Men’s Cross Country: National title ‘humbling’ for St. Francis
By Jeff Vorva For Sun-Times Media November 22, 2012 5:24PM
University of St. Francis men's cross country team members celebrate their 2012 NAIA national championship. Supplied photo
Updated: December 24, 2012 6:56AM
They’d just run the 8K course laid out over the Fort Vancouver (Wash.) National Historic Site and the University of St. Francis men’s cross country team was spent — and disappointed. The Saints thought their chance for an NAIA national championship was history.
The way Phil Rizzo figured it, he and his teammates gave it their best shot and came up short. They were ready, if not eager, to take a two-hour drive back to the airport in Seattle for an even longer plane ride back to Joliet, dreams dashed.
“We thought it was close but we didn’t think we won it,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t get out to a good start in the race. After it was over, we got our gear on and we were ready to cool down and figured we took second or third, so we were kind of upset.”
Not for long. When the scores were tabulated, the Saints were found to have bested the field with 138 points. Southern Oregon (153) was second and California State-San Marcos (165) third.
“We saw our coaches running toward us just screaming and we went nuts,” said Rizzo, who led the Saints with an eighth-place finish in a time of 24 minutes, 44 seconds. “That was the most exciting moment of my life. For all the hard work, it came down to that. That was awesome.
“It was kind of like when you see a Major League Baseball team win the World Series. We were all just hugging each other and jumping up and down. When we found out, it was such a big surprise. We all just let loose.”
The Saints brought home the second national title in school history. The 1993 USF baseball team was the first national title winner.
Rizzo has distance events in track and field to compete in before he graduates in May, but his cross country career ended with a top-10 individual finish in the nation. In 2008, his Evergreen Park high school career ended with a 127th-place finish in the Illinois High School Association meet.
“I had an average career in high school,” he said.
Things changed right after graduation. He said he participated in summer drills with members of Brother Rice’s team to get ready for college. Then he went to college and saw a drastically different level of competition than he saw in high school.
“We had All-State athletes and a state champion on the team my freshman year,” Rizzo said. “There were studs all around me who I was training with. I’ve run a lot more mileage since I got to college. I averaged about 30 miles a week in high school. This August, I hit a 100-mile week.”
First-year USF coach Jeffery Barker was named the NAIA Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year and credited former coach Drew Ludtke for assembling the team. Ludkte coached the squad from 2005 until taking a job at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh as its women’s cross country coach in June.
“It was very humbling to win the national championship,” Barker said in a news release. “We stuck to our game plan and pulled it off. It’s amazing. I thought we could get on the podium (a top-four finish), but I just wasn’t sure if we had enough to win the championship.
“I have to give credit to Drew Ludtke, as he recruited all these guys. He did a great job of building the program. He built the foundation with kids of character and kids who believed in being one big family.”
Two Saints athletes from Michigan, Mike Blaszczyk and Brandon Carson, finished 23rd and 24th, respectively. Sterling’s Dylan Reyes took 60th and Plainfield South graduate Jake Ferris claimed 74th to account for the Saints’ final points at nationals.
In September, Ferris had some rough outings, including finishing 229th out of 255 runners at a meet in Louisville, Ky.
“Toward the middle of the season he improved and really came on strong at the end,” Rizzo said. “His finish in the nationals was huge.”
Other members of the squad include Arthur Stringham (Richards), Billy Klebenow (Plainfield South), Brandon Ivins (Oak Forest), Christian Pendleton (Stagg), Colin Nielsen (Minooka), Corey Ross (Brother Rice), Dan Laskowski (Reavis), Daniel Bahret (Minooka), John Niendorf (Lincoln-Way North), Julian Hoshell (Minooka), Julius Medez (Lincoln-Way North), Kevin Hardin (Plainfield North), Peter Hernandez (Plainfield Central), Skyler Ficht (Bremen), Stephen Wilder (Plainfield North) and Trevor Howard (Wilmington).
Assistant coach Jeff Chiapello is a former Minooka athlete.