Little did Morris cross country coach Joe Blumberg know that the boys lineup he entered at the Princeton Invitational Sept. 14 would not run together again.
Injuries and other factors have decimated the Redskins since that meet. The counting runners for Morris that day were Jacob Wantland, Cheyne Robinson, Austin Patterson, Brock Kukman and Nick Marino. None of those five competed for Morris at the 2A Crete-Monee Regional on Saturday.
At the regional, the Redskins’ lineup consisted of one runner with past postseason experience in captain Eric Robinson, freshmen Zach Chapman and Jayson Podschweit, sophomore Alan Alvarez and juniors Tristan DeGrush, Vincente Gallegos and Jake Hesslau.
And they will keep running.
Morris not only qualified for a boys sectional for a fourth straight year, it also showed tangible improvement. Its third-place finish was a spot better than Ottawa, which had finished ahead of Morris at the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference meet the week prior.
“This has definitely been probably the most injury-ridden season that I’ve been in through all four years,” Robinson said. “But our times have actually been better than any the first three years I’ve been in, so it’s nice to see improvement, especially with the younger guys. It’s nice to see that we have kind of a program building up instead of just the top guys running as our top guys.”
Blumberg, who has coached the Redskins since 2005, said he has never seen so many simultaneous injuries.
“If it was one workout that we did and everybody dropped the day after, we’d certainly cut that workout out,” Blumberg said. “But [it was] different times, different parts of their bodies after different workouts, after different races.
“Seven, eight years ago when we had half the number of guys we have now, if someone was even getting close or anything was tweaked, we really, really had to back off. We’ve tried to fight through some of the nagging injuries or fight through the soreness, maybe knowing we had a little bit more depth.
“I don’t want that to come across as we intentionally injured guys knowing we’d have somebody else to fill in. I think because of the competitiveness of our top 12-14 guys, guys knew that, ‘If I go down, somebody’s gonna take my place,’ and I think each guy probably pushed a little harder, a little longer than they should have.”
What has resulted are rapid promotions for the runners that are healthy. Alvarez, Chapman and Podschweit were not among the 15 runners Morris entered in the varsity boys race at its own Early Bird Invitational in August. Hesslau has gone from someone who could not crack the postseason lineup as a sophomore to the fifth-fastest Redskin at the Early Bird Invite to the team’s current No. 1.
“Stepping up and being the first runner, and being in the top seven all year, I guess I have had to show some more leadership than before,” Hesslau said.
The Redskins’ success has created no false illusions. They do not expect their season to last beyond this weekend’s Normal West Sectional. The same is true of the Morris girls who – albeit with a much more complete lineup – qualified for a sectional for a seventh consecutive year at Crete-Monee.
“I think this weekend I’m going to focus more on getting a good time and a P.R.,” Bridget Gile, the Morris girls’ top regional finisher, said. “Because I don’t think I’m at somewhere where I’m in contention to advance.”