By Marty Farmer
If St. Luke cross country runners Anthony Vazquez and Jake Wiktor are looking for some friendly competition on the race course, they can always look for each other.
That's exactly what they did during the IESA (Illinois Elementary School Association) sectional meet at Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village on Saturday, Oct. 10.
The pair of seventh graders made news around the Bearcats' cross country program and school overall with a historic run at the IESA.
Each runner notched a PR (personal record) with Vazquez posting a two-mile time of 13 minutes, 20 seconds, followed closely behind by Wiktor (13:23).
Despite competing primarily against boys a year older than them hailing from numerous other cross country programs throughout the Chicagoland area, Vazquez and Wiktor recorded the best times ever by a St. Luke runner at the IESA.
"For these two boys to record those times speaks volumes about their talent and potential for next year," said St. Luke cross country head coach John Morrissey. "They accelerated quite rapidly in terms of their development. (St. Luke assistant cross country coach) LaDale George and I have been coaching for four years now. It's truly exciting to see these two Bearcats earn the best times ever by our school at the IESA."
"As coaches, we will continue pushing Anthony and Jake as well as our other runners to strive for their ultimate individual potential next year. I'm excited about the prospects of all our returning sprinters in 2016."
Due to their stellar showing at the IESA, Vazquez and Wiktor will have their names 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.
Only seven runners are listed on the plaque, named after Flannery (the Bearcats' longtime head coach before Morrissey took over the program).
Vazquez (13:20) and Wiktor (13:23) 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. Other honorees recognized on the plaque include: John Michael Dawson (13:33 in 2013), Joey Atkins (13:39 in 2013), Jack Giuffre (13:41 in 2014) and Hannah Roberts (13:42 in 2014).
"During the winter months, Anthony and Jake will be honored at halftime of one of the basketball games," Morrissey said. "LaDale and I will recognize both of them on attaining this special status, along with our previous honorees who are also invited back for the ceremony, surrounded by the general student body in attendance. At the event, we will also have an opportunity to congratulate Anthony and Jake for their esteemed feats against many of the fastest sprinters in the Chicagoland area that day."
Remarkably, Vazquez and Wiktor just started running cross country this year.
"To see how much those boys have improved and accomplished in such a short period of time is impressive," Morrissey said. "I'm very proud of them and how all of our athletes carry themselves."
Valenti makes Bearcats proud
A prime example of exemplary behavior occurred in 2013 when St. Luke runner Jack Valenti (now graduated) put aside personal gain on the course to help another runner.
"A runner from another team fell right next to Jack in the middle of the race," recalled Morrissey. "Jack sacrificed his own race time to help out another competitor and make sure he was okay. That said a lot to me about Jack's character. It's great when you see one of your athletes do something like that."
Valenti finished with an average time that day, but Morrissey described Valenti's performance, highlighted by concern for a fellow competitor, as a Gold Medal effort.
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 implement 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 that's 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."
The natural bond developed among the Bearcats is an invaluable resource for Morrissey.
"Whether we're decent coaches or not, sometimes getting the perspective of a younger person, classmate or a peer a few years older than you, can really help an athlete," Morrissey said. "It tells the younger kids here is someone at the eighth grade level that they really respect and see doing well. They can talk with that older athlete and find out their techniques on improving.
"Several of the eighth graders are team captains and take on the responsibility of helping the younger kids very seriously."
Morrissey also enjoys watching all the athletes reach their potential and both he and Coach George 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 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 not have 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."
Regardless of grade level, the St. Luke boys cross country team has a history of producing superb leaders and prolific runners. Vazquez, Wiktor and Valenti are simply the most recent ones to uphold and honor that tradition.
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