The Ray Lewis Theory: NXN Recap, Thoughts, and Looking Ahead

The state of Illinois nabbed three of the top five automatic individual boys berths to Portland (Colin Boyle photo)

Throughout the 2014 cross country season, as weekly national rankings were published and dominated by east and west coast teams, those of us in Illinois knew the team depth in the Prairie state was being grossly overlooked. Despite dominating wins at Peoria in back to back wins, neither Hinsdale Central nor Orland Park Sandburg moved past the top 15 in the MileSplit Saucony Flo50 National Rankings until after the state meet. Eventual Girls 3A IHSA state champions Naperville North entered November ranked 31st by DyeStat’s national team rankings. Two incredible 3A team races at Peoria confirmed that 2014 provided two of the deepest team fields—both boys and girls—in recent memory.

And now one week later, it is clear that our Illinois teams proved this to the rest of the country at Sunday’s Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) Midwest Regional.

Sandburg came prepared to pack run and somehow managed to cut their pack’s split even more than it has been all year, and ran a 7.5 second scoring split on the fifth runner to take home the regional win over Carmel, IN 113 to 199. Although the Eagle’s pack did not move far up enough at the state race to beat Hinsdale, their pack-racing proved to be extremely effective in the large NXN crowds, and likely shows that their style will be beneficial at the National Meet in a couple weeks.

Although the Carmel Greyhounds grabbed the next auto qualifying spot, Illinois teams still occupied four of the top six spots in the race. 3A champs Hinsdale Central was led by sophomore Blake Evertsen and finished sixth; 15th place finisher junior Connor Horn and Naperville Neuqua Valley defeated the Red Devils for the first time all year and finished fifth. Both team’s performances were outstanding but the most notable finish of the entire meet was York’s finish in third place, just 33 points behind Carmel.

Illinois’ individuals ran a performance that closely mirrored that of the teams. 3A champ senior Jesse Reiser of McHenry won another relatively tactical race and finished two seconds ahead of Waterford Mott senior Ryan Robinson. After Robinson and Carmel junior Ben Veatch, Illinois own sophomore Matt Pereira of Lake Zurich and senior Ryan Clevenger of Downers Grove North finished fourth and fifth, which means Illinois will be sending three male Individuals to Oregon for the third straight year (Alex Riba, Jack Keelan and Quentin Shaffer in 2012, Nathan Mroz, Zack Smith and Reiser in 2013).

The team depth on the girls’ side was evident as well, despite the absence of 3A third place team and perennial powerhouse Glen Ellyn Glenbard West. Naperville North finished only 10 points behind champion Carmel and just one second slower in average team time; Palatine was only six points behind Naperville North and is a serious contender for an at-large selection to the national meet. New Trier finished fifth, and rounded out a strong showing by Illinois teams at the top of the results.

There is a lot of exciting stuff to sort through here, so where do we begin?

The Champions: Orland Park (Sandburg)-

Sandburg’s runner-up finish at Peoria was undoubtedly disappointing for a team who beat every other contender at sectionals the week before. What makes the state results interesting is that Sandburg remained true to the identity they have established all year and ran in a tight pack from start to finish. A slow start for the entire Eagle pack proved fatal, and despite moving well throughout the race, their pack could not overcome Hinsdale Central’s three all-staters (all credit to Hinsdale Central. They ran a phenomenal race and picked the right time to do it). Sandburg has been a historically good team but in this deep year, that talent yielded only second in the 3A race. Entering the NXN weekend, some writers and analysts love to jump to conclusions immediately after a race is run, Hinsdale Central adopted the regional favorite title, and rightfully so.

But this did not matter to Sandburg, who responded by not only running the exact same way they have all year, but also by IMPROVING the quality of that pack. Winning by 86 points, there was really never any doubt of their victory. The Eagles did not have the low stick like Carmel did in Veatch, but they didn’t need one. They split 7.5 seconds off of junior Sean Torpy’s 25th place finish and were the only team on Sunday to finish with more than four runners under 16:00… and they had ALL SEVEN runners under 16:00! Additionally, junior Dan Laskero, who was Sandburg’s eighth runner on the day, won the Boys Open race in 16:01. The amazing Eagles proved that their depth is unrivaled in the Midwest this year.

