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Don't look back: Pillai overtakes Thomas in final strides to pull out Skorupa Invite win

ST. JOHN -- Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

The phrase was coined by baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, but is also appropriate in running, where it's a cardinal sin to peek at what's going on behind you.

Morgan Township's Owen Thomas paid dearly for the mistake in Saturday's Rudy Skorupa Invitational at Lake Central, a couple glimpses over his shoulder proving to be enough for Jay Pillai of La Porte to slip past him just before the finish line, timing 16 minutes, 49 seconds.

"I was overconfident at about two-and-a-half (miles) because I didn't hear anybody," Thomas said. "It was so stupid of me to look back twice. I didn't see him when I peeked. OK, I've just got to hammer it home, 50 meters, 40 meters, 30 meters. I knew it was going to be close. I just didn't realize he was going literally get me on the line. My training has been phenomenal. I've been feeling great in pretty much every workout. I know I'm there. It feels like I belong in these top tier races, but I belong in first place, and I didn't show that today. I'll probably be having nightmares about that for a while."

The race was expected to be won by a Slicer, it just figured to be Cole Raymond, but the La Porte standout was on a college visit to Belmont. Instead, it was Pillai, who bided his time, then sprinted by Thomas in the finishing straightaway.

"I think he thought I was way farther behind," said Pillai, a middle-distance runner with good closing speed in track. "He didn't have a kick at all. He was jogging in. He went out too hard. He led the first mile by like four seconds. I thought he went out too quick and would die later, so I stayed back. My coach said catch him and I caught him. The last 10 meters, I got him. (My kick) means I can go with people and know I'll have something left probably no matter what really, even if I go out hard."

Thomas blamed the outcome on tactics rather than conditioning, though he concedes he's not a strong closer.

"We know those La Porte guys are really, really up there in anaerobic fitness. I know that's where I lack," he said. "I can run for days. Coach asks me to run 12 65s, I'll run 12 65s. I can hit paces. My weakness is I've got to be able to shift gears. You ask me to run fast, that's where I really have to put my nose to the grind stone. I could've given more. I just was racing timid coming out of the final bend. It's 300 meters. Anybody here can run 300 meters fast. I just didn't push (the pedal) down. I should be better than this. I'm a senior. This isn't my first season. I should know my body and my abilities."

The Cherokees finished third as a team with 73 points, trailing Crown Point (60) and La Porte (66), and ahead of L.C. (80).

"We really wanted to prove something, kind of the mantra we've been speaking the week up to this race," Thomas said. "We're from an extremely small school, but we train just as hard if not harder than everyone else. We just wanted to earn our respect. I know everyone of our varsity guys did that. They raced their hearts out."

La Porte coach Corbin Slater was pumped to be so close to C.P. without Raymond.

"(That) is exciting," Slater said. "I told the guys this should be a confidence boost more than anything. Our joke was, Cole who? We sent him a text message and said we don't need you. He loved it."

Brayden Sobecki (16:51) backed Pillai in third with Stevie Klimczak 11th.

"(Jay)'s all speed. In track, he's one of our big four-by-four guys," Slater said. "(The plan was) just group up, try to run one, two, three all together, then four, five, six, seven the first mile, then kind of work their way up from there. They stayed patient. It's great because they have each other to feed off of. In track, they're in separate things all season. We knew once we got back to cross country, it would be a lot of fun. It's totally different strengths between (Jay) and Brayden, and it's nice to see those two flourish together."

The Bulldogs put three in the top 10 -- Weston Hulen (fourth), Nathan Murphy (seventh) and Cameron Zimmerman (10th).

"They saw La Porte beat us. OK, we've got to recognize this is a very good, extremely well-coached team. If you want to beat them, you've got to race them," C.P. assistant Keith Iddings said. "They learned a little bit last week what it's like to run on a flatter course. Here, they have turns and hills that are different (than Lemon Lake). Any given week, it can be a different guy. We've got a young team, but they're showing gradual steps of improvement and developing a better understanding of what coach (Erik) Forehand needs them to do to achieve their potential. They're really buying into it and they're making strides toward that."

Jay Pillai of La Porte edges Morgan Township's Owen Thomas right before the finish line of the Rudy Skorupa Invitational on Saturday at Lake Central.

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