Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Glory Days

On the heels of a rain shower last night, with an overcast November sky, a leaf-coated ground, and Indian (Native American, not the Vijay type) Summer temperatures, one cannot help reminisce about his glory days as a high school cross-country runner... the drugs, the women, the rock-n-roll. Anyway, work is quite busy so I have limited time to post this week, so I'll leave you with a story from those glory days, which you are bound to find too long and too boring, unless you also have fond memories of running through the woods half naked on mild fall days. Enjoy.

When your team is on top, there is only one direction of movement – down. In the first major meet of the 1985 season, our Paul VI high school cross-country team had fallen to another South Jersey squad for the first time since 1980. For the first time in years we appeared to be vulnerable, and many pretenders to the throne of the Courier Post Cup, an award granted by the South Jersey’s largest newspaper to the top ranked team in the region, began to think what had been unthinkable - that they too had a shot at knocking us off.

Our loss came on the heels of the most successful season in team history: the prior year we had won the New Jersey Parochial A State Championship, the New Jersey All Group meet of Champions, and the prestigious Easterns A race, hosted by Fordham University, in Van Cortland Park. Twice in that season our team beat North Hunterdon, which boasted the fifth and fifteenth place finishers at the Kinney Nationals that year. Our team was so deep that we had 13 runners complete a sub 10 minute 3200 meters that school year. At major meets that had JV races, with business like efficiency, we would invariably sweep the top seven places, setting the stage for a less dominant, but no less convincing, varsity victory. That season in the fall of 1984 capped a string of years that showed steady improvements, with each bringing more success. But there was no trophy left to win in the fall of 1985 that wasn’t already in the case.

We had lost five of our top seven runners from the prior year. The two returning runners - Ron Faith and John Wolfram - were the captains, and both were counted among the top seven runners in the state, with Faith expected to vie for the individual state championship. Three other seniors and a junior ran varsity in 1985: Rich Wright, Tim Tschida, myself and Steve McNally. We had all spent the previous year warming down from JV races as spectators for the varsity, impatiently biding our time for our turn. By the end of the year, the freshman phenom Jason DiJoseph would round our top seven.

When our turn finally came, we blew it. Holy Cross, a South Jersey team led by two very talented sophomores, had managed the upset that no one, least of all us, had predicted. The race was the Philadelphia Textile meet, held in the early weeks of September at Belmont Plateau in Fairmont Park. The course was short, covering only 2.8 miles, but it was brutal. Its hallmark was “Parachute Hill” - three hundred yards and straight up. (It drew its name from the rumor that you could take a running leap from the apex with a parachute strapped to your back, pull the rip cord, and land safely at the bottom of the hill.) In the eyes of every team in South Jersey, the course at Belmont Plateau that Saturday had made us human. But we were not at full strength - Rich Wright, our third man, had developed mononucleosis early in the season, and he did not compete. And Steve McNally, our fourth man, was hampered by an ankle injury during the race.

Dominating the South Jersey cross-country scene had ceased to be a goal for our team, having done it repeatedly in the last four years. Coach Mike Glavin knew that the real competition lay up in the Northern and Central parts of the State, and the test of our mettle came in essentially four meets - The Shore Coaches Invitational, the Easterns, the Parochial A state championship, and the New Jersey All Group meet. The largest major outside of these was the South Jersey Open, which was restricted to South Jersey competition. Usually the safe and timely arrival of our team bus removed any uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Open. The other quality teams in South Jersey had given up the possibility of ever beating us two years prior with a defining display of defeatism. That year, we arrived for the race to find that one of the better teams in the region had fashioned a small paper singlet with a blue “P” on the front to resemble our team singlet, and placed it upon the bronze runner adorning the championship trophy. That defeatism was not uncommon, and it irritated Coach Glavin.

What irritated Glavin more was losing. After our loss to Holy Cross, we were ranked second behind them in the Cup rankings, to the joy of every team in the area. Two weeks later, Holy Cross lost a dual meet to Shawnee, leaving us ranked third behind Shawnee and Holy Cross. Our goals, nonetheless, were still focused upon the more important meets, specifically the Shore Coaches Invitational and the Parochial A State championships. We expected that the rankings would quickly change once we were full strength and matched against our rival South Jersey teams.
But we were still not at full strength when our team hobbled up to Holmdel state park, the site of the state championships, for the Shore Coaches Invitational meet. Our concern was not with other South Jersey teams scheduled to compete against us. Instead, we were focused on Christian Brothers Academy, our perennial rival for the Parochial A state championship. Until two years prior, CBA held a virtual monopoly on that title, but we had wrested it away from them the last two years and we intended to keep it. Holmdel was their home course, and they took us apart that day, establishing themselves as the clear favorite to win the Parochial A race the following month. And, strangely enough, Shawnee and Holy Cross did not show for the race, despite being scheduled to compete against us. They were dodging us, afraid to jeopardize their chance at the Cup. The irony is that we were still vulnerable, and each may have beaten us that day, solidifying their respective claims over us to the Cup.