The NXN Championship meet provides a different beast than the regional meet for the Eagles, however. Obviously every team and individual will be national caliber and extremely tough. But just as challenging to Sandburg will be the size of the field: 22 teams in Portland, as opposed to the 37 team field in Terre Haute. The championship field will be even smaller than the IHSA state meet, with four fewer teams. For Sandburg to be the podium team that we all know they can be, they will have to run as a pack with the same coherence they have all year, but may have to be even further up in the field. But Sandburg knows what to do; they have run a wide range of competitive meets now and they know what they are capable of. They know that they can, and they will, be running for a national championship.

And for a varsity team whose top eight will be losing just one senior, this is not the last we will see from this generation of Sandburg Eagles. In fact, it is far from it.

But two weekends from now, THIS Sandburg team will be toeing the line in Portland. And a message for Tom Brennan, Sean Torpy, Greg Burzinski, Chris Torpy, Martin Skucas, Max Lehnhardt, Brandon Lukas and the rest of the Sandburg crew: congratulations on an incredible season and NXN win. You have the entire state of Illinois behind you now. We will be rooting for you.

The Surprise (???): The Dukes of York

As humans, we generally do not like change and will resist it as best we can. So when York entered the season not being seriously considered in the Illinois state trophy conversation and finished an unusual 11th at the Palatine Invite in September, we did not know what to make of this York team. After Charlie Kern’s emergence, I picked York to win the Niles West Sectional but instead they limped out of the sectional, tied for fifth and barely maintained their half-century long streak of qualifying for state. Then, maybe inexplicably, the Dukes snuck into sixth place at Peoria and defeated more than a half dozen teams they had lost to earlier in the year. Although York finished outside of the top five for the first time in 1969, it was clear that York was not really going anywhere.

And then, of course, they finish third at NXN Midwest.  

Should we be surprised?

Maybe that is an easy question to answer. Of course we should be surprised! What team in their right mind finishes fifth at the state qualifying meet, then sixth at the state meet, and finally third at the national qualifying meet? What performance during the regular season indicated that York was ready to drop a performance like this? It surely wasn’t the Richard Spring Invite, where only one of their varsity runners broke 15:30 on the Detweiller course. Of course this is a surprise! No one could possibly see this coming!

Or… maybe it’s an even easier question to answer. Of course we shouldn’t be surprised. York’s pack showed tremendous growth in a short period of time from sectionals to the state meet, and a relatively young team gaining experience is dangerous. A team with a lower scorer like Kern is at an immediate advantage at NXN. But even simpler than these factors is that we are talking about Kroy (York’s postseason alias). Kroy has only missed the national NXN meet once EVER, and although this is a different team than years past, this coaching staff knows better than maybe any staff in the state how to prepare their athletes for this meet in Terre Haute. As soon as there are doubts concerning Coach Joe Newton’s program, York has found a way to show why they are the only Illinois Cross Country team with an iconic movie made about them.

The next step for York is maybe even more difficult than the race, because it is completely out of their hands: by finishing third, York is eligible for an at-large bid to NXN. NXN’s at-large committee will eight at-large teams, considering criteria based on regular season performance during the year, state meet performance and the specific circumstances of the NXN regional race. What would York’s case be?

Despite an apparently weak start to the season, York has shown they have solid talent all year long. York did not run their seven best runners up at the varsity level until the conference meet, and now that the squad is starting to run well together, they are quickly showing that they are a worthy team of an NXN spot. This current curve of improvement suggests NXN would be York’s best performance of the entire season, potentially. This team is a regular guest to the big dance in Portland, and the courters of the committee will not be disappointed if they invite the Dukes to the ball once again. Besides, who DOESN’T want to see freshman sensation Charlie Kern make his mark on the dance floor? He’s going to be around for a while.

We all know what this team is capable of. Let’s hope the committee sees it the same way.

Illinois individuals show up, plus Jesse Reiser is scary good right now-

At face value, Reiser’s 14:11 performance at Detweiller—which is the 17th fastest in state history—is impressive. But taking a quick peek at his race splits shows that Reiser’s 3A state championship a truly significant indication that Reiser is running like few others have in Illinois history. After running with a large pack through two tactical miles in 9:44, Reiser exploded for a 4:27 final mile, pulling away from Zach Dale with about 300 meters to go. Typically, these fast times on Detweiller are best run with relatively even splits; former St. Ignatius star Jack Keelan’s 14:05 in 2012 was run on 4:40, 4:43, 4:42 miles. But clearly, Reiser’s 14:11 fueled by a drawn out kick less than a mile long tells us that there is plenty left for University of Illinois’ biggest recruit in years.

