Greatness Of Historic Proportions

Greatness Of Historic Proportions - The Lafayette Way

Dylan Quisenberry was a street-tough wrestler who was just this side of being a juvenile delinquent when he entered Lafayette High School -- or maybe it was just the other side. Devin Meyrer was a soccer kid who was so small and insignificant he was almost invisible to his coaches. Tommy Laarman was a chubby catcher who didn't know cross country from cross-stitch. Alec Haines was an elite club soccer player who thought he was a sprinter (and still does). Austin Hindman did not know a soul on the cross country team when he showed up for his first practice as a freshman to stay in shape to compete in triathlons.

Not exactly the recipe you would expect to create what many believe to be the greatest high school cross country team the state of Missouri has ever produced. But that is exactly what Coach Sean O'Connor has fashioned here in the picturesque tree-covered hills and valleys of welcoming Wildwood, MO.

"We're an island of misfit toys," is how senior Quisenberry described the Lancers' top-five runners.

O'Connor himself is an oddity of sorts. A middling high school runner from nearby Marquette, the 32-year-old math/IT teacher never broke 18 minutes in high school on the 5K state course in Jefferson City. He did not run in college at Mizzou. You might think those things worked against OC -- his team's nickname for him -- as a high school distance coach. You would be wrong.

"I didn't run in college," explains O'Connor. "Which I think in some ways is a benefit because I didn't get molded into one certain style of training. What I've been able to do is look at all these (successful running coaches) and pick the pieces that you can apply to high school kids and then make sure that it all progresses. So we do a lot of stuff. We are us. It's a blend of a lot of stuff."

What that "blend of a lot of stuff" has produced are results that are difficult for long-time cross country historians around the state to comprehend. Lafayette took the first three places in the boy's 3200 meter race at the State track meet last May. It is almost impossible to get three runners to even qualify for a single event let alone take the top three medals! The database lists no school with more than four runners who have ever run 15:24 or better for a 5K, something the Lafayette boys team accomplished in one race this season.

To put it another way, if you took an All-Star team of the best four cross country runners in the history of each Missouri school, you could not find four times at any one school over the histories of those schools' cross country programs to match what Hindman, Meyrer, Haines and Quisenberry did last month at Chile Pepper in Fayetteville.

Yes, it is difficult and unfair to compare 5K times over different courses run in various weather conditions -- but read that again and tell me that is not an almost inconceivably incredible feat by four boys from the same neighborhood.

What the Lafayette boys cross country team has accomplished the last three years is the reason I drove across the state to spend three days with O'Connor and his defending State champs as they prepared for their Sectional race.

O'Connor is in his fifth year as the head cross country coach at Lafayette and the turnaround he has authored is nothing short of remarkable.

"My first year as the boys cross country coach…," O'Connor begins but then hesitates. He wants to be sure to phrase this correctly but gently.

"I love those kids to death -- but we were horrible," admits O'Connor. He makes a pained face as he relives that season in his mind.

"We were last at conference. We were last at districts. We were just BAD!"

"I was tired of losing," said O'Connor. His shoulders droop and his palms point upward as he grapples with the words to explain.

"I never saw this coming or said to myself, 'We're going to blend this group to become a legend!' That never crossed my mind. I was tired of losing! I was tired of losing to SLU and I was tired of being terrible. Let's fix this."

O'Connor decided to read everything written by the great distance coaches and try and conceive a program of his own that he could introduce at Lafayette -- one that would reverse the Lancers morbid cross country history.

"OC is a running nerd," laughs Steven Stallis, O'Connor's assistant cross country coach and a former cross country runner at LHS.

"A major running nerd," Stallis repeats for emphasis.

"The first time I met OC I thought he was a nerd," Alec Haines, the defending 1600-meter state champ, responds when I ask him to recall his first meeting with O'Connor.

Upon meeting O'Connor, it is not difficult to understand why he evokes the term "nerd" from those who do not know him. His clothes hang on his thin awkward frame as if they were tossed on him as he ran past the outlet mall. His voice is strained and too high for an adult.

But get to know the man and all that nerdiness disappears into a background of fog as a leader of men emerges. A trailblazer with more than enough stones to mentor young runners to heights they could never have imagined.

"You should see the pile of running books this guy has stacked up in his office," Stallis says with much more than a wisp of admiration. "He has 12 of them he hasn't even had a chance to read yet! He has a book from just about every running coach who has written one. He reads them all and then he morphs their systems all together to make his own ideas. It's incredible. I just try to learn from him."