Shortly after that meet, McNally was beginning to run at full strength, and Wright was running again, after a month long hiatus. To test their fitness levels, Glavin held a time trial on our home course with a local roadrunner setting the pace. There were doubts as to how strong Wright would be after his absence and his illness, but they were erased with his time trial. Both he and McNally looked strong. After the time trial, we each had a feeling that the season was about to take a turn for the better, and that we would shortly return to our winning ways. We began to set our sights on the Parochial A meet, but we had some unfinished business within South Jersey.

The South Jersey Open was two weeks away, and we had considered not competing in the Open for the first time in years. Glavin was a St. Joe’s University graduate, and his old coach, Kevin Quinn, had set up a race at Belmont Plateau that would attract the top teams from Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs. This would be the inaugural year for the race, and a set of watches was the award for the winning team. A watch was an attractive incentive in comparison to another medal that would be one of many. It was wholly plausible that we would forsake the Open in favor of the Philadelphia race, given the ties between Glavin and St. Joe’s. And from the beginning of the year, we had contemplated winning those watches. One of the drawbacks in doing so was that the Philadelphia race was a varsity only event. There would be no freshman or JV race, as there typically were, and as there would be at the South Jersey Open.

We were itching for revenge with these South Jersey teams, and we were still ranked beneath them despite the fact that people knew we were at full strength. This was the overriding consideration - had we no score to settle, we would be sporting watches by that Saturday afternoon. We decided upon running the Open, but we let the runners of various other teams have visions of the Cup throughout the week leading up to the meet. Glavin announced to the press that we would be sending our JV squad to run the Open varsity race, while our top seven would traverse the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia to bring home the watches. We could only imagine the excitement at the practices of the five or six teams who now thought they had a legitimate shot at the Open title, and hence at the Cup. For the first time in five years the race itself was viewed as less than a formality.

The truth was that the race would be over before it started in far more dramatic fashion than in the past. The ruse was now in place: expecting to see our JV runners lagging behind the field, every team would be surprised to see the familiar faces of our top seven - but they would not have a view of our faces for long. This subterfuge was the unique creation of Coach Glavin, who had an excellent gift for motivating runners. Our team had presented him with his toughest coaching challenge to date - we required a different approach then teams in the past, and he provided it for us. With his plan, the South Jersey Open was transformed from a no win situation, where victory is always expected and never cause for much celebration, to a covert mission of revenge. And exacting revenge would prove to be very fun.

The Open was scheduled at Clearview high school’s course, where we had never previously competed. Normally that would not have been a problem - we always warmed up for the race by running the course. But we were supposed to be in Philadelphia that Saturday morning, and so the sight of us doing a warm up would be incongruous. We were forced to learn the course by running it on the Friday prior to the meet. But many teams routinely did the same and would take a bus to the site on that Friday to gain knowledge of the terrain. To avoid the possibility or being seen, we drove in a caravan of cars to the site of the meet, arriving at 5pm Friday night. We laid low in our cars as the last busses pulled out of the parking lot. When all was clear, we began the familiar stretching routine that preceded our every run - we were very loose, and we were grinning from ear to ear just thinking about our grand entrance scheduled for the next morning. We ran the course as the sun set and darkness slowly enveloped us. Negotiating the course in darkness required concentration, and the grins slowly left our faces as we began to focus on our footing. Having finished the course, we ran for ten minutes up a country road, with farmland on either side of us, in order to scout out a location for our warm-up on the following day.

There were sixteen people who knew the whole plan that afternoon - the varsity and JV squads, Glavin, and the girls’ cross-country coach, Mike Bussarello. Bussarello was the acting coach for the JV team that was scheduled to run the varsity race. Saturday morning, as the bus left the Paul VI parking lot for the race, it departed without the top seven and Glavin. We met later that morning in a shopping store parking lot, dressed in generic, rather than team, sweats. We traveled in two cars - Glavin’s and my own. The concern for secrecy was still so important that as we drove by the race sight, everyone excluding myself and Glavin ducked down to avoid notice, while the two of us cloaked ourselves with hats and sunglasses. There was no sense in blowing our cover now. To a man, we knew that we were recognizable. Our entire team would attend a weeklong cross-country camp in the late summer that was frequented by many South Jersey runners, and they knew who we were. And a team of our caliber was watched from the moment we stepped off the bus. Glavin used to claim that most people probably knew what type of shoes we wore.

