When Things Don't Go Your Way: A Retrospective of The 2012 Niles West Sectional

A retrospective of the 2012 Niles West Sectional controversy, told by Ray Lewis

The 2012 team celebrating Chris Korabik's 57th place finish at state. Oh, and Jack Keelan's 1st place, too, I guess. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Sectional weekend approaches during this 2016 Illinois cross country season, which means possibly the most hectic and polarizing weekend of the season is in just a couple of days. As I write this, I am a senior in college,but I reflect back to the last time I was a senior during the week preceding sectionals- my senior year of high school! My sectional experience throughout high school, especially my senior year, was a unique one and one worth retelling, especially since some lessons I learned are ones I hope all high school runners can take.

First, to set the stage: In 2012, my senior year, our St. Ignatius team was very strong. I was one of three co-captains for the team, a position I couldn't have been happier to hold. One co-captain, Tim Hatzopoulos, was my closest friend on the team. The other, Jack Keelan, was one of the best runners in the country, let alone just the state of Illinois. The team itself was great too- our pack of Chris Korabik, Andy Weber, Dan Santino and Taylor Dugas made us good enough to be ranked as high as #11 during the season by some rankings, and #2 in our sectional. That was a motivated, focused team- the bad taste in our mouth leftover from a disappointing 2011 sectional performance was enough for us never to want to experience such an awful feeling again. However, we knew that we were GOOD- qualifying was not enough for us. We wanted to be considered as trophy contenders. It was ambitious, yes, but we felt that having a young, dependable pack behind the possible state champ meant anything was within reach.

Throughout the year, I hovered around 9th and 10th man on that team. My highlights were probably winning the ICOPS Invitational Open Race in West Chicago the first weekend and scoring a homecoming date at the Palatine Invitational. But MY own sights were set on the top 7, because that was obviously my ticket to running at the state meet which I had dreamed of doing for years. It was difficult to be on the outside of a great varsity season, which included a fifth place at Peoria Woodruff (now First to the Finish) and a great performance at Palatine, where we were a sixth-runner tiebreak away from being the third 3A team there. Fortunately, I ran well at the Wheeling Invitational (where a last second change had us running a makeshift three- mile course around the Allstate campus in Northbrook IL), and got to run top 7 at Chicago Catholic League, where we won just our second conference title since the early 1980's.

Patrick Manglano (right) and I leading the team at Washington Park at the 2012 St. Ignatius Regional. Photo by Steven Bugarin

For much of our team, regionals was an afterthought since we had our eyes focused on Sectionals and State. But for myself and a few others, it was the most important race to date; Coach Ernst elected to rest our top 5 men, and race the 6 through 12 runners at regionals. This gave each of us the opportunity to run for the 6 and 7 spots on the Sectional team. I hated the Washington Park course-long grass and uneven ground was never really my M.O.- but I still ran the best race of my life. Patrick Manglano ran 16:43 to grab the #6 spot, and I ran 16:49 to get #7. This alignment meant we finished 'just' fifth at the regional (I remember getting a nervous call from Keelan, on a recruiting visit at the time, asking whether we had qualified for sectionals), but Manglano and I were ready to compete. After the race, as I retrieved the sweaty bandana I had thrown off with about 500 meters to go, I soaked in the reality I thought I had achieved: I was going to run at sectionals... and then the state meet. I couldn't believe it.

Now, you can see where I was probably getting a little ahead of myself. I could barely sleep the entire week, envisioning and re-envisioning the sectional race, helping my team qualify and then later run at Peoria. But the entire week seemed to be filled with misfortune for our team during training. After filming a Workout Wednesday 800s workout on Monday, Andy Weber hurt his toe on a loose brick during the cool down. Dan Santino came down with a bad sickness and Taylor Dugas rolled his ankle later in the week as well, and all of a sudden we didn't seem to have the same pack we had before. In our minds, that was no problem though. We were running for 2nd place at the Niles West sectional.

October 27, 2012 was a very chilly day. I remember trying to determine whether to wear my compression shorts during the race (I did wear them). It was crisp but it felt like good cross country conditions. During warm-ups, we scanned the teams we would be competing with for spots: York, Maine South, Loyola, Glenbard West, Lane Tech, New Trier. We know we could beat each of those teams and that was where our heads were. We thought it would be smooth, on to the next week.

