Midwest Distance Gala produces exciting atmosphere, great performances

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There were two stories coming into the meet tonight and both had little to do with athletes competing in this year’s event. First, was the issue that the meet directors ran into yesterday when a group of athletes from the state of Michigan were denied an exemption to compete in the Gala this year. With plenty of Michigan athletes in the results from years previous, the question was raised as to the reasoning about this year’s issue at the state association level: Apparently, no one had ever checked with the MHSAA. So, the day before Omar Kaddurah (Junior, Grand Blanc HS) and Jeremy Dickie (Junior, Swartz Creek HS) were supposed to be battling with some of the midwest’s best in the boys mile, they were each informed that it was in their best interests to keep their high school eligibility intact and to take the weekend off. This issue is a growing problem and the effect is not limited to just the athletes from Michigan.


In the past year, we have had athletes from Illinois kept out of the Nike Indoor National meet due to a state ruling and Missouri’s state association made a ruling on Emily Sisson (Senior, Parkway Central HS) that kept her from competing for her school on the track this spring. Different states and situations have different understandings and rulings, so we want to be a little clearer on this. Sisson was a situation where a state rule keeps athletes from competing in a competition until a certain number of days after the beginning of the season to allow athletes to get into some amount of shape. Sisson’s run at Nike Indoor was during that time frame, they were aware of that coming in, and she was disqualified from competing for her high school the rest of the year. The Michigan situation is a much more common ruling, where athletes entered at MDG need a qualifying time and that qualifying time was achieved during the high school season when they were competing for their respective schools. Based on that, Michigan issued a ruling, though not in writing, that athletes from their state would not be allowed to compete, though seniors would be exempt as they would no longer be competing for their schools anyway. (This is how senior-only meets, like the Midwest Meet of Champions, get around this rule.)


The effect of the ruling cost two of the top four entries in the boys mile a chance to put down a very fast time before moving on to the national championships and cost some other entrants an opportunity to gain some valuable experience. Overall, though, the direction that rulings like this are moving us into is a disturbing one as it is a case-by-case situation that is giving athletes from certain states more opportunities than others. Michigan athletes have already been victim to this as they are not allowed to send squads to the Nike Cross Nationals meet as it has been ruled against as well. Going forward, it looks like we may be coming to head sooner, rather than later, in respect to the rising number of postseason meets and the states that are disallowing participation in them.


The second story stirring among the meet directors and media was the performances by athletes put down at the Jim Ryun Dream mile in New York. Lukas Verzbicas (Sophomore, Sandburg HS, IL), a competitor in last year’s Midwest Distance Gala two mile race, won the race, running 4:04.38 and meet directors definitely felt that the situation here would have allowed him a similar opportunity. The results say otherwise, but great athletes can create great races and that’s what the Gala has consistently done. It will be interesting to see what athletes decide if the conflicting date stays the same going forward.


On to the days’ events, it was another awesome day of racing and it had plenty of interesting results throughout the course of the day. The first of the big entry races was the boys two-mile race and, on paper, Ryan Dohner of Klein Oak, Texas was the favorite coming off of his Texas Class 5A state championship. Dohner ran right with pacer Charlie Kern, most people know him as one of the coaches at York High School, and when Kern stepped off the track after a 4:25 first half, Dohner immediately appeared to change his pace and broke the race wide open. His next three splits were all 68 or 69 seconds and he put a nice gap on Tim Counsins (The John Cooper School, TX) and Maksim Korolev (Harrisonville, MO). Cousins, who has been Dohner’s training partner the past two weeks, started moving on that final lap, though, and Dohner started to run out of gas. As Cousins was coming around the curve, he was clearly in control and he continued to surge as Dohner tried to hang on as best he could, with Korolev making interesting just behind them both. Cousins would pull away coming down the final straight for a big PR as he had only run 9:05 for 3200 meters before this breakout 8:56.13 for two miles. “Going into the race, I was hoping sub-9 for the 3200 and sub-9 for the two mile if it came with that. The last two laps I just kept telling myself ‘this is the last race of high school’ and I just kept pushing harder and harder.” The connection to training the past two weeks goes much deeper with Dohner and Cousins, though, as Dohner’s dad coaches Cousins and the two have been running friends since 7th and 8th grade. “I would bring Ryan over to John Cooper High School and he would train, pretty much in 7th and 8th grade with our school. Then, when Ryan went over to Klein Oak, they would hook up in the summer for some summer runs and pretty much every weekend they would run together.” The Columbia-bound Cousins and future Longhorn Dohner are both calling it a season, though, and you have to think they felt pretty good about finishing on a high note.


