Illinois Shows And Proves At NXN Midwest Regional

How sweet it was indeed for the Sandburg Eagles who reversed their fortunes from a week ago with an NXN MW Regional title (Colin Boyle photo)


Terre Haute, IN-
Indiana has always shown love to its guests when it comes to sports. Cross Country over the years has been a big beneficiary in that department. It started with the AAU, TAC, and USATF post-season regional and national meets  for the tots, leading all the way up to the NCAA national championships and the professional ranks. Nike Cross Nationals got in on the action in 2007 and has never looked back. 
Sandburg boys get the job done this time-
For those outside of Illinois that do not know, Sandburg High School has a storied history in distance running starting with the legendary Tom Graves in the mid-1970s to the self-confident and record breaking Lukas Verzbicas of a few seasons ago.
The 2014 version of the Eagles came into this fall on a tremendous high after experiencing a great track and field season. They topped off the spring with a second place finish in the 4x800m relay in the 3A state finals running a blistering 7:40.21. Not to forget but... then a romping through the regular season was met with very little resistance, and into the post-season leading up the state championship things seemed to be going well. Unfortunately, Sandburg assumed after beating defending champion Hinsdale Central badly at sectionals, state would be a piece of cake. The Red Devils stepped up and defended their title and the disheartened Eagles had to settle for second. 
Some of what happened on November 8 was because of a slow start that could not be recovered. The acting coaches led by former Sandburg great Mike Keane got the message from the brass (official team coaches not allowed to conduct practices) to make sure there was no repeat. It was all business on Sunday for Sandburg XC Club who got out well and moved up methodically through each kilometer. It was just before the fourth kilo that junior Sean Torpy began to surge and his mates followed suit. Although it was hard to detect teams because of uniform changes (some squads wore t-shirts), Sandburg wore a semblance replica of their high school attire laced in blue and yellow. They were easy to pick up on radar as the top seven harriers came home within seven seconds of one another. Torpy crossed in 15:43 and his mate and fellow junior Tom Brennan crossed in 15:50. The Eagles sixth and seventh runners Brandon Lukas (Jr.) and Martin Skucas (So.) had their teams back just in case with 43rd and 55th team places. They both would have finished well among second place Carmel, IN had they been needed.  The final tally was an easy 113-199 victory over the Greyhounds. York surprised everyone by finishing third with 232 points. The roller coaster ride for the Dukes is on a high since barely qualifying for state. York took 6th at the Illinois state meet a week prior- a feat at one time thought impossible- which is impossible to think if you are Dukester fan to begin with. Freshman Charlie Kern Jr. continues to run like a seasoned veteran. He paced his team in 13th place overall. The spread for the Dukes was a solid 46 seconds. Now they will have to play the waiting game set by the at-large selection committee.
As for Hinsdale Central aka the Dale, they finished sixth with 276 points, three more than Naperville Neuqua Valley. The Red Devils got off to a bad start (ala Sandburg a week before) when key runner sophomore Blake Evertsen took a spill coming down the first turn (near the first 1st kilometer) when he ran into a protruding poll out of the ground. Despite a solid 33 second scoring spread, the fall was pretty much the end of the line for the Dale.
But what is perhaps most telling on the day is the depth of the Sandburg program. Junior Dan Laskero is the team’s #8 runner; he went out and took the lead just before the first mile and won going away in 16:01. His performance no doubt sparked the varsity seven before their races and gave them the confidence in getting the job done.
Jesse Reiser (Sr., McHenry) also had the confidence of a champion going into the qualifying tilt. He only needed to finish among the top five to secure his automatic spot to Portland. The fireworks got the race off to a roaring start and it didn't take Reiser and a flurry of the top runners in the field long to assert themselves in the front. Matt Pereira (So., Lake Zurich), Ryan Clevenger (Sr., Downers Grove North), and Zach Dale (Sr., Hoffman Estates Conant) were a handful of Illinois standouts seeking top honors. Zack Snider (Sr., Indy Brebeuf), Ben Veatch (Jr., Carmel, IN), and Ryan Robinson (Sr., Waterford Mott, MI) represented the out of state contingent.
It was cloudy, light wind, and cold with temperatures hovering in the mid 30s, but did not stop the opening mile from sinking into 4:44. The group of at least a dozen runners stayed intacted through the second kilometer in around 6:00. The course would turns and heads south and then back north up a gradual incline toward and past the 3k sign. The lead group surged on my in 9:00 and then the 2m in 9:46. The moderate pace played perfectly into Reiser's favor once again. He has shown tremendous closing ability off of a moderate pace as his 4:27 mile last weekend at state proves.
Finally, it was with one kilometer to go it was Reiser in control and he inched slightly away and used a fourth gear in the final quarter-mile to seal the deal in 15:01. Robinson found the right time to run his best 5k on the grass, took second in 15:03. Veatch took his first loss on the season copped third (15:05) ahead of Pereira (15:06), Clevenger (15:09), and Snider (15:13). Ironically, Veatch was initially an individual automatic qualifier based on his finish and the feeling that his team was out of the running for a top two spot. This would have meant that Snider would have been the hard luck loser in sixth place. The added twist is Veatch stopped Snider from winning the Indiana xc state title as a senior and... Snider is a Carmel native! He has competed against Veatch since middle-school. Carmel is his natural school but he attends Brebeuf which is on north side of Indianapolis.  What a strange twist that fortunately worked out for Carmel and Snider.

