow, we had run a race unlike any other from the season-- in many ways, a more harrowing and sloppier race. And yet, the center had held. We had found our way to the right side of that single point.
We gathered afterwards, as we have for many years, at Alexander’s Steakhouse in Peoria. Family, friends, teammates, alumni, and well-wishers joined us, applauding our runners’ heroic efforts and noble season. Surrounded by two stories of kindness, love, and unflagging support, we returned to the question of family. We were all so different. Brash and diffident, introspective and daring. Neophytes and old warriors. Dreamers and pragmatists, engineers and poets. Some had new children. Some had just buried a wife or parent. What brought us together?
The race, of course; the glory and good company, naturally. But trophies come through luck as much as effort, as we were reminded this year by fibula, fever, and fracture. The deeper bond, the more essential nail was this: faith. We all held fast to the simple belief that running makes us better. Better people, better sons, better fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. Simple sayings-- “Moderation and consistency!” “Nothing great happens without enthusiasm!”-- carry great wisdom, and it becomes the role of each member of the tribe to pass this wisdom along in word and deed, in breath and body. Family is an oath that stands firm as its members come and go, a thing to share amongst very different people converging for an instant.
The season was over. Another was coming. We watched the seniors dance in the parking lot amidst laughter and song, clutching the trophy and the night for just a few more moments. Behind them were parents and alumni who had marked the trail beforehand; beside them, the underclassmen stood ready to take their place. A long line of Wildcats extending back into the past and deep into tomorrow, all celebrating this flickering instant. This--this-- is family. Results Splits Chicago Tribune Article Daily Herald Article MilesplitIL Recap Coach Vandersteen Interview Video Highlights NCTV Story Daily Herald Article II Trophy Ceremony Video