A handful of boys and girls accepted the challenge of running 100 yards up a steep incline last week as part of Joliet Catholic Academy’s summer cross country workout program.
The reason so many submitted themselves to the torture that is Blackwell Hill in Warrenville? No, it was not for the ice cream.
The team building exercise was part of the experience that has come to define JCA cross country. Success starts at the top, you might say, and not only on top of a big hill in a DuPage County Forest preserve property.
Blackwell Hill is roughly 30 miles from the doorsteps of JCA, a school known more for producing football champions than long-distance runners. In this instance, the hill serves as symbol of a success story that starts with Mark Clarke and Mindy Izzo, the two individuals who serve as JCA’s co-coaches and sit atop of a burgeoning private-school power.
Clarke and Izzo have teamed up to make JCA cross country an experience that transcends running for miles on end.
“In 10 years, a kid’s not going to say my favorite part of cross country was the hardest workout we ever did,” Izzo said. “They’re going to say it was when we went to Savannah or the time we made T-shirts together or when I had a really good race or something like that.
“It’s not going to be, ‘Oh, this workout that was so hard—that was my favorite thing.’ It’s the bonding. That’s what makes cross country so special.”
Clarke is beginning his fifth season coaching cross country at JCA. He took the reins after Jim Holehan and Norm Russum stepped aside.
Since then, Clarke has worked to build on their efforts by infusing his unique personal touch into the program. Izzo, who also coaches track and field at JCA, joined Clarke two years ago in cross country and the two hit it off from the start.
Both are history teachers. Both are linked by their own tragic histories. Both have lost spouses in recent years. They lean on each other from time-to-time during the moments of great heartache. They treasure the memories of their departed loved ones.
Clarke’s wife, Lucy, died of heart failure in February of 2006. She was 58. Izzo’s husband, Jeremy, died of Marfan’s disease in October of 2010. He was 29, a teacher and the head boys basketball coach at JCA.
Mindy is raising their 2-year-old daughter with the help of the boys and girls she coaches and her colleagues at work—her extended family, Clarke the grandfatherly figure in the bunch. She often brings little Addison to practice and Clarke has referred to Izzo’s daughter as JCA’s assistant coach and team mascot.
“The kids on the team are amazing with her, and it’s been great that they are so welcoming to her,” Mindy Izzo said. “And she loves them.”
Izzo works with Clarke to organize team activities, ranging from a once-a-year out-of-state cross country meet to volunteer work at the Chicago Marathon. JCA has run in Washington, D.C., Savannah, Ga., and Dayton, Ohio, over the course of the last three seasons. The girls team emerged a winner in its division at the Midwest Catholic Championships in 2011.
Then, there is the Run for Izzo, a non-profit endeavor aimed at raising funds for the National Marfan Foundation. JCA cross country runners have collected $4,000 by soliciting sponsors. More importantly, they have helped Izzo put her life back together, if only by showing they care.
“He was a teacher at JCA, so a lot of the kids knew him,” Izzo said of her late-husband Jeremy. “When I came on board, I wanted to do something not only to remember him but to raise money and awareness for what he had. Not a lot of people know what Marfan Syndrome is.
“It’s a connective tissue disorder. So, anything that’s muscle or joints—they’re looser than what they should be. People are taller. He had a heart condition. It makes them weaker. He couldn’t run. He played basketball and had to stop playing. So, he coached basketball.”
His memory lives on, particularly in the JCA family. And, under Izzo and Clarke, JCA cross country has turned into one big happy family, the boys and girls training together and pushing each other in a cooperative venture. Izzo and Clarke have made the co-ed system work where others have failed, in part because they’re dealing with smaller numbers than their bigger-school counterparts.
JCA takes 25 qualifying runners on its annual cross country road trip. The JCA boys and girls raise money to pay their own way, peddling items such a pizza and pie to their friends and neighbors. Clarke and Izzo recruit parents to serve as chaperones.
“It’s a chance for the kids to see a broader perspective on the running world and meet kids from other areas,” Clarke said. “We’ve gone to a lot of fun meets. I just think it’s a good experience for them to travel and bond together as a group.”
What is it they say about a team that works together?
The JCA girls finished second in the Class 1A Aurora Christian Regional a year ago, third in the Lisle Sectional and advanced to the IHSA state meet for the first time in school history. The JCA boys placed fourth in the regional, eighth in the sectional and came close to matching the girls’ feat of running downstate.
“I think we have a good shot this year to do even better,” said Zach Siegfried, one JCA’s summer workout captains. “We’ve got a good team. I think people will be working harder. They’ll understand if we do that we can do better things.”
This fall, JCA will be flying to the Great American Cross Country Races in Cary, N.C., a dot on the map outside of Raleigh. The plan is for the boys and girls to tour three college campuses—Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest—and perhaps take in an ACC football game (Wake Forest vs. Duke).
“Yeah, we have fun with it,” JCA girls captain Erin Kennedy said. “We travel together and there are activities we do together. Last year in Ohio, we had a dance party with the other teams. You get to meet people from all over. And in Savannah we went to the beach with them and got to spend time with them.”
Say this about JCA’s runners: They’re leaving footprints in the sand. And on top of that big hill, too. Credit their coaches: Clarke and Izzo. Without them, the experience of running so many miles simply would be torture.