By Mike Smith
As the number 4 indicates, I’ve written four other essays on the difficulty of defending. One of the things I emphasized was that the longer you sit at the top, the more that every other team will gain satisfaction in being the team to topple you from that precipitous position. In 2020, the boys team will be attempting to retain the D3 State Division title for the fourth year in a row, and for the eighth time in 16 years. If we do, we will have won half the titles available over that time period.
I cringe typing that last line. If I was on another team and I read that, I’d use that as inspiration to fuel myself and my teammates to do something about it. As it stands in our 2019 campaign, we had our fair share of adversaries who had us squarely in the cross-hairs. I have to give my boys credit, as it looked while the chips were down, we were very vulnerable; the chinks in the armor easy to spot and easy to target. Rather than freak out thinking we were not our former selves, they got down to business, recognizing it would take the majority of the season, but we could put ourselves in a position where we could contend.
I’d also like to give them credit for not focusing too much on those teams most likely to unseat us. Instead they turned inward, worked hard, willing themselves into the best athletes and teammates they could. They set it up such that another team would have to beat them if they were going to wrestle the championship from us.
With the help of my captains, we asked the first and second year guys to simply keep working hard; our results wouldn’t be reflected in our performance through the first part of the year. We were going to feel uncomfortable in our races and with our performances right up until the end. And even then, everything we were capable might not be reflected until Meet of Champions. I told them to have faith, to believe in what we do and the success we’ve had in the past.
But to be honest I wasn’t sure we had enough time to get where we needed! We lost three off our scoring seven, #2, #3 and #6. We were relying on our #7 and two freshmen to step into those roles with at least one of them needing to step up big and onto the scoring five. We had some great raw material, but some of it was pretty raw. There were ten weeks to go, but in the business of endurance, time is gold. Could we maximize fitness and still get race ready in the short time left?
As the season started to bleed into the end of October, our improved ability would leak out a bit in our performances. We started to gain momentum and while those that had been with the program were confident in the long view, the newbies were beginning to trust the process. I wasn’t confident that we would win, but I was confident we would be in a position to challenge for the win.
Being prepared to win is probably more important than believing you will win. Believing you will win can leave you shell shocked when what you thought was going to happen isn’t the way it plays out at that specific time. We were comfortable that we had done what we could, confident in our performances both individually and collectively in the run up of the championships. But was it confidence in what we thought, or in what we knew?
The year before we had big expectations as well. We were the top returning team and were in a position to repeat as state champions. We returned our top guy who went out on injury the year prior and acquired the services of a very solid freshman while returning 5 of our top seven. But two of our guys came back woefully out of shape while other teams had stepped it up and we were back on our heels. We were dealt some good cards, as were some other teams. Now we just had to play them right.
I stress patience on the Derryfield Park course as the race is made after the first mile. That year Campbell, who with Jeffrey Allen out front, marked our #3 through #5 guys and after the mile mark had all five of their guys in front of our #3. They would run that second mile hard to open a gap, realizing that if some of them could stay out they had a shot.
With 500 meters left on the course Campbell was winning. I leaned into my three remaining scorers and let them know, at this particular point, we were not. If they wanted to do what they knew was possible, the time was now. Thankfully they were confident in what they could do, and not in what they should be able to do. Things went our way.
This past season, we were in a similar situation with another team. At the top of the hill after the mile mark, Conant had five guys in front of our #3 guy. Conant was using the element of disguise to their advantage, changing up their traditionally orange tops for black, nondescript ones. Not seeing any orange ahead of him, my #3 guy thought none of them were in front of him.
Again, credit to their poise, the guys recognized the task at hand, knew what they needed to do to be successful and did exactly what we practice day in, day out. They didn’t freak out and we had solid performances across the board. In the end, it got the job done.
We’ll be in the same position this fall, looking to defend our state championships. Graduating just one senior, we’ll be in the driver’s seat once again. Which means we’ll be wearing that target on our backs once again. As always someone will rise up to challenge whoever’s at the top, and as always we’ll need to endure some setbacks we’ll have to overcome.
Let’s face it, that’s why we do this sport. To triumph over the challenges life throws our way. To take on the course, the conditions, the competition and see what all the training has done. There are easier sports out there for sure. But I doubt they can rival the satisfaction one gets from going out there and getting after it, knowing that they are the product of all their hard work. That they made themselves.
And that’s why we do it.