Tony's Take: NXN Diaries- The 2014 Experience

Arguably the best time of the year for cross country is December. December is the month of which some of the best individuals and teams in the nation were rewarded for their hard efforts and dedication to the sport. NIKE of course went out of their way in making sure each kid had the weekend of their running lives…

Day #1:  Wednesday, December 3rd travel day-
The East coast teams and in particular the squads from New York and New Jersey arrived in Portland a day earlier than everyone else. The reason being is the notion that a three-hour time difference from the east coast to the west coast is significant enough to throw one's body clock out of whack. Think about it, the normal 7 pm dinner time in Portland is 10 pm in New York City. That would feel awkward for anyone and most certainly for a group of teenagers.

My flight was originally scheduled to depart from Midway Airport at 9:15a. As I was leaving my home at 6:30a I received a text alert from Delta Airlines stating my flight was delayed one hour. No big deal.  At 7a, I received another alert indicating my flight status was cancelled and re-booked for 3:00p. Now I was steamed. The plane had mechanical problems and could not be fixed. I returned home to take a nap for a few hours.

Finally at 3p we were able to depart and move on to Minneapolis, MN where I would later be connected to Portland. Once I landed in Minneapolis, I met up with NXN MW meet director and fellow Indiana State University alum Geoff Wayton. Coach Wayton was not feeling well and not in a good mood after sitting in the airport for most of the day. “Man, I am pissed at Delta… they suck,” he said. I was feeling the same way after my ordeal. We finally got to Portland at 7:30p Pacific Time. My good friend Victor Gonzalez was already there to pick us up. It’s always good to a few friends in every city who will come to your aid I thought to myself. Wayton and I could have taken the athlete’s shuttle to the hotel but we were already weary and cranky from the long journey.

Delicious Vietnamese wings dipped in fish sauce at the WSL (T. Jones photo)
We arrived at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Tigard, Oregon (suburb of Portland) just after 8p. I didn’t have time to check into my room so I went straight to the manager’s meeting. The meet and greet meeting lasted about an hour and I was free time for the rest of the evening. I met up with Kyle Walsh, Troy Anderson, and his wife Jody. All of us including Victor went out on the town in Portland. We perused several places before resting at a spot called The Whiskey Soda Lounge. It is one of the chains owned by the esteemed chef Andy Ricker. He happens to own a Thai restaurant and the WSL which has mostly a Vietnamese cuisine. We all ended the night with full stomachs from the delicious Vietnamese spicy wings.
Day #2: Thursday, December 4th athlete’s arrival-
The second day in Portland began with a morning run. I had several hours to burn before heading off to the airport to meet and greet my specific athletes and assist other team and individual managers with their kids. So I decided to go for a four-mile run into a neighborhood near the hotel. There was light rain falling but that is typical for Portland this time of the year. As I was starting to feel good about two-miles into the run two dogs with leases around their necks dashed out of their owners open garage door toward me. In an effort to maneuver whatever plans they had next I slipped and rolled off the road into a ravine. I was fine and the dog’s owner called them back. I made it back to the hotel in 30 minutes- got a shower and headed off to PDX.

When I arrived at the airport around 10:30a I assisted my fellow staff mates in greeting the first arrivals. Stephanie Jenks (Jr., Linn-Mar IA) and her Heartland individual teammates were the first group to arrive. They all sported happy faces and appeared genuinely excited about being in Portland. Next up a short time later was a big group featuring the Sandburg boy’s teams, Naperville North girls, and the Illinois individual contingent of Jesse Reiser (Sr., McHenry), Ryan Clevenger (Sr., Downers Grove North), Matt Pereira (So., Lake Zurich), and Anna Sophia Keller (So., Effingham St. Anthony). Audrey Belf (Sr., Birmingham Sealholm, MI) the Michigan large school superstar champion was on the charter as well. Surprisingly this group seemed a bit worn out from the travel. Reiser- in particular- looked tired and did not manage a smile whatsoever. If I had to take a guess I bet he is still trying to overcome the sickness he acquired during the Thanksgiving break. 

The Palatine girls were the next group to arrive and the Lady Pirates undoubtedly showed the most excitement of any team. All seven ladies were in what appeared to be a one-piece black pajama outfit sprinkled with polka dots. And yes they all sported smiles on their way to checking in. After spending another two hours scouring PDX and sending kids, coaches, and chaperones off to their final destinations, I then was able to leave and return to the hotel. 

