DETROIT, Mich. - If there's a coaching staff better prepared for big racing days than De La Salle Collegiate's, one would be hard-pressed to find it.
Coach Sandy Buchanan and assistants Jill Suminski and Jerry Jackson have devised a plan of attack heading into Friday's Division 1 cross-country regional at Chandler Park Golf Course in Detroit.
They've broken down the hypothetical meet stats. They've studied the course along with their athletes, devising training, and race-day strategies on how to attack the course. They've presented challenges and job descriptions to each of the runners. And on Friday they'll be communicating with their boys from start to finish in an attempt to give them every advantage in their efforts to finish Top 3 and qualify for the state finals.
"We are as ready as can be," said Buchanan, who has seen her team perform well over the past few weeks. "If the varsity boys can do their jobs, then they will score well enough to be a Top 3 team and at least three to four should make the top 15-20."
But therein lies the challenge. The Pilots themselves will have to go out and perform to the best of their abilities if they want a chance to extend their season. Nothing is given come the postseason and there are some very good schools in the 19-team field. The top three teams will automatically qualify for states, which annually are held at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, MI. Any individual runners who finish among the Top 15 will also qualify. If a non-qualifying team places four of its runners among the Top 20, it will also qualify out.
The website Athletic.net put out hypothetical meet predictions based on season-best times for all participating teams. Those rankings have placed De La Salle fifth at the regional. But, according to Buchanan, it does not take into account the difficulty of courses, which she feels has her team underestimated as the race nears.
"Since last week's Gabriel Richard Invitational and the final MAC Division contests, both held on short/easy courses, many times within the region went down, which leaves us with a fifth-place ranking," Buchanan explained. "Our boys raced at the Catholic League last weekend on the Kensington Possum Hollow course which is about 84-meters longer and is considered one of the tougher courses in Southeast lower Michigan - so we showed very few improved numbers and thus, our rank fell two places."
Still, the competition will be fierce with the likes of Royal Oak, Grosse Pointe South, Troy, Fraser, and Grosse Pointe there to challenge the Pilots. North is the defending regional champion, though the Norsemen graduated five seniors off last year's squad, which went on to finish 12th at the state meet. Royal Oak finished third last year and returns five of its seven runners. South, Troy, and Fraser all finished ahead of De La Salle a year ago.
Fortunately for Buchanan, she returns her top three finishers from last year's regional, and four of her top five. Seniors Andrew Renaud, Zachary Jarski, and Nicholas Schmidt were 1-2-3 for the team a year ago, all running 17:37 or better at Lake St. Clair Metropark. She's counting on them again this year, along with juniors Preston Earl and Thomas Lanzi and sophomore Peyton Ross.
Renaud, Earl, and Jarski are all coming off top 22 finishes at last weekend's Catholic League finals at Kensington Metropark. Ross, Schmidt, and Lanzi finished back-to-back-back, just 12 seconds apart to help their team to a fourth-place finish at the meet.
Each of them will need to take a step forward if they hope to keep their season alive and earn a trip to the Finals. The last Pilots' squad to make it out was the 2013 team.
"At running camp this past August, I took the boys to stand outside the gates at MIS and told them if they wanted to get into the stadium and run there, they had to qualify," Buchanan said. "They had to earn the right to run there. Friday will tell the tale."