It is easy to see that Stallis reveres O'Connor. He also loves him -- as does just about everyone I spoke to about the wiry Irishman whose grandfather was born in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland. His grandmother was the first of her Irish/English family to be born here in the states.

Stallis met O'Connor the first day of cross country practice during his senior year at Lafayette.

"I showed up for practice and I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" recalls Stallis. "So all of a sudden we have two cross country coaches?"

Stallis remembers the bad days of Lafayette cross country because he was a part of the losing. Cross country wasn't much more than a filler sport before O'Connor took the reins as the head coach after Stallis graduated. What changed?

"It's the training," gushes Stallis.

"I swear, it's the training programs he has come up with. I was a low 17-mimute 5K runner in high school and now I'm running in the mid-15s. It's the training. It's incredible! It works -- and it's all his design. Those four top guys (on Lafayette's varsity) have four different workouts. It all depends on how they're feeling each week. He adjusts. It's that funnel system that he does."

Without getting too technical -- because I am far from a knowledgeable source on distance training -- O'Connor's "funnel system" starts his two-milers and 800 runners at different plateaus and then trains them to meet in the middle at the 5K distance at the season's end -- or the State meet in November. Does it work? It sure looks to be kicking out elite times from his runners.

"I think he's an amazing coach," said Tommy Laarman, the all-important fifth man on Lafayette's fab five. "I think I can speak for all of us and say we would not be where we are today if it wasn't for him."

Dylan Quisenberry

"Mr. Hall!"

I thought I heard someone yell from behind me as I stood near the Lafayette High School's outdoor track shortly after arriving on campus. I turned to see a tall blonde woman who was wearing a baseball cap about 20 yards from me. She was directly in line with the afternoon sun and obviously too attractive to be looking for me. I turned away and resumed my walk toward the track.

"Mr. Hall," she belted again --this time in a huskier voice.

I turned again. I did not know her but she sure acted like she knew me. I squinted to look closer and saw that the "woman" was not a woman at all but the senior leader of the Lancers boys cross country team, Dylan Quisenberry.

Quisenberry might have the most famous shoulder-length blonde mane in Missouri high school cross country. He burst onto the national track scene when he recorded the 12th-fastest 5K time in the nation as a freshman. We have known of and about Quis for some time but what we do not know would fill volumes. Getting to know Dylan, as his teammates all refer to him, was one of the highlights of my trip.

"I got a buzz cut for wrestling my freshman year," said Quisenberry. "And I haven't gotten a haircut since."

Quisenberry's hairstyle isn't the only thing that has changed for the Mizzou-bound senior since his freshman year at LHS.

"I thought he was a cocky little punk," is how a smiling O'Connor describes his first introduction to Quisenberry.

"I loved him to death, but man…"

O'Connor shifts in his seat as he considers the freshman Quisenberry as we both gnaw on our lunch choices at the St. Louis Bread Company following the afternoon's practice.

"Dylan is running with the freshman group the first day of practice but he decides all on his own that he's too good for the freshman," remembers O'Connor.

"So he goes over and tries to stay with the varsity guys on a tempo run!"

I stopped OC to get clarification that this truly was the very first day of cross country practice for Quisenberry's freshman year.

"Oh, yeah," O'Connor nods mid-bite with that knowing squint that tells you -- this kid has no clue!

"So he's trying to chase down Derek (Legenzoff) and Jordan (West) -- our two All-State senior runners! Eventually, he dies a couple of miles or so in. But I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, that kid's crazy! But he's really good!' He hung in there with those seniors for two miles! I thought he was going to die after a half mile but he hung in there for almost three miles!"

The seniors were not nearly as enamored with their freshman tag-along.

"The seniors are thinking this freshman is a cocky punk and they want nothing to do with him. I try to tell them that he's a 14-year-old full of testosterone and that they just need to understand that."

"I was kind of a jerk until about my freshman year," confesses Quisenberry.

The key word I believe in Quisenberry's statement here is "about."

"When little Quisenberry first got to high school, it was hit or miss whether he'd get to practice on time," said O'Connor.

"The team would be warming up and I would be searching the halls looking for Quisenberry. And I'd find him. He'd just be roaming the school halls, walking around! Not doing anything bad. Just walking around. Just kind of being his own dude."

"Was he intentionally cutting practice?" I asked.

"I don't even think he knew he was missing practice!" blurted O'Connor.

"I don't think he paid attention to when practice was! He was just out there! So freshman Dylan was interesting. He's grown up quite a bit."

Alec Haines remembers meeting Quisenberry his first day at his new school in fourth grade. Quisenberry rudely pushed him to the ground from behind while they were playing soccer at recess.