Back at the hotel I took a quick shower and then departed for Nike World Headquarters. The epicenter for the NXN contingent is the Tiger Woods Center. It is a vast building dedicated to the great golfer Eldrick “Tiger” Woods of course. Within the confines of TWC is the Stanford Theatre and a few other meeting spots. It is here that the runners receive their athletic gear. The gear they receive is utterly ridiculous when you think about it. Each youngster receives one pair of trainers, one pair of spikes, a uniform set, a pair of warm ups, and arm sleeves. Unfortunately not all kids can keep the gear. Some state associations and/or school districts have restrictions on the amount of product they can keep. They would have to purchase anything not covered in the total dollar allotment. 

The Nike campus is an enormous and beautiful landmass stretching for what seems like an eternity. The athletes had an opportunity to complete their workouts or runs on campus; there is also a 400m track on the far west end of campus for those who dare to get in some track related stuff. 
After playing games, running, socializing, and meeting new friends for nearly three hours, it was time for dinner. NXN is known for producing great food cuisine as they bring in executive chefs and staff to cater to us all. However, I wasn’t too fond of dinner this time. The meal consisted of pork, salad, steamed veggies, deserts, and endless amount of assorted drinks. I encouraged my team to take extra juices and bottled water with them upon departure.

The final required function at TWC would be the opening ceremony inside the Stanford. Each team and group of individuals received a video introduction. It was cool to say the least. Host emcees Andrew Haberkorn and Simon Bairu did a solid job of entertaining us. We all left the hall with smiling faces. The time was 7:30p when we departed for the hotel. We always boarded first class charters whenever we traveled. We essentially lived in a bubble- hotel, charter, destination. The athletes were prohibited from exploring anything outside of the official Nike agenda. This would include leaving with family and friends.

The final item of the evening was a team meeting. I held my meeting with my 10 athletes in the food commons. We went over rules, curfew, my expectations, and I opened the floor for Q & A. Reiser and Pereira had simple requests. Reiser needed a pair of compression shorts and a box of cheddar Goldfish. Goldfish? He said he had a superstition and needed a pack of the fish shaped crackers to snack on before his race. Matt liked frosted Strawberry Poptarts. After the meeting concluded I walked over to Target to fetch them their items. All were happy. 

All RTM’s and RIM’s took turns monitoring and sweeping the hotel floors making sure the athletes followed the curfew policies. The night was a success with no one hanging outside their rooms or trying to sneak into each one another’s room. I finished my night off with Kyle, Troy, and Jody by grabbing a bite to eat before closing out Thursday night.

Palatine Girls team off and running on their pre-meet prep (MileSplit photo)

Day #3: Friday, December 5th Pre-meet day-
Friday morning started with breakfast at 6:30a for most of the runners. I told my team to be ready to board the charter by 8:30a despite the team to depart would not start until 9a. They were all ready to go on time and they all had eaten breakfast. I was very pleased with their compliance. It took about 45 minutes to reach the Glendoveer Golf Course because of traffic. The journey was a pleasant one because we drove through the heart of downtown Portland. It was partly sunny and the skyline was absolutely beautiful and if you looked hard enough you can see Mount Hood and Mount St. Helena off in opposite directions. 

We reached Glendoveer and immediately went inside to the athlete village to explore the digs. Undoubtedly it was a million times better than the smelly and nasty Portland Meadows grandstands. After spending 25 minutes or so getting comfortable the meet and course directors gave us a visual tour of Glendoveer. The athletes were able to go and do their respective runs on the gator path. They were not allowed to run directly on the race course in order to keep it preserved for Saturday.  I walked the course to get a mental picture for where I want to position myself on race day. In addition, I was collecting notes for the evening’s meeting. We spent about an hour on and off of Glendoveer before departing back to the hotel. We ate bagged lunches enroute to the Embassy Suites. 

The athletes had several hours to unwind back at the hotel before getting ready to head back to TWC for the evening. The hotel had a game room stocked with snacks, music, and drinks to the delight of anyone who wanted to partake. There was also a swimming pool and whirlpool at one’s disposal. I took an opportunity to catch a quick nap and watch some TV before preparing for another long evening at TWC. 

Several of my athletes such as Jesse, Matt, Sarah Kettel (Jr., Capital Home School, MI), Rachel Bonner (Sr., Port Huron, MI), and Anna Sophia wanted to get exchange their product. Although the line was long it was no problem in getting their issues resolved. I’ve coached girls exclusively in the past so I know that happy girls often result in happy results.