Homeschooled runner Sarah Kettel of Michigan did some surprising of her own in the girls championship (Boyle photo)

Carmel girls make it five in a role, Naperville North earns repeat trip to Portland-

Indiana's supreme team US#2 Carmel had one goal coming into Sunday: return back to Portland. The Lady Greyhounds also known as the Carmel Distance Project did just that by winning with the slimmest of margins 103-113 over Naperville North. Palatine lurked very close behind with 119 points. The 34 second scoring spread for Carmel was precipatated by freshman Madelyn Dalton who finished 15th overall (10th in team scoring) in 18:03. Carmel knows the Indiana State University course very well with a ton of championship race experience in which they put on the layout. Since the Hooiser harriers run and think in kilometers, they also know exactly when to strike. That striking point is usually around the 3k mark. This is where the scorers tried to surge up the gradual incline and bury its opponents. However, Naperville North would not be deterred. The Huskies surged hard as well sticking together in bright neon yellow singets donned with long white sleeved shirts. Junior Judy Pendergast hung tight with Dalton before finishing a few strides back in the 11th scoring position (16th overall in 18:05). They essentially cancelled each other out. It was then a classic foxhole battle to the finish line that the Lady Greyhounds survived. It was by far their hardest test of the season and certainly one they are lucky to have won. As for Palatine, the Lady Pirates continued their marvelous season on the strength of a great front runner such as junior Kelly O'Brien. O'Brien took seventh overall in 17:50. Her teammates completed the 51 second scoring spread and easily defeated Michigan's top team Birmingham Seaholm who tallied 195 points. The waiting game for Palatine should be much easier and less stress in terms of receiving an at-large bid in less than two weeks. The Lady Pirates resume and body of work is more than solid this season compared to last.

The girls race got out well and much faster than the open with several of the pre-race favorites already upfront in the first kilometer. By the first mile, which was negoiated in the mid 5:30s by Audrey Belf (Sr., Birmingham Seaholm), Anna Sophia Keller (So., Effingham St. Anthony, IL), and Rachel Bonner (Jr., Port Huron, MI). The trio stayed in tow for the next kilometer or so with Belf and Keller alternating with the lead. At 4k, Keller tried to make a break on Belf with her trademark side to side head jerking, but she was undeterred. Sarah Kettel, the junior from Capital Home school, seized the opportunity to compete against mainstream star runners moved to the front somewhere in the final kilometer. Kettel was a complete surprise to nearly everyone in attendance except for official race announcer David Mitchell who happens to be a fellow Michigander and high school running expert. He belted out, "here comes Kettel the home schooled runner from Michigan." Kettel inched away from Belf and Keller on the homestretch and won in 17:28. The favored and nationally ranked Belf settled for second in 17:30. She barely held off Keller who fought all the way to the finish line in 17:31. Bonner faded from the leaders but not far enough to give up fourth place and an automatic ticket to Portland ran 17:38. Dominique Clairmonte (Jr., Lexington), the Ohio state big school champion took the final qualifying spot in 17:39. Clairmonte's story was just as unique and satisfying as the rest of the girls in that her 2013 cross country season was derailed when she suffered a broken foot and could not finish the year. Needless to say Clairmonte was incredibly happy in the end.

Overall, it was a great day for most of the key runners and especially the Wolverine State who for many years could not compete because of state association rules. They took the first two spots along with three of the top five auto bids. It should be a fun time in Portland for all of the qualifiers, but especially the Midwest contingent who will be expected to rain on someone's party... or parade.