"I was trying to get the ball as it headed out of bounds," recalls Haines. "Dylan comes up from behind me and just pushes me hard to the ground -- about 20 feet out of bounds!"

A principal happened to witness Quisenberry deliver the cheap shot and suspended the raucous fourth grader on the spot.

"We pretty much hated each other until about seventh or eighth grade," recalls Haines.

"The first time I saw Dylan was the first practice my freshman year at Babler Park," recalls the tall, angular and immensely athletic Austin Hindman, the defending 3200-meter state champion.

"I am a year younger than these guys so I had never met any of them and I didn't know what to expect. I had only met OC once. I was standing there alone, waiting for practice to start and I was just looking around. It was pretty much what I expected -- a bunch of guys hanging out."

"And then here comes Dylan Quisenberry," smiled Hindman.

"He's wearing basketball shorts, a tank top, a flat-billed snapback backwards and high-top skate shoes. He comes running up and everyone is like, 'Here comes Dylan!' He rips his hat off and throws it. He takes his shirt off. He pulls his shorts down and he has on running shorts with his basketball shorts around his knees."I thought, 'Oh. My. Gosh! Of course there is this ONE kid. Every team has that ONE kid and that kid on our team was Dylan."

Courtney O'Connor is Sean's wife of almost five years. She is a former college volleyball player who has also coached. She is such a big part of her husband's team that the boys respectfully refer to her as "Coachess." She and Dylan Quisenberry have formed a special bond.

"Dylan is our surrogate child," Courtney matter-of-factly stated. "When Dylan was a freshman he was just really annoying. It took him a while to find his stride for sure."

An interesting choice of words for how Quisenberry eventually got dialed in and found his stride amongst his teammates and high school life in general.

"It took lots of talks," said O'Connor. "Lots of work. The sports side was never a problem for Dylan. He's super competitive by nature. The school side was not his strong suit to begin with."

What turned Quisenberry around?

"His teammates started to get better and that made him take things more seriously," said O'Connor. "He also started to see running as a way to pay for his college education. But just like any high school boy, you can tell them all you want but at some point they have to figure it out on their own the hard way. And you have to let them do that."

"He wrestled his freshman year and the wrestling coaches knew him coming in and they thought he was pretty good," recalls O'Connor. "They thought he had a chance to wrestle varsity his freshman year. But then he runs the twelfth fastest 5K time in the nation for a freshman and they said, 'Well, he's not that good of a wrestler.'"

"Quis is Quis," said O'Connor as he finishes up his bread bowl by tearing it apart with his hands and devouring the chunks. "He's a great kid. Super competitive -- and more in-your-face because of his wrestling background. He has the bravado and confidence, but he is also one of the nicest kids you will ever meet. And one of the most genuine kids you'll ever meet."

Alec Haines

Alec Haines came to Lafayette High School as a well-established soccer star. Despite Quisenberry trying to derail his soccer career with that cheap shot in fourth grade, Haines was thought to be headed for great things as a soccer goal scorer.

Alec was a big-time soccer player in middle school," recalls O'Connor. "Everybody said he was going to play soccer in high school."

One thing that is quickly obvious about Coach O'Connor is he doesn't exactly care what everybody else thinks.

OC talked Haines into splitting time with the cross country team while he was starring with his elite-level club soccer team. Haines is very proud of his soccer roots and how good the level of play was with his club team. He was not an easy sell for OC.

"Alec has always been good but at first he was kind of skeptical," remembers O'Connor. "He hated the two mile! I mean HATED it! He almost refused to run it his sophomore year and then his junior year he's third at state in the two mile."

Haines had a real breakthrough at state last May when he outraced Raytown's Zack Penrod down the final 100 meters to win the 1600 with a time of 4:11.58 to Penrod's 4:11.79.

"That win at state was my first win in the 1600 all season," gushed Haines.

Think how remarkable a statement that is -- and how revealing it is when considering the success of O'Connor's funnel system of training for late-season peak performances.

"Alec winning State in the 1600 was huge for him," said O'Connor. "He finished seventh in the mile as a sophomore and that showed him he could be good. It was a good validation for him for deciding to switch from soccer to cross country and track."

Haines, who goes by one of my favorite Twitter monikers, @HainesUnderwear, received further validation that his decision to move from soccer to distance running was a wise choice when he accepted a cross country and track scholarship from Oklahoma State last week.

Haines has Dancing-With-The-Stars good looks and a shock of black hair that screams shampoo commercials. He is also as pleasant and disarming a kid as you will likely meet. None of these Lafayette kids seemed at all overly impressed with themselves. It was a pleasure spending time with all of them.