The kids once again used the time wisely inside TWC and on campus to get to know one another. I thoroughly enjoy watching kids from all backgrounds and from all corners of the country coming together as one. Sports can bridge differences as well as bring together similarities better than any other entity. 

The downtime at TWC was also taken advantage of by Troy, Kyle, and I. We attended the elite athlete Q & A session. Let me tell you this: it was awesome! The hour long session featured Alexa Efraimson, Chris Derrick, Evan Jager, Mary Cain, and Galen Rupp. The athletes answered a series of questions posed by athletes and coaches in the crowd. There were many questions belted out but the one that caught me was the cooking one posed to the group. CD appeared to be a master chef and his housemate Evan Jager seemed to agree. I’m a big fan of pancakes and I will try and sample some of his cooking in the future.

The final session of the day was dinner and it was much better than the previous night. I love pasta and nobody makes pasta with meat balls better than the Nike chefs… well maybe my wife. Dinner was great and I washed it down with mineral water and cranberry juice. My group enjoyed dinner as well. 

The evening came to an end with a team meeting in the commons. I met with the girls first and handed out their custom made uniforms and hip numbers. I did not have their timing chips though. They would get them in the morning. I gave each of the young ladies a pep speech. I told them how happy I was of them and I wished them well. They are all champions regardless of the final outcome on Saturday. They presented me with a personalized hand written note thanking me for my duties as a manager to them. I was completely taken aback and honored. Wow… 

The same speech was given to the boys and they appeared to be focused and ready to roll. Jesse and I spoke afterwards and he was well aware of the media hype surrounding the race. We briefly spoke of his health. He was not 100% but he did not want to focus on that. “I am going to give it my best shot,” he said. This is all you can ask of an athlete. He will play a factor in the race tomorrow morning.

The mighty Midwest Boys team ready for battle (Milesplit photo)

Day #4: Saturday, December 6th Race day-
I met with the girls at 7:30a after they finished breakfast to give them their chips. “Guard these chips with your life,” I told them. They all repeated after me: “we will guard these chips with our lives!” I was very nervous because they had to transport them to the course without having them on. They were off to the course without me because I had to tend to the boys. I met the boys at 8:30 to give them the same caution: “Guard these chips with your life!” They also repeated back: “We will guard these chips with our lives!”

We are all set to board the charter bus as a group until I noticed that Pereira was wearing his personal warm-up suit. I was stunned and ordered him to run to his room and get on his official team warm up. He also did not have his credential ready. This was the moment that I realized his youth. I said to Clevenger and Reiser ‘this is both of you guys fault; you are supposed to be molding him.’ Pereira is the next and upcoming star in Illinois and although I am not his primary coach I wanted him to know that paying attention to detail was very important. I gave him a pat on the back and the boys were finally able to board the charter.

We got to Glendoveer in plenty of time for the boys to relax and focus- they had several hours before their race.  

I went to check on the girls and see how they were doing. Audrey was stretching under the watchful eye of her father as was Rachel. I assumed that Anna Sophia aka “Wea” was out on the course with her father. Admittedly I was a bit nervous about her situation. From afar she is the youngest girl in the group and heavily depended on her father being under close supervision. The reason I bring up her nickname is because that is what he calls her on game day. If in the event I get flustered I was going to call her that as well. 

The time appeared to moving fast as announcements for teams and individuals to line-up for introductions. It was 10 minutes before the start of the race and there were only three girls present. I began chewing my gum a bit faster because I remember specifically telling them all in Friday’s meeting to be ready to line up and spike up 10 minutes earlier. “Wea” comes running in with her spikes in her hand. We now have four girls laced and ready for intros. The lineup supervisor Lou Vasquez yells on the loud speaker for the Midwest individuals to report. We line up behind the California individuals and they were not ready either. Vasquez and his assistant yell at them because they were not set to exit the village. Our fifth girl was Dominique Clairmonte. Dominique is a talented junior from Lexington, OH who had a breakout year winning the Ohio Division 2 state title. Her coach Denise Benson apologized for the delay. I was relieved although we were on time. But you never want to overestimate anything in a meet such as the national championship. 

