This is long overdue--please forgive my tardiness!
A few weeks prior to this meet, we thought that we were going to be running individual time trials at Waukegan's course, and call it "Conference."" And while I appreciate the fact that the athletic directors wanted to keep everyone as safe as possible this season, I was ecstatic to find out that they decided to revise the format to be more in line with the regional format. And then when the coaches at Warren agreed to step up to have men and women race there in one day, despite all the heartbreak they had experienced during the season? Well, I was smiling ear to ear. To be honest, I do like Waukegan's course--it's challenging and true XC. I do not like it, however, at the end of the season when we are trying to run our fastest. Finally--after all the ups and downs of the season--we were catching a break! In the week leading up to the meet, we looked sharp and ready. In particular, I felt the positive vibes when we headed out to the bowling alley. On the way back, the beautiful fall colors and the energy of the group gave me life! I knew we were ready for a great day of racing.
And like all season, I am proud of you all maximizing an opportunity. Yes, it was cold. Yes, it was windy. But you saw the chance to actually race head-to-head on a fast course, and you all seized the day. It was simply glorious to watch. From the first race to the last, I had a smile plastered across my face (well, behind my mask). I was cheesing hard because watching you all shine and lift on another up is such a light during such a dark year. The energy of this team has given me life all season.
Our first race of the day featured our top five: Audrey, Kelsey, Maya, Marisa, and Riley. These five set the table for the day. After the first 800, I was pleased about our placement--each bee was within sight of the next, with Audrey leading the way in the top ten. As the race unfolded, I was stoked to see how hard everyone was fighting to move up to help our team score. Audrey finished in an impressive 8th, earning All-Conference honors for the second year in a row while coming within two seconds of her LPR from Lakes the week before. Congrats for your consistently impressive performances, Audrey! Kelsey was our second finisher for the day. After battling back from injury, this was the first race where she looked more like herself, with her fitness finally looking sharper. She placed 11th with a season PR of 19:04. More importantly, she managed to earn All-Conference honors for the fourth year in a row--a feat that has never happened in my tenure at ZB, and I suspect (but cannot yet confirm) has not happened ever in ZB history. This kind of consistency is what we strive for; while it is clearly difficult to do, it speaks volumes about Kelsey's grit and growth mindset. Congrats on an impressive effort, Kelsey! Maya was our third finisher for the flight. Even though she was not satisfied with her performance, I was happy to see her run her second fastest time of the season, only seconds from her SPR. More important than time, her performance helped our team score significantly. Great work, Maya! Our fourth finisher in this flight was Marisa. Not only did she have a fantastic race (in particular, she did a great job working the woods), she also ran a lifetime PR by nearly 10 seconds. Only ten spots behind Maya, her effort also contributed to our strong team performance. Nice job, Marisa! :) Riley was our fifth finisher in this flight. She had a standout race, dropping 14 seconds to earn a new LPR. Fantastic work, Riley!
After the first flight, the positive vibes enveloped each ensuing flight with races looking more and more impressive. Flight two featured our other half of our varsity squad (North Suburban Conference rules now allow us to run 10 people in the varsity race. The purpose? To give more athletes that varsity experience and give coaches a chance to make final line-up choices for Regionals. Our second flight really stepped up to the challenge of the first. Katelin, Lesly, Jenna, Natalie, and Karen had outstanding races. Katelin was our first to finish, running an impressive 33 second LPR, besting her previous standout performance at Lakes. She looked fantastic in the woods, and her kick was outstanding. She managed to beat Riley's time from the previous heat, helping us as the last scoring runner (#5). For once, Katelin was satisfied after her race, which shows that it was a good one! Congrats on the new LPR, Katie! Lesly was our next finisher. She was more conservative with her start, and then she moved up during the race, picking off sleepy racers in the woods. She looked fast and athletic in her kick, conjuring up the same vibe that she had at Lakes. Although I know she wanted a new PR, she was only seconds away, and she rounded out our top 7 for the day. Awesome work, Lesly! Jenna was our 8th bee for the day, only one place behind Lesly. This race marked another LPR and another improvement in an already incredible season of growth. Not only did Jenna smile during the entire race, she kept surging every time someone yelled to her, and she worked her way up to Lesly by the end. While I have been proud of our kicks as a whole all season, Jenna definitely had the kick of the day, shifting throughout the stadium and catching Natalie in the final stretch. Congrats on an outstanding race, Jenna! Natalie was only a second behind Jenna. Despite battling a grumpy knee for a few weeks, Nat had a positive mindset the whole way, running a very similar race to her stand out performance at Lakes. While I know she wanted an LPR, she was only seconds away. Our final bee in the race was Karen, who ran with Jenna for a good part of the race. That was a smart move! Not only was she able to show off her hard-earned fitness, she was also able to earn a huge season PR. She dropped a big 38 seconds to dip into the 22s for the first time this season. What a gritty race from this senior who has been dedicated to our team for four years! What a great way to conclude her career; proud of you, Karen! Overall, varsity took 5th place in a much stronger field than last year. Our conference is improving, which helps us sharpen ourselves throughout the season. Congrats to a great team effort, bees! :)