"For a long time I don't think Alec realized how good he is," said OC's wife and the team's unofficial counselor, Courtney. "I think he lived in Dylan's shadow."

"Going into the State meet as a junior, I wanted to win but I hadn't won a 1600 race all season," said Haines. "That was my first win. So it was kind of tough to believe in myself but I still did and I was able to bring home the result."

"Alec is hilarious," laughs O'Connor. "He's a really funny kid. He's smart and he's got a great sense of humor. He's sarcastic and he's not real serious about a lot of stuff."

One of the stories I coaxed from the boys about Coach O'Connor had Haines' sense of humor front and center -- and documented in a photograph. It was also an incident where OC wasn't quite so happy with his senior miler's comedy.

This story begins with O'Connor's car, a 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX. This is a sporty little slate-gray rocket with a scooped hood and a hearty street rep for speed. I told OC that the WRX was always my oldest son's favorite ride of choice when playing PlayStation's Gran Turismo as a boy.

O'Connor took me for a spin in "The Rex," as his runners call his car, through Babler State Park. Babler's hills and valleys are home to one of LHS's "favorite" five-mile tempo runs. OC handled the five-speed manual transmission like a pro as he eased in and out of the tight tree-lined park roads.

"OC loves three things in life," offered Quisenberry.

"He loves his new baby, he loves his wife and he loves his car."

A silence fell over the table at Kaldi's, a local coffee/sandwich shop in The Valley where the boys took me to discuss life over coffees and sandwiches, as Quisenberry paused for effect.

"And he loves his car more than he loves his baby or his wife."

The table erupted in laughter as Quisenberry delivered this last line.

With that knowledge, we can proceed with what is known amongst the Lafayette cross country team as, "The Bumper Sticker Story."

The varsity runners made it a habit of meeting at a local restaurant called Lion's Choice located just down the road from the high school after particularly tough summer workouts to eat ice cream or drink a slushy and bench race about their just completed workout. A rack of bumper stickers caught the eye of Devin Meyrer, he of quick wit and devilish humor.

"We would read these bumper stickers while we ate our ice cream," said Meyrer. "We always joked about buying some to stick on the back of OC's car."

After weeks of merely contemplating the dastardly deed, Meyrer sees two bumper stickers that just scream The Rex to him. He got up the nerve to purchase one that read "I'm Not Speeding I'm Qualifying" and another that displayed a plus-sized female silhouette between the phrases, "I Don't Skinny Dip" and "I Chunky Dunk."

Being the brains behind this caper, Meyrer talked Haines into posing for a photo while sitting between the two bumper stickers after the boys had lovingly affixed them to the rear bumper of The Rex.

Quisenberry then posted the pic on Instagram. This is one of the reasons Quisenberry was not the brains behind this caper.

Miraculously, O'Connor doesn't notice the bumper stickers immediately or even the first day. Or the second. It was not until one of his math students showed the photo to O'Connor in class and asked him if he was aware of this pic.

"No. I was not aware of that," O'Connor is believed to have said in a calm but serious tone as the knowledge sunk in that he had been proclaiming his prowess as a Chunky Dunker to other drivers in Wildwood and the Rockwood School District over the past few days.

He did not remain all that calm when he brought the matter to the attention of Quisenberry and Haines that afternoon at practice.

"I was scared to death," Meyrer said, as he watched and listened to OC scream at Dylan and Alec. O'Connor suspended both of them and then headed toward Meyrer.

"If I find out you had anything to do with this," O'Connor threatened Meyrer. "I am going to suspend you so fast…"

I asked what Meyrer said in response to OC's ire.

"I said, 'Okay.' I never did tell him it was my idea to buy the bumper stickers."

"His wife said he spent over an hour in his driveway wiping down the back of his car," Quisenberry added. "Even after I had removed the stickers!"

Devin Meyrer

If Quisenberry is the team leader and bravado for this talented team, Devin Meyrer is the poster boy for OC's training program. Meyrer showed up his freshman year as a scrawny kid with little or no visible talent who was splitting time between soccer and cross country.

"Devin was kind of a late bloomer," O'Connor kindly stated.

"He came in as a freshman and raced with the cross country team on the weekend," remembers O'Connor. "He was a little ball of energy, like most freshmen are. The thing about Devin is that he is the most competitive kid in everything! Oh my gosh! You name it -- video games, running, throwing a tennis ball -- he is insanely competitive!

"His competitiveness is what caught my eye. I started watching some of his races as a freshman. As I watched and saw this little guy just taking off on the track and I didn't recognize him. I didn't remember any freshman running workouts that fast. You get him in a race and he is insane!"

