It couldn't get much better.
A warm summer evening. Date night. A favorite Mexican restaurant.
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And there on the 27-inch television perched behind a dangling Corona sign was Geneva graduate Dan Huling leading the field in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the United States Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. So exciting for a track fan, the promise of Huling and Jacobs grad Evan Jager both representing the country in London.
Except Huling fell off the pace, and hard. The 155-pounder succumbed to a Jager kick starting at the second-to-last water barrier with 500 meters left and lost his legs. He ceded the third and last Olympic spot at 200 meters and eventually faded to seventh at 8 minutes, 30.76 seconds, more than 16 seconds off the time that made him the fastest American steepler in 2010 and 2009, the world's 13th-fastest in 2010.
"When you took the lead," Huling recalled third-place finisher Kyle Alcorn saying afterward, "usually you make me question whether I can do it. This year you took the lead and nothing changed."
Huling, speaking this week from an East Coast airport while awaiting a flight home to Columbus, Ohio, is weighing changes. The Reebok-sponsored runner and Miami of Ohio All-American parted ways with his coach and is contemplating moving from Columbus.
Like most elite runners he's had his share of injuries but that wasn't the case in Eugene. He left questioning his training leading up to the Trials. Despite winning his preliminary heat at 8:29.00, three days later he "just didn't have it."
"I definitely wasn't injured going into the race, it was more the training of the last three, four weeks that felt very unstructured," said Huling, who at Geneva placed 11th in Class AA cross country in 2001 and in state track was the 1,600-meter runner-up in 2002.
"I was feeling a little stale. It just wasn't the best way to go into the Olympic Trials, I thought. I dropped my mileage a lot more than I wanted to and I kind of didn't like some of the stuff we did about 10, 14 days before the Trials started. The prelims got me more confident, but I guess that was kind of my best day and maybe it took more out of me than I thought it did."
On his first run after the Trials he went out after a storm and slipped on a rock while taking a curve, hurting a knee. He entered a race in Switzerland, site of some of his best races, but dropped out and called it a season.
Huling's still training, though. A couple months down the road the knee feels better and he's trying to outrun pessimism.
"It's pretty hard to swallow that I'd gotten in the top three in every other year but 2008 and 2012. That's pretty tough to think about, and having a personal best as fast as I did (8:13.29), being the fastest American to never make an Olympic Team. It's a pretty tough thing that I'm just putting on myself," said Huling, fifth in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in steeplechase.
Huling, 29, figured he'd be done running at this level by 2013, but that was predicated on reaching the Olympics. He believes he can improve his endurance, and knows that steeplechase is an event that doesn't require, as he said, "to run a 52 (second) last lap."
"I'll run as long as I can truly believe that I can make the World team," he said, seeking a return to the 8:10-8:15 range. "I'm not going to be one of those guys hanging on and hoping for a pipe dream ... If I can just get in there and be able to compete with all those top steeplechasers, I'll keep going."
In the lead pack
On the heels of their first- and second-place finishes at last week's Upstate Eight Conference River Division meet at LeRoy Oakes, Geneva and St. Charles North girls cross country teams are ranked Nos. 10 and 14 respectively in the final Illinois Cross Country Coaches Poll.
Grabbing every first-place vote was Naperville North, which one coach opined may be the best girls cross country team in Illinois history.
Geneva, St. Charles North and St. Charles East run at the Class 3A Wheaton North sectional at quaint St. James Farm in Warrenville at 10 a.m. Saturday.
A superstar coach
At 8 years old Jennifer Sovacool made Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" for scoring what she called an "obnoxious" amount of goals in a game, 12, while playing soccer in her hometown of Roswell, Ga.
Power numbers like that aren't what she's looking for in her new role as Aurora Central Catholic's new girls soccer coach.
"My expectations for the first year are to become a team and grow together and learn the basics and build off that, and find some success on the field together as a unit," she said.
Sovacool, who succeeded Esther Tan in the Chargers job, has had success and then some as a soccer player. A wunderkind at Pace Academy outside of Atlanta, she won a youth championship in Georgia. Moving to Naperville at 15, "Jenny" played on the great Al Harris' Huskies team that won an unofficial state title in 1987 then, as a junior, led Naperville North to the first Illinois High School Association girls state championship.
In a prep career that saw her No. 22 uniform retired by Naperville North, Sovacool was a three-time All-American forward (and all-state in basketball), named the Chicago Sun-Times' player of the decade in girls soccer. Years later, she was in the inaugural class of Naperville North's athletic hall of fame.
One of the top college recruits in the country, Sovacool went on to play at Wisconsin. Meanwhile, she also was on the U.S. Women's National Team alongside players like Mia Hamm. After a serious knee injury her junior year at Wisconsin, bad enough that doctors gave her the ultimatum to stop playing or "risk not walking normally," she said, she hung up the cleats as a player.
But not as a coach. She's done personal training, clinics, and coached for clubs such as the Chicago Fire Juniors, Naperville Soccer Association, Chicago Magic and Plainfield Soccer Association. She coached Naperville North's girls varsity in 2005, bringing Hamm's letter of recommendation.
"We are incredibly excited to have Jennifer as our coach," said ACC athletic director Sean Bieterman. "Her experience as a player and coach clearly made her the best candidate for the position. We're confident that she will build our women's soccer program and be a great role model to our female student-athletes."
Sovacool -- actually Sovacool-Smith since her September marriage to Marc Smith, whose son Jared is an ACC sophomore -- is also earning a master's in special education at Aurora University, on top of her bachelor's in business at Wisconsin. She has an 8-year-old daughter, Jordan.
Sovacool said she's into team building, creating friendships off the field that lead to positives on it. Though she scored obnoxious numbers of goals in her playing days, that's not what she's looking for as a coach.
"I'd rather have six or seven goal scorers than one, and a structured defense to help led the crew up the field," she said.
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