The NXN Midwest race displayed similar tactics, when a lead pack including Reiser, Clevenger, Pereira and Dale crossed two miles in 9:46. Reiser pulled away for the 5k win in 15:01, and although he didn’t gap the field like he did at Peoria, he didn’t need to. Reiser finished a little over a second in front of Ryan Robinson to secure his second straight appearance at NXN. Last year, Reiser was maybe a bit of a surprise at NXN when he was the Midwest’s top runner (team or individual), finishing 13th at the final Portland Meadows NXN race, ahead of some major players such as Austin Tamagno (Brea Olinda, CA), and Orin Hacker (Madison, Wisconsin), among others. And now, ranked 8th in the country, Reiser has made it to NXN, being beaten by no one the entire year. Nobody. Not even the lead truck at Peoria crossed the line before he did. And now Reiser should be seriously considered as a candidate to win the NXN national championship.

This year marks the first NXN race on Glendoveer golf course after a switch from Portland Meadows, where NXN drew heavy criticism for allowing the national championship to be run in a mud bath (see: NXN 2012). The course features long stretches of flat land where golf holes are dug, but also a stretch of difficult hills which are more natural cross country terrain than the loop-de-loops at Portland Meadows. Reiser, like Sandburg, will be challenged by the field, and may not have the opportunity to watch the race unfold from a comfortable pace for the first two miles—but we have seen Reiser win all types of races now. 13th at nationals is an incredible performance… but we know Jesse Reiser is ready for more.

Pereira and Clevenger will also be on the Midwest individual team, after finishing fourth and fifth in Terre Haute, just five and eight seconds behind Reiser respectively. Pereira could be the best sophomore in the country and has been running faster than almost any sophomore in Illinois history—his 14:22 at Detweiller ties him with York legend Donald Sage for the third fastest sophomore performance ever on the historic course. And now, he will finally get his chance to show what he is made of on the national stage. Clevenger’s consistently strong season will continue as well, and he has shown all year that he will run well against strong competition. So however far up the field Reiser is, Pereira and Clevenger won’t be far back.

Dale finished seventh in 15:13.4, just .4 seconds behind Indy Brebeuf senior Zack Snider, the final individual qualifier. The finish was definitely not what Dale was hoping for, but he will surely be back strong next weekend in Kenosha for Footlocker (Reiser, Clevenger and Pereira are also doing Footlocker as well).

Arlington Heights senior David Rodriguez finished 10th in Peoria and then 11th in Terre Haute; he has stepped up and performed very well at the end of his final year of high school cross country.

All of these guys and everyone else made Illinois proud this past weekend.

Palatine girls finished strong in third place makes a great case for NXN at-large bid (Colin Boyle photo)

Some Scattered Thoughts-

Illinois State 2014

I was fortunate enough to find my way to Peoria for the state meet this year, and although I made it to the course a little late and missed the first four races, the 3A Girls and Boys races were incredible. Some old teammates and I watched the Girls’ race intently, and Naperville North’s victory was very apparent. They ran a phenomenal team race at both Peoria and Terre Haute, and they will be back in Portland for NXN to represent Illinois, once again. I was also struck by Glenbard West junior Lindsay Graham and the ease of her state championship, or at least the perceived ease. He has such a graceful running stride and really left nobody else a chance to catch her, even though Algonquin Jacobs senior Lauren Van Vlierbergen also ran the race of her life. Van Vlierbergen, a University of Michigan commit, finished second and continues to amass a powerful resume which includes last year’s 3A 800 meter state championship.

The few hours I spent poking around the park reminded me how connected the Illinois distance running community is. After spending some time with my old coaches and teammates, I was able to have short conversations with a handful of other coaches and runners—both alumni and current—as well as some notable names including Illinois legend Craig Virgin. The park at Detweiller is a beautiful place and is clearly special, but what makes it most unique are the people that congregate and race, coach, and cheer there every single year. I was most proud of the young guys I knew; they all knew how fortunate they were to be running at Peoria but also kept everything in perspective, staying calm the whole weekend and enjoying each other’s company more than anything else.

The 3A Boys’ race has been recapped over and over again, but in case there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard yet, Hinsdale Central came up big time and defended their state championship, even though Sandburg looked like an unstoppable train heading into the meet. The Red Devils successfully evaluated what each runner needed to do to contribute to a state championship and all seven runners ran to win, and it showed: three all-staters at the front, a 24 second split overall on five. They won state and they deserved it. The preseason favorites ended up coming through in the end.