But the race start was not so smooth. We had a second race start after a call-back with a fallen runner. And after that race start, I couldn't tell how our team was doing but I fell apart. My legs knotted up very early on, and after failing to get around a pack in the back loop of the reconfigured Niles West campus course, I mentally gave up and coasted, just waiting for the finish line in the stadium, so I could hear good news from my teammates.

When I returned, I gathered with our team and the good news I had hoped for seemed to be in jeopardy.

Keelan had won, as expected, and Korabik finished 21st, but the rest of the pack was strung out, not nearly a performance that a 2nd-place team would want, and possibly not a qualifying performance. The next 20 minutes in the Niles West field house were tense, where we were certainly on the bubble and completely unsure of our finish. We sat in a small circle, sheepishly rolling our legs with The Stick and picking at crumbs of the pretzel bread that we brought to eat after the race. I was in doubt-my cross country career hung in the balance, and I knew it at the time.

Then, from a distance, Bill Santino, who was Patrick, Brian and Dan's father, stood in front of the newly posted results, and turned to us with a smile. Thumbs up with one hand. Five fingers up on the other-we had finished in 5th place, and qualified for Peoria.

We jumped, danced and hugged. I squeezed Manglano beyond what was reasonable, as he had hopped into the fifth scorer spot to save what was a tough race from almost everybody else, possibly saving our season. It wasn't a pretty 2nd place, but rather an ugly 5th, yet it still got the job done. We took a picture of the results, and I admired the results page, an image I didn't think I would ever see. York first, Maine South second, New Trier third, Glenbard West fourth, Saint Ignatius fifth. The official's signature punctuated the results, confirming that the dream had been realized. The seventh runner's name under Ignatius was Lewis. Although I had done little to deserve it, I would be running at the state meet. All was well with the world, at least as far as I could tell.

Juxtaposed against our celebration were some murmurs and activity behind the officials' table. After calming down and planning to head out on our cool-down run, coach Ernst pulled us aside to inform us of a new development. Just has he explained that there was a formal appeal filed, the results were pulled off the wall. Our hearts sank for a moment, and then for what felt like an eternity.

The situation was this: David Schmieg, Lane Tech's fourth runner, had made a mistake by placing both timing chips on his right shoe, rather than one on each shoe. For this reason, his 16:11, 44th place finish was not timed and Lane Tech was scored with only six runners. A long video review eventually rectified this issue, and the updated results were then announced. Lane Tech had been moved from sixth-place to fourth, Glenbard West from fourth to fifth, and Saint Ignatius from fifth place to the non-qualifying sixth place. We had missed the state meet.

It is difficult for me to recall exactly what emotions I felt during that time period. There must have been anger, resentment, confusion, disbelief. Whatever it was, the entire team felt the same. Keelan and Korabik angrily accepted their individual qualifier Detweiller parking passes without acknowledging the officials. We knew we had not run well enough to qualify for state, but we still felt wronged. We were told we were going, and then we were not. This was not how sectionals was supposed to go. I had envisioned this, and this was not the happy ending. I wanted to blame everything, from myself, to my compression shorts, to Lane Tech, to the officials, to IHSA, to the wretched three loop course at Niles West. There was a race at Peoria waiting for me-but instead, I had already run my final cross country race.

The team convened and decided to get our minds off of what had occurred. We planned a team visit to Haunted Trails in Burbank on Harlem Avenue that evening, and a well-attended (about 16 guys on the team came, including the entire varsity team) night of mini-golf and go-karting is one of my fondest memories from high school to this date, and it will always be. The contrast between the heartbreak earlier that day and the memories made that evening with my best friends cemented a handful of lifetime friendships. This was instrumental for the well-being of the team, I am sure.

            I remember browsing the internet for hours the following week, seeing what people were saying about the scoring controversy at Niles West. This was the second year in a row the officials at Niles West faced scrutiny for a scoring error (in 2011, Maine South were the odd men out). To me, it seemed that the state was on our side, and I held out hope that the state would grant us a special waiver for Peoria since we had been told we were going to state, and the officials signed off on this. Alas, justice was served, so this was not the case.