I walked the girls out to the course so they could be introduced for the webcast. They were primed and ready to go! A few minutes later they jogged straight to the starting line with 15 minutes to get in strides and extra mental preparation. The starting line was a bit muddy but the course appeared ready for the meet of the year. The temperature was excellent though, already in the low 50’s. I told to the girls to take off their sweats with five minutes to go and get in one or two more accelerations. They huddled up to say a prayer and encouragements to one another. I gave each girl a fist bump and wished them well.

The race got off to a clean start from my vantage point as I was about 200m beyond the starting line. I noticed one girl in dead last and moments later it was Sarah Kettel! I was stunned and I immediately thought the MW Regional champ had fallen to the ground. It was too late to speculate further as I ran to the next checkpoint. I noticed that the pre-race darling Allie Ostrander (Sr., Kenai Central, AK) leading with several other runners through 1200m. The leaders hit the first mile in a swift 5:31. Audrey and Rachel were up in the mix and Anna Sophia was also in good position. The Midwest crew was looking healthy at this point.

The Glendoveer course is a difficult course to watch from many different angles so I jostled between the 2nd kilometer and 2nd mile. I was beginning to feel nerves like any coach in that I was wondering how we were positioned as the race entered the second half. Ostrander emerged and flanked by Fiona O’Keeff (Jr., Davis, CA) and Paige Hofstad (Jr., New Braufels, TX). Audrey was still in the top 10 and trying to hold on. Anna Sophia and Rachel had long fell off the pace. Sarah was moving up but it appeared too late to get in the medal mix (top 21). Ostrander won in 17:19. Audrey faded a bit but still earned All-American honors with a 14th place finish running 17:46. She was completely spent and finally was able to come to and grab a Gatorade. Sarah came home next in 23rd (18:12). Dominique took 35th (18:26), Rachel- 42nd (18:32), and Anna Sophia completed the task in 72nd (18:54). 

As I said before I was happy for the girls despite the outcome. They all competed hard and did not give up. In looking back we may have went out a little fast except for Sarah and got ate up by a tough and unforgiving course. But as a coach I would not have it any other way.

The boys were next up in about an hour at 11:35a. Although the girls race was still buzzing from a great performance by Fayetteville-Manlius who won with a dominating performance scoring 70 points! The Blue Streaks won their 8th NXN title well ahead of California champ Great Oak who tallied 149 points. Carmel, IN represented the Midwest extremely well with their first trophy taking a proud third on 173 points. 

The two Illinois teams did not disappoint either. Palatine showed why they earned one of the four automatic bids with a 12th place finish. I spoke with their club coach Fred Miller about the team’s performance afterwards. I sensed some disappointment from him though. “Our number #5 Megan Beach (Sr.) finished as our #7 today… Kelly O’Brien (Jr.) was running well but faded in that last mile or we could have…” Actually I know what Coach Miller said and meant. O’Brien was in great position and running extremely well for a good chunk of the race as I saw her positioning despite my eyes on my girls. I did not speak to Kelly but I think the hard start may have played a factor in her overall placement. She went for it and paid a bit of a price for the aggression. The Lady Pirates are definitely a top 10 team and one the nation better be watching out for next year with some key parts returning. Freshman Lauryn Simmons is one girl that Miller is high on. She stepped up as the #5 girl today.

It was all smiles for the 4th place Huskies of Naperville North (Milesplit photo)
Naperville North stepped big today as well in grabbing fourth place. The Huskies was a team that I targeted in my top five and I thought they had an opportunity to get inside the top three. The unusually high scoring split of 1:17 was the factor. I don’t think they would have beaten FM on a perfect day but I do think second place was in reach. I saw Elly DeTurris (Sr.) and her teammates fight hard in the second half of the race. Coach Dan Iverson’s team officially has entered themselves as one of the nation’s elite programs. I believe we are going to see the Huskies as a perennially tough opponent on this level.  Coach Iverson was kind enough to elaborate on his team’s great performance:
“I was very pleased with how things went on Saturday. I really thought we could be top five if we ran well, so fourth is obviously something we are very proud of.  Clearly, the three teams ahead of us are incredible teams from incredible programs.  To be close to Carmel and a third place trophy is gratifying, and it certainly gives us a place to build from going forward.  I am deeply proud of the kids on our team this year – definitely the top seven, but really, this is a product of the hard work of many more people than that.  Mostly, Tony, these kids are pretty awesome, and it showed on Saturday.  They ran with passion and a clear love of the sport and the experience.  You could see that in talking to them and watching their reaction afterwards.  It was really pretty awesome. 
The most exciting part of this from my perspective is that I really believe that, as good as Saturday was for our program, we have significant room to grow from here.  As per usual, NXN is a tremendous experience, and Nike does a phenomenal job of promoting the sport through this event.  We are humbled and grateful to be a part of it.  And we look forward to bigger and better things going forward!”