As I mentioned before, Jesse Reiser won a ‘tactical’ race, splitting a 9:44 through two miles and blazed a 4:27 mile to finish the race, coming across in the finish line in 14:11, one of the top 20 times ever. Obviously his performance was incredible, but I wanted to mention a few other performances that were fantastic.

Sam Oh. Oh is a senior from Stevenson and has flown way under the radar his entire career, typically having strong races at Palatine and his conference and sectional meets. But Oh came almost out of nowhere to improve from missing state in 2013 to finishing 6th in 14:34 in 2014. He proved with this race that he is in the same realm as the rest of the states elites, and it will be exciting to see how he performs in track this season.

Secondly, this kid named Irwin Loud of Oak Park-River Forest. We already knew the sophomore class had some serious muscle up front, particularly led by Evertsen and Pereira. But when I saw the distinctive orange cap of Loud, I couldn’t help but to be amazed by his 11th place finish in 14:39. Loud is one of most entertaining runners in the state to watch; regardless of the competition, he will establish his own pace at the front of the pack early and often. The crowded field at the Niles West Sectional didn’t keep him from leading it by five strides for almost two miles on his way to qualifying individually. So of course, the field at state didn’t scare him either, and he remained with the top group up until Reiser’s late move. The sophomore class put three runners in the top 12, and Loud’s breakthrough race was a big reason why. Keep a wide eye out for Loud over the next few years. Dare I make the comparison... on a cold November day in 2009, sophomore Malachy Schrobilgen finished 19th in 14:56 at the state meet, and he went on to make some big waves (8:57 3200, 2012 3200m state champ, current 2-time defending Big Ten XC champ at Wisconsin). So it will be interesting to find out what Irwin Loud does to continue Schobilgen’s legacy.

Congrats to those guys and everyone else who ran at state. State 2014 was another incredibly successful, exciting, well-run cross country meet. It makes me proud to be from Illinois.

NCAA Championship Weekend-

Even if you are primarily a high school cross country fan, I highly suggest trying to make it to Terre Haute this coming Saturday for the NCAA D1 Cross Country National Championship (or D2 or D3) meet. Collegiate cross country is incredible because it demonstrates the talent of world class, professional-type runners but also the teamwork, camaraderie and school pride seen in high school. When so many teams run at as high a level as these schools do, upsets happen more often than not and every single race is a thrill to watch.

Specifically at the National Championship, Colorado is sporting a team that hasn’t been touched all year, and could be one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. A few other schools, such as Oklahoma State, Syracuse, Villanova, Wisconsin, Stanford and Oregon, have incredible packs and are loaded with amazing runners… but Colorado has been so far in a league of its own that an upset of them in this race would be momentous. Defending individual champ Ed Cheserek of Oregon has looked unbeatable on the cross country course, but his perfect streak ended during regional weekend when Stanford’s Maksim Korolev surged to a win there. Cheserek wasn’t happy…. And he has his sights set on revenge for sure.

Michigan State women are heavy favorites on the Women’s side and the individual race is wide open, where Shelby Houlihan, Kate Avery, Emma Bates, Crystal Nelson and countless other runners have a great shot. My own school—Vanderbilt University—will be represented by our Women’s team, who took down four-time defending regional champions Florida State by one point at the South Regional, coming from behind and putting 5 runners in the first 14.

There will be many exciting races and NCAAs should be able to hold us over, at least until NXN comes around.

Closing Thoughts for the Week-

As the cold days approach quickly, I find myself groaning as each weather forecast shows colder wind chill factors, higher chances of snow and shorter periods of day time. One layer will not do anymore for runs and motivating oneself to get out the door early in the morning for the daily workout can be difficult. However, this is the month of November, possibly the most magical month of the year for distance runners. In championship meets across the country at every age level, weeks, months and years of preparation bear fruit and athletes receive validation for their countless hours of dedication to this sport. The year of training can be long and tedious, especially when we have to deal with the cold Midwest winter that sometimes reaches as far into the year as April. But my words of motivation for all runners at this time of year, is remember the accomplishment during these couple weeks of champions and race winners. Remember the payoff that these runners get to enjoy, and if you want that for yourself, never let yourself forget it, even during these hard winter months. If you can pound two or three months of dedicated and consistent training during a Midwest winter, then you truly can overcome anything as a distance runner.

Have a wonderful week and Thanksgiving, everybody. Stay warm. Go Team Illinois! (And go Vanderbilt! )