To paraphrase the musical “Starlight Express” STATE IS GREAT! In many seasons just getting there is a huge accomplishment. For us, the preseason found our team establishing three goals: 1. Win League, 2. Finish first in District, 3. Make it on to the podium at State. Having achieved the first two, every member of the top ten was focused last week on turning their dream into a reality with sharp practices and long, recovery runs. When Saturday morning finally arrived, they were ready to rumble.
We had taken the opportunity on Friday afternoon to arrive in Jefferson City a little early, and take a final tour the course. Some rain earlier in the week had dampened parts of the course, so it is always instrumental to tour to adjust to the small course changes. We found the course to be in top shape, though the uphill finish had been slightly extended due to the shortening at fairway 12 because of a muddy turn. The other thing that we discovered was that we had again drawn a down hill lie (box 7) right on top of a rocky cart path. Go figure how seven other district teams had drawn center boxes (lanes 11 through 16) right on the crest of the starting line, while Festus, the top team in the state, and Priory had drawn an uphill start on the wings. We discussed how to make lemonade out of the lemon that the lottery had provided, and decided that staying to the left would actually allow us a straight shot to the main fairway, avoiding running around the first green at an angle.
Our guys were psyched when we jogged to the start. The weather was ideal for running fast times with a light breeze, sunny skies and the temperature right at 55. Only the fast runners make it to state, so the start resembled a slew of rabbits shooting out of a hole when the gun fired. Festus and St. Genevieve, the top two teams coming into the state meet, and two teams with a rivalry resembling Priory and Westminster, rocketed off the line and up the first fairway. From our district, Murray from Westminster, Brocato from Owensville and Jake all went out strong to establish good position. You don’t win it or lose it in the first 500 meters of a 5K race, and adrenaline only takes you so far, but you want to be in good position by the first mile or else the race escapes you. For Priory that meant going out strong but not expending too much energy on the flatter portions of the course. While Nager from St. Gen, Peterson from Pembroke Hill and Schweiss from Festus all cracked the mile under 5:00, Nager was already 50 meters ahead of everyone. John Murray and Jake were running right near each other at 5:06 and 5:08, both in the top 20. Thomas and Luke came through in 5:14 and 5:15, both quick times for them, positioning themselves in the top 45. George, Alex and Drew were behind them in positions 65 through 98 in a tight 8-second pack.
At the mile there were 90 runners in places 10 through 100 separated by only 25 seconds, so much of the sorting out was to come in the second mile, which is quite flat and also quite fast on this golf course. Runners race along a tight, long S-curve and a throng of spectators cheer at every turn. Coming up on the two-mile mark Ben Nager had broken away from the field. Hitting the electronic pad in 9:40, Ben already had a 125-meter lead on the field. Brocato and Murray, excellent track runners, used this portion of the race to break into the top 10, with Brocato 6th and Murry 8th. Jake was 10 seconds off their pace in 13th at 10:33. Thomas and Luke, now running side-by-side, came through in 10:46 and 10:47 and were both in the top 40. Alex and Drew had tightened up on George, each gaining about 10 places since the mile. All three were still in a tight 10-second pack between 11:09 and 11:19. Kyle, too, had used the second mile well, moving up 14 places during that stretch. Electronic chips allow you to “score” a race from a team perspective at any mile mark. A retrospective look at the 2-mile times showed that Priory and Westminster were dead even at 158 points at this stage of the race, tied for third. Helias and Grain Valley right behind them. Westminster had two runners right in front of Thomas and Luke, and four runners packed between Alex and Drew, along with Murray in 8th place.
Those who run beyond their ability the first two miles of the State course, pay for it dearly in mile three. You have three good size hills to ascend, including the notorious Firehouse hill and the steady uphill grade leading into the finish chute. A whole lot can happen in this phase of the race and only the “strong survive.” Cresting Firehouse, Jake was solidly still in 13th but Thomas had caught the #3 Westminster runner and Alex and George had pushed ahead of their 4th and 5th runners. Thomas was 28th at this stage, Luke had moved to 35th and Alex and George were neck and neck in the low 60’s. Kyle had gained 12 more places on the field. With St. Gen having three runners in the top 6 places, followed by Festus with six in top 25 when they hit the three-mile mark, it was going to be a dog fight for first over the final 200 meters. Not only were first and second being contested, but Westminster and Priory were also clearly duking it out for a spot on the podium. Screaming from the fans lined up six deep along the entire home stretch drove the athletes to “give it their all” the whole way up the hill. At Luke puts it, “you have your entire life to recover from the race.”
While the crowd was cheering on Ben, who cracked the finish in 15:34, a full 50 seconds ahead of the second place runner, Festus runners took off packing six runners into the top 20 spots by the time they hit the chute. Jake kicked it home to maintain his position (13th), breaking 17:00 for the first time in his life. His time of 16:56 puts him in the top five all time Priory runners on the state course. Thomas was in the race of his life for 25th place, since only the top 25 make All-State. His push in the last 50 meters drove him past the final Festus runner to grab 25th in 17:03, his best performance ever. Luke also hit his PR in 17:18 taking the 32nd spot. Both Priory and Westminster had three runners in, and both had two All-State runners. What happened next can only be described in slow motion. Alex, always a strong finisher, kicked it in passing five runners in the last 100 meters, to take 53rd in 17:48, a PR for him. Flying from behind George came Westminster’s 4th and 5th runners. Over the last 100 meters they gained a combined 11 places, passing runners from Helias, Warrensburg, Hannibal and Bolivar. Sixteen runners vaulted across the finish line within a mere 10 seconds, between 17:50 and 18:00. George hit the tape sandwiched between Westmister’s 4th and 5th runners, a mere 3 seconds off his best ever performance in 17:56 for 63rd. Drew and Kyle rounded out our 6th and 7th spots with Drew 12 seconds off his PR in 18:11 (a fantastic race for him given the nagging groin injury he ran with for four weeks) and Kyle setting a new PR in 18:32.
It took about 15 minutes for the scores to be posted by TRXC, but all knew that Priory had expended a Herculean effort in running its best ever, top five performance at State. With five runners between 16:56 and 17:56 we had averaged 17:24 for our scoring team. The posting of the scores was both bitter and sweet. The entire team erupted in a gleeful cheer when we saw that we had finished fourth, but were just a little sad that Westminster, with its stunning finish, had edged us out of third by a mere seven points: 123 to 130. The sting lasted only a few seconds as we realized that we had no regrets with any of our performances. Had you suggested that Priory would be a top four team in the State after the Lutheran South race in early September, many eyebrows would have been raised. By race day that was exactly what we thought that we could achieve, and WE DID! According to Coach Rebello, who pens the team mottos over the summer, we truly were “All in with true grit” and we indeed did “finish strong” to cap off a marvelous season.
Pictures on the podium tell only part of the story. You had to see the faces of the athletes as they celebrated with huge boats of ice cream at Central Dairy. Miles of smiles proved satisfaction in a job well. On this day they were able again to reach done inside of themselves, finding what God had placed there from the very beginning. Coupled with tremendous self-discipline and very hard work, they achieved the excellence that distinguishes the Priory scholar/athlete.