Pilots' runners are living the state finals dream

WARREN, Mich. - Getting to the state finals has been a dream for every member of the De La Salle Collegiate cross-country team - particularly since they paid a visit to the gates of Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, the site of the annual event held each November.

They stared inside, getting just close enough to the venue to see just how massive it is. But they weren't allowed inside. If they wanted to get a better look, they'd have to earn it.

Fast forward three months and the Pilots will finally get their chance. Thanks to a third-place finish at last week's regional held at Chandler Park Golf Course in Detroit, they'll have an opportunity to compete in Saturday's Division 1 finals in Brooklyn.

"A lot of them are thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got a chance for academic all-state. Maybe I've got a chance for top-100. Wow, we've gotten here,' " said their coach Sandy Buchanan, who's as excited as her team to have the chance to participate on the state's biggest stage. "(Coach) Greg Golden from Regina put it in a really neat perspective for me. He said 'Go take a look at how many Division 1 boys there are in the state of Michigan. And then take that down to the 425 that will be running on Saturday, and then take it down to the actual 30 that will be on the podium.' This is a big deal. Just getting here is a big deal.

"Most other sports, like football, or basketball, it really doesn't matter what your record is. If you get to the playoffs, you start off with a clean slate. Here, you have the top three teams from nine different regions all coming together in one day, in one race. This is our playoffs."

Every member of the varsity team ran a personal-best time at last week's regional, so their confidence is sky-high heading into states. Senior Zachary Jarski and juniors Preston Earl and Andrew Renaud led the way, with Top-15 finishes that helped their team achieve its ultimate goal. Teammates Peyton Ross, Thomas Lanzi, Nicholas Schmidt, and Anthony Youngblood also ran PRs at regionals and are focused, as are freshman Brayds Vielle and sophomore Mario Salisbury, who will be accompanying their teammates as alternates for the race. 

Buchanan and her runners have been in constant communication throughout the week, discussing strategies and personal goals. Every runner is different, as are their aspirations for Saturday's race.

"We talk about it at practice, but it's the text conversations that work really well for myself and for them," the coach said. "They can express their thoughts and tell me what their goals are. I can ask them questions. If they give me a time, I can go to my data and spell it out for them."

Renaud wants to continue to get better, while enjoying the experience, and perhaps attain another PR. Earl, in his first year with the cross country team, is still learning how good he can be. Buchanan said he wants to run with Jarski and use his natural kick - he's a middle-distance runner in track - to his advantage at the end of the race. 

Ross has set a pace goal for himself (5:30), but Buchanan believes he can do better and thinks he will once the race starts and he gets "Sucked in" with the pack runners.

"Tom and Nick said, 'Well, Peyton is having a great season, so we want to stay with him.' That's become their challenge," Buchanan said. "And Anthony told me that he's now gone under 18, so he wants to stay there."

As for Jarski, he's the unknown.

"Zach doesn't want to lay down a number. He doesn't like to be pinned down with a time, or a pace, or what he'd like to do," Buchanan said. "He knows in his own mind what he wants. He doesn't want to articulate it because he doesn't want to let anyone down. I've learned that from working with him and his brother (Nathan, Class of 2017). They don't like to vocalize what it is that they are trying to accomplish. Zach is very strategic, a very good competitor. He knows in his own mind what he wants to accomplish. Getting him to say that to me is always a painful, pulling process."

Buchanan is hoping to get the best out of each of her runners and for them to feed off of each other. As a team, that's a good strategy.

"My philosophy has always been, 'I don't care which pair of purple shorts win, as long as purple shorts win,' " she said.

The Division 1 race begins at 3:30 p.m. The Top-30 runners earn medals and a spot on the podium.

"At the end of the day we're going to go out for a team meal and celebrate the day, no matter what happens," Buchanan said. "I want the kids to see it. Because at camp, we stood outside the gate and looked at (MIS). We knew all season long, 'If you want to get here and run here,  you've got to earn it.' And now they've earned it, so I want to take everyone to see that this is what they worked so hard for. And to be thankful for the opportunity to compete. I think they're going to do great."

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