Lost in all of the business up front were an impressive run by Maksim Korolev and a total of eight athletes running under 9:05 on the day (Cousins, Dohner, Korolev, Danny Nicolls, Chris Walden, Matt Jablonski, Gabe Heck, and Jake Erschen). Korolev came in with only a 9:08.72 PR for 3200 meters, though he did double 4:13.60 and 9:14.69 to take both titles at the Missouri Class 3 state championships. And as for those fast times, it was a race that didn’t go as fast as last year’s shootout between Solomon Haile and Lukas Verzbicas, but, clearly, the depth was even better overall and that is what the meet directors are looking for each and every year.


The next race on the track was the boys steeplechase and while we were hoping to see an effort similar to the one laid down by 2009 World Youth Championships team member Connor Martin (Westfield, IN), no one was holding their breath. Not even Kodi Mullins (Homestead, IN), who got the idea of coming out this year from watching the video online last year from Martin’s run here at the Gala. “  .” Mullins had the fastest 1600 meter time coming in, but he was really here to try and wash away his performance from the Indiana State Championships. Coming into the last lap, Mullins needed a 70 or better to match the meet record and that in itself was very impressive, but as he was rounding the curve, Mullins kept pouring it on and just barely dipped under Martin’s mark, running 6:01.05, a new national leader in the event. It was a great run for Mullins’ and a great chance for another Indiana athlete to get their feet wet (quite literally) in the event this year.


Next on the track was the boys’ freshman mile, and it was an awesome race that saw the meet record get lowered by a couple of athletes. Coming down the final stretch of the race, there were four athletes battling for the win as Garrett Lee (Belvidere North, IL), Alec Sievern (Evansville Memorial, IN), Alex Mimlitx (Elmhurst, IL), and Daniel Williams (Carmel, IN) all had a surge that gave them a shot. Williams surged best and crosses the line first in a new meet record of 4:25.99, a nice PR for him, bettering his previous best of 4:31.9 quite significantly. It was a great race to watch, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the other two freshmen that decided to mix it up with the “big boys” as well. In the B section of the mile, Jacob Thomson (Louisville Holy Cross, KY) put himself in great position through the first three laps. Tretez Kinnaird (Louisville Butler, KY) did the same thing through 500 meters in the fast heat of the boys 800 meters, but then both of the athletes showed a bit of what makes them freshman still. With 200 meters left and both athletes jockeying for position in the pack, there was some bumping of elbows taking place and watching the race, both of the young athletes struggled to respond after getting bumped around. Kinnaird’s arms flew up for a second, while Thomson’s gait wasn’t the same anymore and both struggled to the finish. Thomson’s 4:25.05 still proved to be the fastest freshman clocking on the day and even though Kinnaird faded badly to his 1:55.18, both earned some great experience that they will definitely take with them going forward.


The girls 800 meters might have been the most hyped event of the evening with Olympic Trials semi-finalist Laura Roesler (Fargo, ND) matching up against some strong mid-distance talent from the Midwest. The race went out in about 62-63 seconds with plenty of athletes still in the mix, but at 500 meters the race effectively ended. Roesler, running a tune-up before her main meet of focus this summer, USATF Junior Nationals, started to really get some good knee lift and in just her second competitive 800 meter race of the year, she ran away from a strong group of ladies en route to her 2:07.00 marking. “I didn’t really feel like I had the ‘zip’ in my legs so I just thought at 300 meters I’ve got to act, not react and be ready to go and when I make my move I make it hard and just don’t look back.” Shelby Houlihan (Sioux City, IA) was a strong 2nd running 2:09.23 ahead of Molly McNamara (Red Bank Catholic, NJ) and McKinzie Shulz (Naperville, IL), both of whom also dipped under 2:11. It was worth noting, also, that a nine finishers in the fastest section clocked times that were faster than last year’s winning time of 2:14.49 by Katie Hill of Onalaska, Wisconsin. It was a big step for the meet directors who have been trying to get a stronger girls field and obviously succeeded here.