The boys just about ready and had time to spare when I entered the village and over to their locker. I had spoken Ryan Robinson’s dad the night before about his son. Mr. Robinson said Ryan was feeling better since arriving Thursday morning. Ryan missed the Footlocker regional race the previous weekend due to sickness. He was really sick said his father and it was amazing for him to be in position to race on such a glorious day. Ryan appeared fine to me and I didn’t say a word to him as he finished up a few stretches.

We were finally called up to the start for intros and all five guys were ready. My little buddy and fellow Chicago Blackhawks fan Zach Snider gave me a fist bump. One of Zach’s former teacher’s at Indianapolis Brebeuf is my former high school teammate at Terre Haute North Vigo in Indiana. Mr. Larry Lenne was Zach’s math teacher several years ago. He sent Zach well wishes and also an old school action photo of me that has since went viral. Good times for sure.

Jesse, Ryan, Matt, Zach, and Ryan were now ready to compete in the NXN Championship!

I also had my eye out on Sandburg as well prior to the race. Their coaches Mike Keane and Bob Hahn did a great job in getting their squad ready for the big stage. This is the first time that I have seen their boys so focused and free spirited. I know for a fact that boys have enjoyed their time being spoiled. The twin juniors Sean and Chris Torpy have walked about the venues with smiles all weekend as did junior Tom Brennan. I am hopeful this will be a start to something real big for the Eagles program moving forward.
The race got off to a solid start just like the girls in that no major incidents occurred. I was at the same location as the girl’s race- 200m up from the start. Jesse got out well as did Matt P and I knew they were going to make it hard for anyone wanting those coveted 21 spots.

I stood at the first mile which passed by in 4:46. Jesse was right there with Tanner Anderson (Sr., North Central, WA) and company. There was a ton of pushing and elbowing even after a mile into the race. Jesse continued to hang on past the mile and as I turned my head I could see my group come by as well as Sandburg. It dawned on me that Reiser was going to have an outstanding race and everyone else would be fighting their own battles. 

Anderson was leading at two miles and Reiser still in position for a top 3-5 spot. I stayed at the mark long enough to cheer on all seven runners before bolting for the finish line. I made it in time to watch Anderson win the precious title in 15:11.  Jesse would place 6th in 15:26. I had an issue with that suspect placement because it clearly appeared that Adam Barnard (Sr., Boone, TN) finished 6th. He stumbled and fell just before the finish line- Jesse was able to dash past Barnard while he was on the ground. This is the view that I had. But I guess the chips didn’t matter in this case… Matt ran a strong race in finishing 30th overall in 15:53. Zach endured a tough race but finished a respectable 53rd (16:09) as did Robinson (55th- 16:11) and Clevenger (81st- 16:22). All in all it was a great overall effort from the group. I told each one of them that I expect big things in track and beyond. I felt like a proud dad as we exited the course.

The best is always last-
It is hard to believe that the weekend has come and gone so fast. We all spent the majority of the afternoon first at the lunch spread at the hotel, and then the evening at TWC for closing activities. The kids spent took in one last opportunity to enjoy themselves in the game room and on campus. I took in the Al Salazar coaches clinics with several other colleagues.

Finally the closing ceremonies commenced and the teams and individuals were all honored. But it was the top three teams who were awarded the covered prizes and top 21 individuals were honored as All-Americans. Audrey won an award for the girls and Jesse took a plaque for the boys.

The final stop of the day was the athlete’s dance inside the Embassy ballroom. Each RTM and RIM had shifts to run and each group took matters accordingly into their hands. I worked from 10:00-11:30p. Afterwards I check out and went to bed at 12:20a. I had a 6:50a flight to catch- departure at 4:45a.

Lastly, I would like to say thank you to everyone who made this past weekend so special. Thanks to Rob Hipwood and his NXN staff, thanks to the Midwest individual parents for showing great support of their children and our squad in general. They were awesome and very supportive! Thanks to Nike for showing so much love to this sport. They got it right once again. And finally thanks to the fans out there who supported these great runners.

Tony J