Imagine running in a national championship high school cross-country meet where it’s just you and your teammates.
Chase Leach, Jack Casey and the rest of the La Salle Academy harriers didn’t have to wonder. They lived it … running side-by-side with not another team in sight.
This past Saturday, the Rams convened at the Cumberland Monastery for their final 5K race to cap off their participation in the Nike Virtual Nationals (NVN), an annual competition between cross-country teams across the nation that shifted online and restructured to fit COVID safety guidelines. Instead of racing in a stacked field featuring the country’s best, qualifying teams were left to their own devices by logging times to determine results.
Wearing white uniforms adorned with Nike’s famous swoosh and “Northeast” splashed across the front, the LSA runners displayed laser focus – four runners posted sub-16 minute times –while blocking out the unusual circumstances. So what if Leach looked left and saw Casey, who looked right and saw fellow junior Adam Thibodeau in hot pursuit?
For one time in 2020, the Rams were together on the course. National acclaim might have been on the line, yet the Rams were determined to let it all hang out there while creating a memory that doesn’t figure to fade from the collective subconscious any time soon.
“As a coach, I love the idea of them trying to keep tabs on themselves and experience a little bit of competition that was unique. Just to get them involved in something like that was a great idea,” said La Salle head coach Ken Skelly, noting that it was one of his seniors (Blake Rogers) who was gung-ho about the Rams participating in the Nike Virtual Nationals after it was learned that the in-person version that’s traditionally held each December in Oregon was cancelled in the summer.
“After Blake got it going, our seniors ran with it. It just became something where everybody was excited about trying it out,” said Skelly.
To compete in the NVN, a team had to distinguish itself within its region. For La Salle, that proved to be mere child’s play. The Rams easily captured the Metropolitan Division (10-0 record) before breezing to low-scoring outings en route to capturing the Class A meet (with 21 points) and state meet (with 24 points).
The in-state portion of the season was cause for plenty of celebration, yet the Rams hoped the official capper could wait a little longer after capturing states at Ponaganset High School on Nov. 14.
Said Leach, “We had to figure out where we could run [Nike Virtual Nationals]. We had a lot of restrictions to the point where we didn’t even know if we would be able to run with everything happening.”
After assessing their options, securing the Monastery – a mostly flat course that covers 3.1 miles – was deemed the safest bet. Several parents of the La Salle runners made sure the landscape was pristine and free of potential obstacles.
“There wasn’t a leaf to be found on the course,” said Skelly.
A timing company was dispatched to Cumberland along with a Nike representative. The tape at the finish line read “Nike Cross Virtual.”
“Everything was done really well. Nike took to heart exactly everything that was going on. For them to give us an opportunity … it was just good,” said Skelly.
In order to achieve success at NVN, the Rams were planning to rely on senior Jack McLoughlin, the top finisher at this year’s state meet and Georgetown University signee. An unfortunate set of circumstances proved to sideline McLoughlin at the worst possible time.
“We like to have a race plan going in, but having Jack drop out two days before definitely threw a wrench into the works,” said Leach. “As a team, we wanted to run our best for him.”
McLoughlin produces an enormous shadow over the entire team, the kind that allows the rest of the La Salle runners to fall in line and play supportive – yet key – roles.
“Jack’s abilities and achievements are great, but to turn around and see someone like Chase get the opportunity and take full advantage as the No. 1 … he flawlessly stepped in and did a tremendous job,” said Skelly.
Leach set the pace last Saturday with an impressive time of 15:26 with Thibodeau next at 15:47. Senior Alex Maxwell placed third (15:49) followed by Casey (fourth, 15:58.80). The fifth and final runner for scoring purposes was junior Lachlan Bishop at 16:30. Also racing was Rogers (sixth, 16:43.20) and sophomore Blake Santos (seventh, 17:21.60).
“It was a next-man-up mentality where they were willing to do whatever was necessary,” said Skelly. “There was never a question. It was ‘Okay, let’s go.’”
As for running on their own, Casey said, “When it comes to races, we’re used to having guys from Hendricken, St. Raphael, and Cumberland there, among other teams. It was definitely different not having those kids around to push us, but we were all racing for each other out there.”
Competing teams had from Nov. 16-24 to log their times. With one day remaining and two participants still needing to race, La Salle found itself in third place out of 16 teams. Ultimately, the Rams ended up fifth out of 18.
Regardless of how the final leaderboard read, Skelly knows that his band of runners handled themselves just fine on the national (virtual) stage.
“It was good to have that race to show what these guys can put down for times. Given the right circumstances and the right conditions, we knew we had a really good team that would rival anything that’s out there in the country,” said Skelly. “It was good to have another week where we were able to get together and push one another for one final time.”