"OC said I was the most competitive on the team?" said a shocked Devin Meyrer after I relayed his coach's comments about him. He looked almost hurt.

Meyrer made this comment while we sat with his four teammates who had joined me at a Kaldi's after a morning practice session. Meyrer was truly stunned that OC would label him the most competitive runner on the team. His teammates did not share his shock.

Meyrer looked up from staring at the pretty steamed-milk artwork in his latte to find his running brothers nodding and smiling silently. Quisenberry then listed three or four different non-running events in their high school years where Meyrer had exhibited insane competitiveness -- including something regarding throwing a ball.

"Am I really that competitive?" Meyrer said in response to their four grins. "I didn't know that I was the most competitive on the team!"

Meyrer considers how this could possibly be and he begins to understand how OC could have come to this conclusion.

"My sophomore year I always wanted OC to put me in their group even though I was about 10 seconds slower," remembers Meyrer.

How competitive is Meyrer? He has gone from a part-time 115-pound soccer player to maybe the best 5K runner on Lafayette's talent-drunk team. He battled Austin Hindman at the District meet two weeks ago and beat him to the tape by .01 seconds. At Sectionals last week Alec Haines and him broke away from the field after the one-mile mark and Meyrer bested his running mate over the final quarter mile to add the Sectional crown to his senior resume.

All it took was four years of hard work, following OC's personal training plan for greatness and a competitive heart the size of The Arch.

"Devin is the one who pushes us hard on the final reps," said Quisenberry. "During the hottest days of summer workouts I will be ready to quit or take the last few reps off but Devin is always there pushing it to the end. Being around Devin makes me better."

"Devin is probably the best at talking to the young kids about what he did to become as good as he is now," said O'Connor. "He tells them, 'I did this as a freshman and now I can do this! If you do what OC says, you'll be a lot faster. You do your own thing, it ain't going to work. You're just going to get hurt.'"

"Devin is the reason that I went out for cross country," said Tommy Laarman, the soft-spoken junior. "We go to the same church and he told me I should run. That was the first time I had even heard of cross country."

Meyrer arrived a bit later than the rest of us at Kaldi's and his role as the team jester, comedian and creative talent was immediately evident as he sat down at the table. His self-effacing humor and quit wit make him impossible not to like. The day before at practice he entertained his teammates by riding his bike in the parking lot while sitting on the cross bar instead of the seat. He looked like a Pee-wee Herman episode come to life.

"Devin is the kid that everybody loves," Quisenberry added with sincerity. "Our runs aren't as fun and exciting if Devin's not around to talk to."

"I see myself as the mediator -- goofy as much as I can be serious," said Meyrer. "The whole team balances out. We are all natural, gifted leaders, and we all keep each other in check. I'm just another guy who loves running."

Austin Hindman

Meyrer and his success are real proof that O'Connor's system can produce amazing results without an athlete being blessed with obvious physical gifts. Austin Hindman, the quiet Lafayette junior and defending 3200 meter State champion, is the opposite of Meyrer when it comes to starting with an acorn. Hindman showed up as a freshman sprouting full-grown oak-sized limbs with talent to match.

"Austin is a freak athlete," Quisenberry contributes without a bit of excitement. He stated it as if he is telling you Monday follows Sunday. No one at the coffee shop table offers a hint of disagreement -- including Hindman.

"The first time I saw Austin as a freshman I thought, 'Who is that?'" Meyrer recounts while displaying a face awash with disgust.

It was not that there was anything wrong with Hindman that concerned Meyrer -- it was that there was so much right with him!

"That person is not in high school!" Meyrer remembers thinking as he spied the tall blonde and powerfully-built Adonis. "That is an adult!"

Meyrer's comical rant continued as he entertained the table with his first impressions of Hindman.

"I saw him and I thought, 'Why are we letting a college kid on our practice team?' Then they told me, 'No, that's our new freshman.'"

This is where Meyrer's disgust really kicks in.

"I was like 5-foot-4 my freshman year and I see this towering kid standing there," Meyrer complained.

"We start out the first practice and Austin is back in the second group with me," recalls Meyrer. Dylan and Alec are up front with the other varsity guys. So I start thinking, 'Okay, maybe this kid isn't that great.'"

"Then all of a sudden he just takes off! He just runs away from me! He's gone in a second and up to the front group!"

"'I'm like, great. I suck.'"

Meyrer isn't the only athlete who Hindman has made feel inadequate. He competes in triathlons and is the reigning Pan Am national champion in the 19-and-under age group.

"I did my first triathlon when I was five," said Hindman. "My dad used to do Ironman and I just wanted to be like my dad. Going into high school I tried out every sport as most kids would. Once I got into seventh and eighth grade and started doing triathlons, I knew what I wanted to do."