The boys 800 meters was a great race in its own right and has us wondering what was in store after the 2nd section posted a winning time of 1:53.05 (Joe McAsey, Minooka, IL). The race got out quickly with the pacer, but the group didn’t follow his lead and instead came through 400 meters in 54.2 seconds. Most times that would about knock out the chance for an extremely fast pace if not for some incredible second half speed that was put on display by several athletes. Dominique Manley (Maryville, IL), Dalen Fink (O’Fallon, MO) and Gabe Genovesi (Mequon, WI) all moved themselves into good position for a final straightaway run while watching the clock to see how low they could go. None of the could match Indiana 800 meter state champ Austin Mudd (Center Grove, IN) and as he churned down the straightaway, fighting the clock by himself, he put down an incredibly strong finishing time of 1:50.89, just ahead of Genovesi’s 1:51.07. It was another great finish for Mudd who had a similarly close finish with Nathan Hendershot of Pendleton Heights at the IHSAA state championships last weekend and sets himself up nicely with another big win going forward.


That left just the final two events of the night and with a strong girls mile assembled the buzz in the crowd would keep building. Strong pacing brought the group through the halfway point right on target for a clocking right around 4:50 and Emma Brink (Sacred Heart Academy, KY) was out in front. Brink, the favorite by time coming in, would have to work to keep that lead with a Molly Seidel (Hartland, WI), Colleen Quigley (St. Louis, MO), and Margaret Connelly (Western Springs, IL) all making it interesting. The jockeying would continue behind Brink, but the challenge finally came from Molly Seidel down the home straight as Seidel gained a slight advantge about halfway down the straightaway and pulled away from Brink a bit for a 4:52.63 victory. Seidel came in with a 5:01.3 PR and was downright giddy about getting the win, “I knew I didn’t have a lot left, but I just had to put everything I had into it to go all out at the end.” For Quigley, it was an interesting trip after she was in New York on Friday as part of her side job as a model.  For Brink, she was just glad to have been a part of the whole event and talked about how she would have liked to get the win, but she really enjoyed the atmosphere and the quality of the entire experience.


Finally, the main event of the evening, the boys mile, was ready to roll and the atmosphere was incredible. As each of the athletes had their credentials and names read off by the announcer, the crowd grew even more eager with anticipation watching each of these harriers let go with one final stride down the straightaway before this penultimate event. The pacing for the event was not designed to pull anyone to a sub-4 minute clocking this time around, but there was definitely an attempt to set up some strong attempts at that 4:05 mark, so the pacing came out around 60.5 for the first 400 meters, followed by a 2:03.04 split for the half way mark. At that point, it was Daniel Thater (Springfield, MO) at the front and he would hold that lead around the 3rd lap, before Walter Schafer (Centennial, CO) threw down a strong surge that quickly opened up a gap to the front. As the bell marking the final lap of the evening chimed, Schafer appeared to be all-out and pulling away with Thater chasing gamely and a pack of three starting to make things interesting. Taylor Wardall (Appleton, WI), Jack Driggs (York, IL), and Bill Ledder (Falls Church, VA) all started to close the gap with about 300 meters to go before Schafer tightened up significantly with 200 meters to go and the race was on. Wardall went to the front and looked like he might be the man with the plan, but rounding that final curve into the last 100 meters, it was the local guy, Jack Driggs, who was moving best and he thinks it might have been due in part to the cutoff jean shorts he warmed up in. As Driggs went to the front, the whole place exploded and Driggs said that even he couldn’t hear anything the last 50 meters. “A lot of my friends came out and I’m friends with a bunch of the runners. A couple of my friends wanted to come out and experience the Gala for the first time. I came down the homestretch and everyone was saying my name, my parents were here, my mom was at least, and it was a great feeling coming down.” Driggs also mentioned a great moment for him was going over to a particular Midwest Distance Gala spectator who is pretty special to him, Coach Joe Newton. “I saw Mr. Newton in the corner and the first thing (after the race) was I gave him a hug. It was a great feeling, the best run of my lifetime.” Newton has a seat near the finish line each year and always gets a chance to chat up the locals and many of the athletes he has worked with over the years. He is just another part of the incredible atmosphere that the Gala has and people can’t understand that unless they have been around Coach Newton and experienced the joy he brings to those athletes.


There was plenty of great track action all day long outside of just the events we highlighted here as all of the sections were closely contested to the line and that just kept the crowd interested all day long. The continuing goal of the meet directors is to always put a quality production out on the track and shoot get fields that will race the clock. There were only three meet records broken this time around, but the times were fast and the fields were deeper than ever. Meet Director Scott Bush mentioned that he is always looking to make the girls fields better and they even tried to add the girls steeplechase this year before a lack of entries doomed the event, but the 800 meters showed that they are clearly making headway at this point. Every athlete I talked to loved the atmosphere with the music playing, the crowd getting involved, and the lights shining on them while they put it all out on the track and that is what keeps the athletes coming back for more.


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