Our next flight featured six bees: Julien, Illyana, Marleth, Jenni, Mia, Belen, and Delilah. By the time they reached the line, the energy of the team was unavoidable. These six looked ready to rock (with the small exception of Delilah's shoe ;)). From the gun, this group looked fantastic. Emerging from the woods, Julien was our first bee, and she maintained that leadership spot for the entire race. Each time she came into the woods, she did a fantastic job of surging down the little hill and working on other runners. This race was her best by far this season; not only did she attack the whole time, but her kick was picture-perfect! She finished with a huge season PR--dropping nearly a minute and coming only seconds away from her LPR. What a great race, and what a great way to cap off your XC career, Julien! Her gutsy start helped motivate her teammates for sure. After the first 800, Marleth, Illyana, and Mia were working off of Julien's energy as well as each other's, with Jenni, Belen, and Delilah in pursuit. In the next loop, Illyana broke away, showing that the whole purpose of working with your team is to challenge one another. A year ago, Illyana would have stayed in the safety of the pack; this year, she has grown as a runner and has learned to trust her fitness. The move helped both her and the women behind her. Illyana finished with a fantastic kick, recording her strongest effort of the season when it counts--at Conference. Not only did she completely skip the 24s, she set a huge new LPR of 23:44, a drop of 1:32. Whew! What a great performance! Marleth was not far behind, feeding off of Illyana's energy. This race made me wistful that she did not join us before this year, yet thankful that she did this year. Marleth only had a handful of chances to race this season, but she made the most of each race. She improved in every race, saving her most impressive performance for Conference. After battling an irritated hamstring all season, Marleth overcame this distraction to earn a huge LPR of 24:06--a more than one minute drop over our last home meet. What a great way to sum up her grittiness in her last XC race! Congrats on a great effort, Marleth! Jenni was our next finisher, who was constantly pulling on the energy of the women ahead of her. Jenni's career as a ZBXCer is what I hope for from a runner who is on the team multiple years--steady growth. From her start as a sophomore, Jenni has put in the work to get consistently stronger as a runner. Her senior season has been a testament to that steady work, and this race was the crowning jewel. Not only did she drop nearly a minute in this race to earn a new LPR of 24:33, she also beat 7 for the first time this week in our mile time trial. Whew! Congrats on a tremendous race and a big mindset shift this season, Jenni! Mia used Jenni's wisdom and energy throughout the race, and mixed it with her own grit to run a fantastic race as well. Despite being away from the team for a few days due to the loss of a loved family member, Mia refocused and ignored her achy knee to also break into the 24s for the first time all season. Her new LPR--a drop of nearly 30 seconds--was earned through gritty racing. She refused to let her pack go, and she challenged them with the confidence of an upperclasswoman rather than the freshie that she is. I'm so proud of Mia for being such a tough cookie; she embodies our "lemonade" mindset in that she joined XC after the pandemic made her first choice--volleyball--impossible. While literally EVERY OTHER FRESHMAN GIRL sat home this fall, Mia took on the challenge of a new sport, and she embraced it with her whole heart. Talk about courage! I hope that she returns next fall and brings some of her like-minded friends. Congrats on a great race, Mia! Delilah was our next finisher. After rolling her ankle more than a week before this race, Delilah worked to mitigate the effects by reducing her mileage and focusing on her team. Although I know she would probably prefer a different time for this race, her effort is what matters most. Despite nearly losing her foot as Anderson and I helped her get her warm ups off minutes before the race (stupid tight ankle pants!), Delilah focused on her "Cantu" mindset throughout the race. She kept battling to move up in the field, and she ran with courage the whole way! Delilah is the only bee in this flight who has run for all four seasons; like Jenni, she has grown each season, improving her times and becoming a more vocal, positive leader. Congrats on a gutsy race and a great season, Delilah! Our final bee in this race, by contrast, is a "senior-freshie," coming out for XC for the first time this year. Belen's grit has been impressive all season. Much like Marleth, she came to our sport late, but she made a big impact. Despite ongoing hip pain, Belen has pushed through this season, challenging everyone around her, and improving every opportunity. She did that in style at Conference, pulling on her teammates and dropping a ridiculous 2:20 to earn a new LPR in her final race of her career. Man did she look great coming around the final football field loop! Congrats on a great season and a great final race, Belen!