Hindman is one of those rare athletes who coaches and programs are graced with every generation or so. I think he is that talented. He could do some things his final two years in high school that garner the attention of not only the elite college running programs but our Olympic team.

"Going to the Olympics is my biggest goal," Hindman reluctantly states when asked. "But I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm going to the Olympics."

"With Austin, from a training age, he's the most developed of the group," said O'Connor. "He's a fantastic athlete. He's a big puppy dog. He's insanely talented. It helped him to have those seniors around to train with."

Despite Hindman's rare talent, he definitely understands he is lucky to be one of a very talented group of high school runners.

"It's made a big difference having the guys there to push me and motivate me in workouts and everyday life and support me," said Hindman. "We are all friends and just knowing they've always got my back no matter what, that helps with my performance and everything really."

"I can't imagine there are many kids in high school who can understand what he does training as a tri-athlete," O'Connor stated with a touch of awe in his tone.

Hindman takes a number of his high school classes online to allow for more time to train for his swimming, biking and running events. Does it get boring?

"It gets pretty complicated," Hindman admits. "But there is nothing that I would prefer doing than the training. Overall, it has a very positive effect on my running because I've been swimming since I was five years old. I think it's a safer way to train for running."

Watching Hindman and Meyrer smoothly bike around the parking lot and football stadium during a morning practice, it is easy to see how much he loves to ride. He looks like a powerful human piston as he effortlessly tosses his high-performance tri-bike from the left to the right as he gains speed.

Quisenberry, who never lacks for confidence when it comes to an athletic challenge, goads Hindman into a head-to-head swimming race. The challenge was that Quisenberry only had to swim one length of the pool while Hindman had to swim down and back. Hindman trashed him.

"That might say more about Quisenberry as a swimmer than Hindman," O'Connor laughed.

One of the trademarks of the Lafayette boys' team at meets is that they all wear pajama bottoms instead of team sweats. When I asked about this I was told that the idea came from Hindman.

"I think it was something he brought with him from swimming," O'Connor guessed.

When I asked Hindman how this pajama bottom tradition began, he smiled broadly and brushed his blonde locks off his forehead with one swipe of his giant paw.

"Honestly, there was no reason for it," explained Hindman.

"One morning freshman year I woke up and I couldn't find my sweatpants to wear," he said. "And it was cold! So I decided to wear my pajamas. They were soft and comfortable and so I just showed up wearing my pajama pants. Then everybody thought it was kind of cool and they started doing it too."

The best traditions really do have the most original origins.

"O'Connor, who is not at all one to favor changing a routine for a specific race or event, even wore pajama pants to State and said he will again in Jefferson City this year.

"That's the only time I wear them," O'Connor acknowledged almost sheepishly. "I show team solidarity at State." His wife, The Coachess, rocked her PJ pants at Jeff City as well.

Tommy Laarman

The team had agreed to meet with me at Kaldi's following Friday's morning workout to have some lunch and talk about their season and unfinished goals. I stood with Quisenberry near his car as Haines and Hindman made their way over to hop in for the ride to The Valley.

I looked around the school parking lot for the team's fifth runner, junior Tommy Laarman, and he was nowhere to be found.

Quisenberry spotted Laarman as he pulled out of his parking spot. A forgotten water bottle sat atop Laarman's car's roof as he started to accelerate away from us. The water bottle fell loudly from its precarious perch and Laarman's brake lights lit up as he stopped to retrieve it.

I jogged the short distance over to Laarman as he stooped over to pick up his water bottle.

"Tommy," I huffed. "Aren't you going to come with us to Kaldi's?"

The rosy-cheeked junior looked up and sheepishly answered, "I didn't know I was invited."

"Of course you're invited!" I laughed. "Park your car and come with us. Dylan is driving and we might need you in the car to keep things lively."

That is as good of a snapshot as you will get of who Laarman is on Lafayette's unassuming but quietly talented fifth runner. His times pale when compared to his four talented teammates but so do almost every runners' stats in the state.

Laarman finished 36th in the State meet as a sophomore. That is just eleven places away from making All-State. He has dropped his 5K PR to 16:03 -- down by over a minute from last year.

Being the fifth runner on a team as talented as Lafayette's can be daunting. One national cross country website predicted great things for the Lancers if they could somehow manage to "close the gap between their fourth and fifth runner."

Laarman was able to quote that exact critique verbatim during our 15-minute drive to Kaldi's. He was not happy with the spotlight it pinned on him.