            Instead, we rallied the team around Korabik and Keelan's appearance at state. The weekend was truly unforgettable, with most the whole squad busing down to Peoria, watching Keelan kick beyond Alex Riba and Quentin Shaffer to win in 14:05, the tenth fastest time ever run at state. This was his victory, but the team was behind him every step of the way. A sixth-place at sectionals couldn't keep Saint Ignatius from making its mark on the state meet. It wasn't the happy ending I had imagined, necessarily, but it was maybe better than I could have hoped for.

Still, my cross country career was over, and that was a tough pill to swallow. My 16:49 personal best on a bumpy 3 mile course certainly did not merit a spot on a roster at any school I was applying to for college. An injury-plagued senior season of track left me wholly unsatisfied with my running career, and fostered then a very long story for another time: an ill-fated attempt to walk onto the Men's cross county team at Vanderbilt, which left me with two severe tibial stress fractures that effectively sidelined for me almost two years.

One of the eeriest photos in our program's history. This was the sectional top 7 team, posing just after we had be informed the made the state meet, and just before we were to be informed that we had not. From left: Coach Steven Bugarin, Dan Santino, Jack Keelan, Patrick Manglano, Andy Weber, Chris Korabik, Taylor Dugas, Ray Lewis, coach Ed Ernst. We were joined at the bottom by 1980 IHSA Boys state champion Mike Patton, Ignatius '81. Photo by Steven Bugarin

That aside, I now have had four full years to reflect on what happened on October 27, 2012. I can't say that I am satisfied yet with that result, and I would definitely re-run the race if I were given the opportunity. I'm not sure I had the capability to knock off the 88 seconds I would have needed to so we could qualify, but I sure as heck would want to be given the shot.

Yet, this does not mean I am not thankful for what that taught me. If you remember, I invested all my stock and value into a top 5 sectional spot, an appearance at state, the individual and team glory of success on the course. And when that was taken from me, I had little left to console myself with, until I realized that the value of my cross country career did not come in my modest personal bests but the young men I had grown to love and the ways that running had permanently shaped my personality. I could have let the most heartbreaking scenario I would have ever imagined (which then happened) negatively paint my entire senior year of cross country, and I almost did, until the guys around me help orient my perspective in a healthier and more constructive manner. My freshman year, I was the slowest runner on the team, finishing last in our first dual meet and running 23:20 for 3 miles at the Leavey Invitational. Still, coach Ernst, coach Bugarin, Patrick Santino, and the rest of the Wolfpack squad invested in me and believed in me. I cut my three mile time over my four years by 391 seconds- 6 minutes and 31 seconds. My career was not a failure; it was a wild success, and if I thought it was anything other than that, it would be a wild disservice to myself and a discredit to those who helped me.

To those of you racing at sectionals this weekend: we at MileSplit Illinois talk about state and the top teams all the time. Most all of you have the goal to finish top 5 and end up at Peoria, racing like you never raced before. Yet, the reality is that less than 30% of teams running at sectionals will be in the top 5, and the rest will be ending their seasons this week on October 29. My message and hope for all of you is NOT that settling for a 6th-18th spot is okay. If you have missed out in the past, remember that feeling and race your heart out! But as satisfying sectional performances come and go, the content and value of your season and career do not. The hours you invested into this moment do not. And most importantly, the formation of your own personality, values, and friendships with teammates and coaches remain the same and will ALWAYS be the most important part of your high school cross country experience. To this day, I am the only one of the 7 runners on that Saint Ignatius team never to have raced at the state meet. But, fortunately, I came to that realization long after I had found that it was completely okay never to have run there. Cross country, Saint Ignatius, the Wolfpack, all these are a part of who I am to this day and I am ever grateful, regardless of whether the name Lewis appeared in the 2012 3A Boys state race (however, for those who appreciate full-circle moments, I advise checking out the 2014 3A Boys state race and looking for a Lewis in those results).

Best of luck to all teams this weekend! It can be either the most gratifying or most heartbreaking weekend of the season for some teams. Yet my advice to all is to find a way to make it memorable, one way or another. Leave it all out there on the course, when you have the chance. The fact that you have made it this far means this sport is already a part of who you are, and no official is ever going to take that from you. Trust me. I know.