It was only logical that our last flight of women--Blanca, Ashley, Aubrianna, Ixa, and Nataly--would feel the magic of all the women before them, and rise to the occasion...and that they did. This group looked fantastic from start to finish! Blanca was the first finisher from this group. Not only did she drop over a MINUTE from her previous best, she also looked fantastic doing it. We have been working on her running tall all season, and I didn't have to cue her during this race! She looked assertive as she passed sleepy runners in the woods, and she had a great kick. What a journey this runner has been on since she first started during track as a freshie. Our next bee was Ashley. This four-year ZBXCer has come SUCH a long way since her freshman year. She joined with a friend, and the two of them struggled mightily in the beginning. To their credit, they never gave up, but only Ashley returned the next season. She went from running in the 40s that first year, to growing stronger as she piled on the miles and earned the race experience. With that said, I'm not sure I was prepared for the race I saw today. Ashley looked powerful (not unusual) and fearless in the final mile. She did not give into the fatigue; instead, she kicked like mad to a new lifetime PR. Ashley dropped nearly TWO MINUTES from her previous best. Not only did she run a huge PR, she also showed her team what it means to grow over the course of four years. So proud of your final race, Ash! Aubrianna was close behind, pulling on Ashley's energy. She had a big race today, dropping a crazy 4 minutes to earn a big new SPR of 27:08. This race was a nice breakthrough--she had been stuck racing-wise, despite some great workouts that indicated that she was ready to drop time. I'm so proud that she let herself shine today--great job, Aubrianna! Ixa was not far behind Aubri. Despite having angry arches for much of the season, Ixa persevered. This three-year ZBXCer understands how to overcome the aches and pains that accompany running sometimes. She had a fantastic race, pulling on her teammates and her experience to work the words like a pro. Her kick was fantastic, and she dropped 1:20 to earn a sweet SPR. Congrats to this backbone to our team on a great last race! Proud of you, Ixa! Our final racer of the day was Nataly. She had an outstanding race, looking the strongest she has all season. Her stride was open and strong, and her kick was fantastic, too! She dropped 5:05 to earn a new SPR, only two seconds away from her lifetime. What a great way to end her junior year!
Overall, this day of racing was FIERCE. It made me think back to that first real race at Deerfield at the start of the season. We talked about knowing your worth and power AND actually living it. Great racing comes with that kind of knowledge. To watch you all let your races do the talking is every coach's dream. To watch it happen for the whole team on the same day is like winning the lottery. But the way you did it...the way you hyped each other up, celebrated each other after, and carried yourselves with class the whole time? That kind of energy is beyond amazing. To say that I am proud to be your coach is such an understatement. I will never forget how in the face of adversity, you grew together, chose love of athleticism and each other, and let yourselves shine. What. A. Day!
One last shout out--congratulations to Jenni for earning the 2020 Sportsmanship Award for our team. Unlike MVP and Leadership, which are voted on by the team, this award is decided by the coaches. When I asked our group chat for their initial ideas, the coaches all said that it was hard to pick because of the amazing character of this whole team. (They are not wrong). But then I asked them to refocus--to think about who cheers for everyone the loudest...who cheers for runners on other teams...who represents the qualities of excellent sportsmanship. My phone lit up: Jenni. Jenni. Jenni. This award is meant to honor what is right about our sport--a person who believes that a rising tide lifts ALL boats. For three years, Jenni has yelled for her teammates until she was hoarse (or her man voice came out). She believes in her teammates, but she will not back down to let them feel good. Congratulations on a well-deserved award, Jenni!