Laarman is tough on himself. A trait that can work to his advantage if he can learn to control it.

"Tommy goes down to Chile Pepper this year and runs a 16:03," recalls O'Connor. "And he is all upset because he didn't break 16:00! He just ran 16:03! I told him, 'Tommy, I don't care! You ran 16:03 when your PR before that was 16:30! Last year he couldn't break 17:00. Tommy has a history of running great at the right time. I told him, 'I'm not worried about you.'"

Laarman's teammates aren't worried about him either.

"Tommy is going to be top five in the state next year," Quisenberry stated with an air of confidence that rolls out of his mouth as easily as his golden hair moves in the breeze.

"We all really believe in Tommy," added Hindman from the backseat.

"Tommy's the most emotional of all of us," Quisenberry stated. "There is a fire in his eyes. When he brings his A-game, he wants it more than anyone else."

"He's a good kid," said O'Connor. "I feel bad for him because he's in no-man's land a lot of time in workouts -- not quite fast enough to stay with the older guys and too fast to run with the younger guys."

"He's the most sincere and polite kid I've ever met. He will say, 'Thank you,' to me after practice. I mean, I just made him run eleven miles total today and he's thanking me while he's dying. He's a real serious kid and he's worked incredibly hard."

"I never ran in middle school," Laarman explains when asked about his late start with running. "I was a little bit chubby. I love the running community. It's just so much better than baseball could ever have been."

With his teammates surrounding him at the coffee shop, Laarman addressed them and expressed how much they mean to him.

"These guys give me inspiration," Laarman said. "Dylan would always be on the track waiting for me with 150 meters to go and he always knew exactly the right thing to say to me. I will always remember that."

"He's got a lot of heart," added Hindman.

Coach OC

"I've never been the kind of coach or teacher where it's my way or the highway," explained O'Connor.

This is a refreshing and a different coaching philosophy from most high school coaches I have encountered.

"I'm not the kind of coach yelling at them to sit down and shut up. I'd rather sit there and talk to them and be social. I think if you're too authoritarian, you don't get to know them. They just start telling you what they think you want to hear and you don't get to know what's really happening. And you can't help them if you don't know what's really happening behind the scenes."

How does that philosophy work when it is time to discipline your athletes?

"I think those kids are scared of me," O'Connor said without a hint of a smile. "Which I think is really funny -- because I don't think I'm that scary."

Well, there was that bumper sticker story…

"All he does is just coach us," Quisenberry offered when asked about OC's influence. "He thinks about us and training and getting the best out of us all day long."

"The best time with OC was when we all crossed the finish line at the State cross country meet last year," smiled Meyrer. "He came up and he was hugging all of us!"

"OC doesn't show that much emotion," said Hindman. "But he did that day at State. Usually after a race it's a pat on the back. But after State…he was so happy."

What drives O'Connor to be a running nerd, create projection spreadsheets like he was an Ivy League accountant and spend almost every waking hour devising a better training method for his runners?

Playing amateur psychologist, I asked Coachess if she thought OC drives Quisenberry hard because he might see some of himself in how the senior almost squandered his talents.

"Sean sees some of himself in Dylan," answered Courtney. "Their stories are definitely parallel to each other in a lot of ways. That is why I think Sean is able to identify with Dylan."

O'Connor is rocking Rory Elizabeth, the couple's five-day-old daughter, in his arms and listening as his wife and I talk at their dining room table.

"Dylan is way faster than I was, though," he makes sure to clarify.

Do not get the idea that OC was a no-talent runner in high school who can't race. He ran the 2015 Boston Marathon in 2:49, which is a 6:29/mile pace. He is just a bit more knowledgeable now and has a better focus than he did as a youngster. This experience and perspective is something he draws inspiration from when working with kids who might be allowing their talent to slumber.

"Sean makes personal connections with all of the kids," continued Courtney. "They kind of flock to both of us because Sean builds such a great relationship with them. He loves them like they are his own."

"Dylan was a stumbling fool around girls as a freshman," offered O'Connor. "The only girl he could talk to was my wife."

Quisenberry is quick to point out that any rough patches he and O'Connor have been through have been deserved.

"It was never him being a jerk," Quisenberry explained. "Every time he said something it was well needed or deserved. He is not just a coach when we are on the course or on the track. He's what a real coach is -- and that's not only a coach but a friend on the mental and emotional stage instead of just telling us to go run. He is genuinely there for us in all aspects. That's what makes this team so special. We have a purpose behind everything we are doing, not just running."