We reached our designated warm-up camp safely, but the spot was rather conspicuous. We were in God’s country - where dense Pine Barrens had long ago been cleared for farmland. Behind a small grove of some thirty trees, all shorn of their leaves, we threw down our race bags on the outskirts of a farm. We were visible from the road, and it must have been a strange sight - eight of us stretching behind the limited shade offered by leafless trees in the middle of nowhere. Always aware of the time, we arrived with thirty minutes to spare before we needed to begin stretching and running our warm up. The mood was light, as we relaxed and kidded each other about anything and everything. Occasionally, a car would drive by, and we would duck down in what by that time could only be construed as paranoia.

Meanwhile, the JV team began their pre-race routine, in preparation for a race they would not run. As they set out to run the course, they did so with the knowledge that the Paul VI team would win going away, and they tried to make that clear to the other teams. In the course of their warm-up, they received several jeering remarks from opposing runners to the effect that they would be beaten badly that day. They responded with what must have appeared to be foolish arrogant bravado by letting these runners know that precisely the opposite would occur. But their warnings fell on deaf ears.

The JV warm-up that day must have been pure joy - ours was pure business. The good-natured joking always began to dissipate as the stretching began, so that by the time we began to warm-up, there was no conversation. We ran in unison a simple out and back course, heading away from the race sight. The plodding of fourteen feet, and the faint sound of slightly labored breathing was all that was heard for the next twenty minutes. Normally during a warm up, many eyes fell upon us, and our demeanors clued them into how seriously we took winning. Our routine display had become so familiar that the facial expressions were no different in the absence of our usual crowd. At the time, I remember thinking that Ron Faith’s dour pre-race countenance was affected – it seemed unnatural and rehearsed to those of us who knew his personality. I still think that it was, but it effectively signaled to all other runners that they’d go through the wringer if they had designs on beating him or our team. Leadership, in many cases, requires such acting – General Patton practiced his war face in front of a mirror his entire career. Faith’s “game face” was undoubtedly learned from Glavin, and his was one hundred percent real. For our coach, an indifferent countenance on race day would have been an Oscar worthy performance.

It was a beautiful fall day, with a giant blue sky, and a temperature of about fifty degrees. We peeled off our warm-up gear, slightly wet from the sweat of our warm-up. I remember feeling chilly as I put on my racing singlet. The chill, coupled with the familiar pre-race nervousness, produced goose bumps all over my upper body. But not on the legs - they were warm and ready to go. We piled into the cars and headed for the starting area of our race.

The starting line, backed up by an apple orchard, was just off the road. We parked our cars along the road about two hundred yards behind the starting line, and dashed into the orchard in our inconspicuous gear, remaining unseen by the other runners. Bussarello, who had picked up our race packets and numbers, met us inside the orchard. As we pinned the numbers to our chests, Glavin instructed us on the plan from here. We said the customary team prayer, and Glavin left the orchard. Awaiting him on the starting line was the JV squad.

His emergence should have raised some eyebrows - he was the most recognizable man in South Jersey cross-country, and he was certainly the most vocal. Though he had pulled off some unbelievable feats as both a coach and an athlete, no one believed he could be in Philadelphia and at Clearview at the same time. He had a commanding presence that must have been more impressive when wholly unexpected, and I’ve often wondered what raced through the minds of the other coaches when he yelled to the JV to take their last strider - sprinting from the starting line to loosen up the legs. But the puzzlement of his presence for both coaches and runners was not so troubling as long as they had our JV team in sight. As the seven JV runners began their strider, we watched from within the apple orchard, about fifty yards behind the starting line. The JV gave us our cue one hundred yards later by waving good-bye to the field of runners. As the other teams stared blankly at a squad that seemed to be leaving the race, we sprinted out from the orchard.

We sprinted past the teams standing poised around the starting line, and continued our strider for another fifty yards, screaming as we went. In an ostentatious display not common to cross-country meets, we tore off our sweats and long sleeve T-shirts, revealing our uniforms, and began high-fiving each other, all the while keeping up the noise. Within one minute, all eyes were surely upon us, and within two, in the minds of every team present, the race was on for second place. Our behavior was more appropriate for a post-race celebration of win, and it belied the fact that the race had not even begun. But every team there knew that despite the premature celebration, it would be earned in the end - we were just reversing the traditional order.

