Chasing legends: Conroy climbing the storied ranks of Portage cross country greats
PORTAGE -- If the trees at Woodland Park could talk, they could share stories of all of the Portage greats who ran on its hallowed cross country grounds.
Long gone are the days of dual meets, which explains why the Indians junior Shane Conroy had never raced there, at least not since he was a Fegely eighth grader anyway.
The gods would surely be smiling Saturday as Conroy ran away with the Duneland Athletic Conference championship, his time of 15:19.7 rubbing elbows with history.
"I want to have my name on the (record) board and be the best runner to come through Portage," Conroy said.
The times say there's only one better, and Conroy has his sights set on him.
"Jason Casiano ran 15:02, he won state, he also ran 9:05 (3,200), 4:11 (1,600)," he said. "I want to go sub nine. I want to get to as close to 15 (minutes) as possible."
Tom Erickson, Conroy's coach, ran for legendary coach Bill Wilke, whom Conroy has met, and he is his runner's link to Portage past.
"He goes through an old book with all the workouts and times," Conroy said. "He talks about what times he was running compared to what I'm running now. It gives me a feel for where I'm at and how much more I need to work."
Even though Conroy wasn't all that familiar with the course, he ran it with purpose, pressing the pedal from the gun.
"I knew where the course was going to lead next, where the next turns were," he said. "It's a pretty straight forward course. The line's visible at all times. My goal was to take it out as fast as I could and finish as fast as I could. My first mile was 4:44, 4:45, and I just wanted to push after that, to see if people would come with me. If so, they were going to go for a ride and see if they could stay with me."
Nobody did. Runner-up Evan O'Connor crossed in 15:43.4, followed by Mason Nobles (Valparaiso), Ben Perschon (Lake Central) and Weston Hulen (Crown Point) as five schools were represented in top five.
"I think it's a great marker for me to set to see how I'm going to proceed the rest of the season," Conroy said. "These are the same people I'm going to see at sectionals, regionals, some of them at state. It's good to know I can get out there and beat these people moving forward."
After a seventh-place finish at state in track last spring, Conroy upped his summer mileage. The one weekend he didn't race this season, he did a 13.5-mile workout.
"I knew I was going to be better than I was last year," he said. "My goal was sub-16 my first race. It didn't happen. I didn't think I was going to be this far along with my racing. I didn't come in thinking I was going to be best. Guys like Mason Nobles, Ben Perschon, Evan O'Connor, they're good, they're out there as well. That's a confidence booster."
There was also a link to Woodland Park's cross country past in the girls race as Valparaiso freshman Whitney Anderson prevailed in similarly dominant fashion at 18:42.3. Her coach, John Arredondo ran for Portage and Wilke.
"There weren't many (highlights)," Arredondo joked. "During warmup, I said there's been a lot of miles run here over my life. This is a special place. It's fun to come home. There are a lot of good memories here. It's just great coming home. It's the second one we've won here. I was (the assistant) with Boomer (Nellessen) one year. With Tommy coaching the boys individual winner, it's a tribute to coach Wilke to do it here. Coach would be proud. You've got to be tough. That's what we were taught."
Anderson, a freshman, ran like a veteran in her DAC and Woodland Park debut.
"It's a big deal," she said. "That was my goal. I didn't really know what to expect. I ran a whole warmup so I knew what it would be like. the first lap, went a moderate pace, then try to go fast the rest of the way to get an idea of the course. After a first lap, I felt how I was feeling. I was trying to work on being able to hold a pace. I usually back off in the middle. I've been trying to hold the pace at the beginning and end of the race, maintain the same speed."
Arredondo said the middle of the race was Anderson's focus when she arrived at Valpo in the summer.
"That's what she wanted to work on," he said. "Looking down the line, that's what we've got to get stronger. In just a short time, she's learned a lot. Usually, she's sitting back. Today, it's just like, I'm going, I'm out."
Like Anderson, Valpo was head and shoulders ahead of the field. The Vikings scored a tidy 25 points. Lake Central was second with 80.
Libby Ehrhardt was second (19:10.1), Liv Hatch fifth, Anika Anderson sixth and Meredith Isley 11th as Valpo's top five were all under 20 minutes.
"I'm very happy," Arredondo said. "We had a plan and the girls executed it. I said we've got to close those gaps, we've got to get out. I knew we would have two up front. It was just great to see our three, four, five."
The idea of Anderson getting more comfortable in her shoes is not a pleasant one for the competition.
"At the beginning, it was really scary, seeing how many people were there," she said. "It's gotten less intimidating now that I've been at a lot of meets."
Valparaiso freshman Whitney Anderson nears the finish line of the Duneland Conference Championship Saturday at Woodland Park. (Photo courtesy of Tim Anderson)