"OC hates wasted talent," Quisenberry continued. "That's one thing he hates more than anything else on earth. He hates wasted potential. One thing he told me when I was younger, when I wasn't showing a lot of effort or sandbagging the last reps of a workout, he would say, 'You don't want to be that guy that they say, 'That guy could have really been good.'"

"I got a lot closer to OC my junior year when I had a lot of personal things that happened. He's always been there for me. He's been something of a big brother to me through most of my high school career. He's done everything he physically can for us as a coach and as a friend. He just wants the best for us. He wants us to be the best athletes we can be and he's definitely done a good job of it. He has a very, very good effect on people and putting peoples' lives on track."

Quisenberry continues his insight into the man who has brought him and his team so much success.

"My transformation from my freshman year to now was a long slow arduous process," confessed Quisenberry.

The table of five high school runners became oddly quiet as Quisenberry continued.

"I come from a slightly rough background and it rubbed off on me enough to where I wasn't on the right path. These guys were definitely a big part of the equation that got me on track and kept me on the straight and narrow."

"I try to do things differently than I did in high school," said O'Connor. "When I was a freshman I did a lot of stuff wrong. So I try to do everything I need to do to support them doing stuff right."

"I don't know if I'll ever see this again," continued O'Connor. "I never planned to have the four fastest kids ever all at the same school. We knew some of these kids were fast but we just started working with them and bringing them along. All that matters to us is that they get faster and I'm going to work as hard as I can to make sure they get faster. I want to make sure that everything makes sense and that there's a plan in place for them to improve all through high school. And then we'll just see what happens."


"The MSHSAA championship is a goal," explained Steve Berry, the Lafayette Activities Director.

I sat in Berry's office last week as he tried to put into words the magnitude of this boys' cross country team's accomplishments and potential.

"It's also a goal that just sets them up for the next one and to go as far above and beyond to those national goals. That's the theme for this time period for both our boys' and girls' cross country programs. The character of our athletes and coaches is all about leaving a legacy versus accomplishing a goal. And they're good at it."

The Lancers boys scored a ridiculously low score of 41 last year at State to set a Class 4 record. They expect to drop that record even lower in Jefferson City on Saturday.

"I would like to see them run 15-low at State," O'Connor answers when I ask him about what goals they have set for his top four at the State meet.

"I think 15:15 for the top four. The course record is 15:22 by Noah (Kauppila of Marquette). All four of them can probably go under the state record. That would be pretty impressive. I think that's a reasonable goal. I think you have to set something like that because otherwise it gets boring."

Are the fab four concerned that being overwhelming favorites this year might dull their competitive edge?

"We don't take anything for granted," Quisenberry flatly stated. "Winning State is very important to us. We take every race very seriously. We don't go into a race thinking it's going to be easy."

"We all have individual competition at State," Meyrer added. "All of us want to compete with (Kearney's) Clayton (Adams). We all want to win an individual State title. I think it's going to be interesting. Our goal every race is to establish our dominance.

Clayton Adams has run side-by-side with the Lafayette boys at both Forest Park and Chile Pepper this year. He is the only non-Lafayette runner in the top five times in Missouri. He was runner-up last year to Stephen Mugeche and he is not conceding anything to the Lancers.

"They are definitely in front of my thoughts during my training runs and workouts," Adams told me in a phone call the Tuesday before the State meet. "I am looking forward to State to run against them. I am excited for this race. After finishing second at State last year, my biggest goal for this season has been to win the State championship."

"I know four of those guys at Lafayette could all be really dangerous if they are having a good day. I look at them as a group, especially during the early portion of the race. But once we get deep into the race, I see it breaking down to just one or two guys. They are all really tough. It could be any of them or it could be all of them."

Does Adams see himself in that lead group at State headed up the final hill at Oak Hills Golf Course?

"Absolutely," Adams answered without hesitation.

"If everyone is on their A-game at State and it comes down to a kick," said Quisenberry. "I can guarantee that anyone on Lafayette can outkick anyone else in the state."

The Class 4 Boys Cross Country State Championship race goes off at 1:10 PM Saturday. I suggest you be there for this one. We may never see another like it.

Greg Hall / @greghall24 /

Note of Thanks:
I would like to extend a note of thanks to Coach Sean O'Connor, the Coachess, the Lafayette coaching staff, the school administrators, the parents and especially the student athletes who all embraced me and treated me like family during my stay in Wildwood.

A writer's story can only be as good as the subject he or she has chosen. Often times it is the subject's willingness to contribute to the story that determines its worth. I cannot say enough about how Coach O'Connor led the way for me to dive into his program's inner workings and allow me access to his runners -- and how willing those young men were to share their stories with me. I hope I made them proud with this story and did justice to their historic accomplishments.