The fall season will end for Saint Ignatius Athletics on Saturday in Hebron, Ohio.
The weather will certainly fit the occasion, with a high of just 35˚ predicted for the Saint Ignatius cross country team at the 2018 Division I State Meet.
An experienced Wildcats team will look to play the role of underdog at National Trail Raceway among 25 teams and a host of individual qualifiers on Saturday.
The State Meet was originally slated for last Saturday, but Mother Nature nixed those plans. Rain soaked the course leading up the meet, forcing a one-week delay for the first time in history, according to the Cross Country Cats' longtime coach, Dr. Michael Gallagher '71. This week also included wet weather, leaving the course in uncertain conditions. Tournament officials have worked hard to dry out the course, and the sun has probably helped, but it's still expected to be a slow, sloppy course. However, no competitors have seen the course, so that's a big unknown for the runners.
Gallagher is not concerned about the course, however. A soggy course does not favor the individual speedsters, and would actually help the Wildcats. The 2018 Cross Country Cats are more of a pack team that runs well as a group, rather than a squad made up of pure speedsters.
Either way, Gallagher has told his men not to worry about the course.
"Nobody has seen the course, so the ability to predict how we’re going to run is up in the air. It's never bothered me personally to run a new course, you just go out and hit it," Doc explained. "Don't think about it too much. The course isn't going to change just because you know more about it."
Another major advantage for the Wildcats is the prevalence of seniors on the team.
"It's bittersweet being all seniors. I've groomed them for 4 years, but the pressure is off," Gallagher said. "They know what to do. I can almost put them on auto pilot. We meet, pray, and wait for the gun. They’ve been around for a while, there isn’t much they haven’t seen. The seniors want to wrap it up well, and not get beat by anyone besides a great team."
The senior leadership starts at the top and continues throughout the squad.
Nick Saul has anchored the Cross Country Cats all season, leading the pack with times always in the low 16's. Saul will be making his fourth appearance in the big dance, and looks poised to end his career on a high note.
Fellow senior Andrew Biehl is also looking for a confident conclusion to a great career. Biehl will be making his second trip to Hebron this year. Biehl is a marvelous runner with consistent times around the 16:30s.
Nathan Soria is peaking at the right time for the Wildcats. The savvy senior enjoyed a great Regional race and is psyched to end his Wildcat career on a good note. Soria is the kind of runner who gets the most out of his talent and will leave everything on the course on Saturday.
Logan Kijewski is a glue guy you love to have on your team. The senior provides levity and takes the pressure off everyone. Kijewski, who's making his first State appearance, is an invaluable member of the squad. Look for his positive attitude to keep the Wildcats loose.
Matt Blouch is the fifth and final senior on the squad. Doc Gallagher calls him the "thinking man's runner." Blouch experienced a tough go of it at Boardman, but is out for revenge upon the competition. Look for Blouch to have a great day on the course on Saturday.
Steve Zucca is a bright student-athlete who has hit his stride down the stretch this year. The junior will likely be at the forefront with Saul, keeping the senior company. Zucca will help Saul set the pace early in the race.
Jack Mayer wraps up the squad as the seventh man. Tomorrow will be his first appearance on the course, but don't expect the junior to show any signs of fear. Mayer is never intimidated and rarely, if ever, succumbs the pressure on the big stage. Look for Mayer to make some noise tomorrow.
The Wildcats will also take three alternates to Hebron: junior Nick Mulhern, sophomore Peter Fitzpatrick, and sophomore Aidan Monroe.
"Being an alternate is the next best thing to being in the race," Gallagher said. "You get to experience everything, the race and the atmosphere. These young men will be carrying the torch next year."
As a team, the senior-laden Wildcats are ready to go.
"We're itching to run," Doc said. "You plan to peak a week back. But we got another week to train together and get the most out of it. We couldn't be happier with the extra time together."
With extra time to prep and a senior-heavy squad, Doc has big expectations for this group.
The biggest key to success? Starting strong.
"Everybody has to get out with less fear to run with the top pack," Doc said. "Everyone comes out fast. You have to stay up with the lead pack and go out faster than you normally want to. If you get behind the first section, it's too hard to make it up. With the field expanded to 25 teams, it's a much bigger field and a more competitive race, which is good. You can't be left behind because there's not much room to move. Get out strong, settle in, and bite your lower lip, and push through it."