By Marty Farmer
A commonly held belief at any level of sports is if a team's best athlete is the hardest worker and in tune with the head coach, everybody else will fall in line.
What about if that kind of leadership and work ethic exists among five athletes?
That's the luxury St. Luke cross country head coach John Morrissey was afforded this fall with the outstanding quintet of eighth grade runners Angelique Lorenzo, Jillian Johnson, Aimee Morrissey and the Vaccaro sisters, Elena and Ava, who powered the Bearcats to unprecedented success.
The girls earned the following team placements this season: first place at the Walther Christian Academy meet, runner-up finishes at the Guerin Prep meet and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) championship meet at Maryville Academy and fourth place at the SPL (Suburban Parochial League) Warrenville meet.
They also excelled individually with the following respective best two-mile time PRs and highest placements via a variety of meets: Lorenzo (fastest time: 14 minutes, 9 seconds; highest finish: second place twice), Elena Vaccaro (14:30; fourth place), Johnson (15:03; sixth place twice), Aimee Morrissey (14:57; seventh place) and Ava Vaccaro (15:28; ninth place).
With the level of consistency and success each of these five medal honorees attained during the course of the season, they became the first class of St. Luke female sprinters to compete both individually and as a team at the IESA (Illinois Elementary School Association) state-wide cross country sectionals in October.
At most meets, the girls may compete against as many as 65 runners from 25 schools in a given race.
"The consistency that these girls had from a team scoring standpoint to their individual races has been never been accomplished before at St. Luke," John Morrissey said. "They are almost like pack rats. They will finish anywhere from say 5th place to 20th place individually. From a team scoring standpoint, they are very consistent and methodical."
Aside from their talent, the group also possesses a collective desire to continually improve.
"These five girls really stepped it up," Morrissey said. "They came out to Concordia during the summer and took on all challenges we gave them. All of them are good athletes and have an interest in sports overall."
After talking with St. Luke Athletic Director Anna Dooley, Morrissey expanded the regular-season schedule from seven meets to thirteen meets, in large part because of the girls' willingness to take on a busier meet schedule.
"The girls' hard work was a reflection of coming out to these meets and really wanting to excel and improve," Morrissey said. "We took on some weekday meets, and that's because these particular five girls were ready to take on all comers."
Close friends since first grade, the girls were given the nickname, "The Fast and Furious 5," during the regular season.
"One of the parents had special t-shirts made with the expression, 'The Fast and Furious 5,'" Morrissey said. "We all wore the t-shirts at a pasta party the night before the IESA sectional race and the morning of the race.
"Previously, no other St. Luke girls cross country team had ever achieved higher than a fourth place team score during the prior 3-4 years that (St. Luke cross country coaches) LaDale George and Jim Doyle or I had coached. These five girls shattered those team thresholds in 2015."
Roberts leaves mark as one of female Bearcats' all-time greats
While the eighth grade girls team had a superb season this season, 2014 graduate Hannah Roberts is one of the best performers Morrissey has coached at St. Luke.
She's now a freshman at Trinity running cross country with fellow freshman/St. Luke alum and cross country star Catherine Doyle. One of the Blazers' cross country coaches is Jim Doyle, Catherine's father and a former St. Luke assistant coach.
George's daughter, Quincy, is a sixth grade cross country runner at St. Luke and her older brother, Avery, previously ran for the Bearcats. He's now at Oak Park and River Forest High School and runs cross country.
Amid many accomplished St. Luke runners (past and present), no one has made a mark quite like Roberts.
"From a time perspective, Hannah is definitely the top female that we have ever had at St. Luke," Morrissey said. "She came into our program a couple of years ago with no formal running experience. Even though she had never run before you could just see the skill level. She and teammate Catherine Doyle, like this year's class of girls, helped each other improve."
"What she had accomplished over the past two years and the fact she runs on the Trinity varsity as a freshman with Catherine Doyle is nothing short of amazing."
During her stellar career at St. Luke, Roberts had her name inscribed on the Hugh Flannery Standard of Excellence plaque. The prestigious award honors St. Luke runners who have recorded a two-mile, under 14-minute time.
Roberts recorded a time of 13:42 in 2014.
Only seven runners are listed on the plaque, named after Flannery (the Bearcats' longtime head coach before Morrissey took over the program).
In addition to Roberts (the lone female), other honorees include Anthony Vazquez (13:20 in 2015) and Jake Wiktor (13:23 in 2015), who both topped the previous best recorded time on the Hugh Flannery Standard of Excellence plaque, set by St. Luke alum Peter Halloran (13:32 in 2013). Halloran is now a sophomore at Oak Park and River Forest High School and a cross country runner for the Huskies. John Michael Dawson (13:33 in 2013), Joey Atkins (13:39 in 2013) and Jack Giuffre (13:41 in 2014) are the other runners listed on the plaque.
As for Roberts, she also served as mentor of sorts to the current crop of outstanding female runners in eighth grade.
In fact, although the entire St. Luke cross country program (which began approximately 18 years ago) is relatively modest in numbers with about 30 participants, the boys and girls teams have flourished as a tight-knit, talented group. Runners range from fourth through eighth grade.
St. Luke is in the SPL (Suburban Parochial League) and is classified as a single A school; several larger schools are AA throughout the western suburbs.
Morrissey and George have implemented several different training techniques for the Bearcats. Fartlek training, which means "speed play" in Swedish, is a form of interval training designed to improve runners' speed and endurance practiced by St. Luke. The Bearcats also spend time running up and down the sledding hill at Keystone Park in River Forest in order to build runners' endurance and final sprint finishing ability. Finally, the team practices in different course settings as preparation for upcoming meets.
However no matter what the course terrain is like or whoever the opponents are, which typically includes 20-25 schools at a given meet, the Bearcats' strength is unequivocally their team chemistry.
"The kids have great camaraderie," Morrissey said. "Whether it is before or after practice, I see kids wanting to help others improve. Our eighth graders have taken on a leadership role. They often lead our conditioning or exercise drills."
Morrissey and George enjoy watching all the athletes reach their potential and have instituted an incentive program, "The Biggest Loser," which recognizes St. Luke runners who earn the biggest drops in their running times.
"That's what keeps me in coaching," Morrissey said. "It's been fun to watch the light go on for all the kids in the past couple of years. We have had some incredible success stories the coaches could have not predicted.
"Whatever the sport, seeing kids realize they have talent and are willing to work hard to improve is a pretty satisfying aspect of coaching."
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