Coach's corner: Glenbrook South cross-country captain wins another kind of race
Being a team captain in any sport entails a multitude of skills and attributes. Working hard, putting in extra effort, setting a great example for other teammates, and inspiring the younger kids in the program to achieve their best.
Glenbrook South senior -- and cross-country team captain -- Luke Gregory has not only put a check next to those particular boxes, but added an exclamation mark on them as well.
Gregory's amazing story began during his 8th grade year when a seemingly minor pain in his foot at the time took a turn for the much, much worse.
After a period of frustrating investigation, doctors finally discovered the problem: a tumor in the heel of his left foot. Worse yet, it had spread to the other leg and into parts of his spine. The official diagnosis: Stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that begins in the muscle cells and is most common in older children and teens.
So, the previously healthy and carefree 8th grader's life took a complete turn. Myriad rounds of medical tests and hospital visits were followed by rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Luke missed a good part of his schooling that year but did what he could with at-home assignments. It was a tough time, for sure, but as you will see, Luke met those challenges head-on and beat them back with equal or greater toughness.
When it came time for high school, Luke made a decision. He wanted to try out for the cross-country team.
"I played soccer mostly in my younger years," Luke states, "but even though I never really was much of a runner, I thought I would give the sport a try."
He made an immediate impact, Coach Kurt "Coach Haz" Hasenstein remembers.
"When I learned that Luke was going to join the cross-country team, I was thrilled that he was 'well enough' to entertain the idea of joining the team," Hasenstein said. "Coach Hilvert and myself had several talks with Luke's parents and our athletic staff, and the consensus was he could do anything he was capable of doing."
Freshman year was tough, though, Luke explains.
"I was only able to run in a couple of meets, and I had to miss a lot of the practices," he said. "But I really enjoyed being part of the team, and my teammates were so supportive."
He also called Chris Hilvert, the freshman coach at the time, a tremendous supporter.
Coach Hilvert remembers Luke's first year.
"Luke was unique from day one," Hilvert said. "And I am not just talking about his health. Luke never made excuses, never offered up apologies, and never gave less than 100%. Instead he practiced and raced like there was no tomorrow. On a daily basis, we marveled at his intensity, dedication and fortitude."
For others, maybe the one-year experiment considering the physical struggles would have been enough. But not for Luke. He kept at it and started to fall in love with the sport.
Sophomore year, he started to run more, and his times started to get better. Coach Haz details the progression: "As Luke became healthier, his training progressed. After running mostly 2-mile as a freshman, he was able to clock a 23:06 3-mile time for a personal best. His junior year was even more productive as he dropped his times to 21:05. Through it all, he kept a smile on his face and was the epitome of hard work and perseverance."
Luke not only enjoyed the running but became a true student of the sport, searching for the best ways to train, to take care of his body to help optimum performance. All along, his fellow teammates would observe and note Luke's desire and ability to overcome his hardships.
One of his closest running friends, current star senior Mrugesh Thakor, talks about Luke's influence: "Beyond the running, Luke is just a wonderful human being. One thing I always appreciate about him is how he values and appreciates life. He rarely complains and has shown he is a true fighter. I still remember Luke coming and running almost every day despite the chemotherapy and all the hospital visits. He is a great captain and sets the bar high for the rest of us, because of his work ethic and positivity."
Luke knows being named captain is the ultimate compliment from both teammates and coaches.
"I was a little surprised," he said, "but very glad. I really care about the program and want to stay strong and be encouraging to my teammates."
He has done that for sure.
So, the young kid nervously coming out freshman year in the midst of serious cancer diagnosis? Four years later, he's a program leader and team captain. He recently ran his best time ever, clocking a personal best against arch rival Glenbrook North with a time of 18:19. The way things are going, by the time this is printed, he may have even bettered that mark.
The Titan team as a whole is strong this year and looking to make a big push for upcoming conference, regional and sectional meets.
Seniors Brian Hildebrandt and Mrugesh Thakor lead the way, clocking impressive times in the mid-15s, while seniors Preston Davidson, Cody Slutsky and Matt Finkel have been consistent top seven performers. Juniors Michael Jerva (who traded in his soccer ball to run this year) and Jayson Stamm have been the top juniors.
Maybe most impressively, the Titans have set a record this year for most runners participating: 78. You can be sure almost all of those 78 have been inspired in some shape or form by captain Luke Gregory and his ability to overcome and achieve.
Suffice it to say other Titan runners, this year and in the past, may have ran with faster times- but maybe no Titan ever has run a better "race" than Luke Gregory.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and just an all-around local sports fan. Any topics you'd like to see him tackle? Email email@example.com and include "Coach's Corner" in the subject line.