This was not our usual way. We were always very professional in the moments before a race, but we had to draw attention to ourselves and serve notice that the gold medals had been claimed. As we jogged back to the starting line, you could see the sunken expressions of the runners who had gotten over the shock. Those we recognized we greeted in a confident and friendly manner. One top runner from a team that would have otherwise contended stuttered in shock to John Wolfram that he thought we were in Philadelphia. John smiled as he said that we had changed our minds at the last second.

Better teams might not have responded with sunken resignation, but rather with righteous anger. These teams were impotent to do so - some of them had avoided confrontation in the past, and they knew that there was no avoiding it now. As the gun went off, we quickly separated ourselves from the field, and it was obvious after the first mile that no one would challenge us. We placed our top five in the top 25 of the field of over two hundred runners, with Faith and Wolfram finishing in second and third place. The race was more of a five thousand meter victory lap than a contest.

We went on that year to win the Parochial A state title, avenging our previous embarrassing loss to Christian Brothers Academy. At the finish of the season, we were ranked second in the state behind a strong team from Bernards. Ron Faith took the individual state title, and went on to compete at the Kinney Nationals in San Diego. The prospect of matching the successes of the previous year was never realized - we had less depth and less talent in the Fall of 1986. The South Jersey Open victory was not the crowning accomplishment of our season, but nonetheless it is the race whose every detail sticks with me nearly twenty years later. It may not have been classy, but it sure as hell was fun!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

my finger hurts from scrolling down

6:43 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

Bill Lyon, longtime sportswriter of the Philadelphia Inquirer, couldn't have written that better.

Excellent timing, too--it was 20 years ago today that Paul VI won the 1985 Parochial A State Meet!

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helene is asst. coach of PVI girls, and we went to one of their races last week in PennyPack Park. Vincent and Owen made a great cheering squad for PVI. And, we saw Mr. B. He's coaching at Haddonfield now. It was a beautiful fall day like the one you described. Well written!


6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in attendance at the annual sectional meet last Saturday and struck up a conversation with several other members of the Speedline Alumni and how sad it was to see what was such a great program mired in such mediocrity. The dual meet streak is the only thing that remains, and frankly, that means little (especially since those bastards from CBA now hold the national record). Your story, sir, harkens back to a better, more genuine time, in our storied history. We must restore the soar in our Eagles!

Also, we need to watch out for the mud!

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Jim O said...

It's amazing how you can make running for extended periods of time sound really interesting.

I guess that's the mark of a good writer.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I heard that one before when I was sitting on the stand at 100th street.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous the_giant said...

On a positive note, one non-Paul VI dude who was happy that you DID go to the South Jersey Open was Tri-Eggs buddy Adam Granito. I think he (and his moustach!) actually won the St. Joe's Invitational that year and most likely got some scholarship money to St. Joe's because of it!

2:00 PM  
Anonymous John Wolfram said...

An excellent rendition, Hatcher.

One minor clarification. When Brandon came up to me before the race and stuttered to me, "John, you're here...?!" in stupefied awe, my response was simple. I stared at him hard, thrust my right hand out at him to shake, and snapped "Good luck, Brandon." Then I was gone.

More dramatic that way, don't you think?

4:34 AM  
Anonymous Chris Creighton said...

Glavin was like a God to me, even on the opposing side. A true warrior even as a coach. We were cautiously optimistic after our Textile/Belmont win and rightfully so, as our 3-5 crew did not come through for us vs. Shawnee--a meet we should have won. To give you an idea of how it felt, we did not know how to handle it....Paul VI was a legacy and we had just felled the mighty giant. Eric and I (the two sophs in '85 you mention) always did our job, but I think the rest of the team was not too comfortable with the crown. All you guys did was enact revenge and in quite convincing fashion. At the end of the year, you had all of the right pieces and that winning mentality and won when it truly counted. Ron Faith was the Senior class leader we did not have and his "game face" was brimming with confidence. Eric and I could only lead by example as sophs, you guys were the ones with the "x" factor, that leadership presence in your seniors that we so clearly lacked. I always enjoyed competing against you guys, getting to know you all at camp, and looking over to see you all celebrate was honestly not a bad feeling at all because we knew you all to be good people and worthy champions. Those were great days.
-Chris Creighton
'88 Holy Cross

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Greg G. said...

Hey Wolf and Hatch! Great to see your names on this forum. I graduated before this event unfolded, but it somehow got back to me what you guys pulled off. Now I got the full account of it this many years later. Nice entry Hatcher!

Best regards...
Greg G. '84

5:58 PM  

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