Coach Kris Roof couldn't be prouder. Of his slowest runners.
Between boys and girls cross-country and boys track and field — at freshman, sophomore and varsity levels — Roof, a special education teacher, trains more than 300 student athletes. Only a handful fall into the "elite" category; the vast majority are just participating for fun.
"A lot of outsiders, or even new assistant coaches, will say, 'Why is that kid running?'" Roof said. "The whole goal is self-improvement. Incrementally, the slowest kids get faster.
In cross-country, only the team's top seven runners qualify to compete in the post-season — and those are the athletes Roof more often than not entrusts to his assistant coaches.
"The way I've chosen to do cross-country, I spend my time with the new, the young, the JV runners," he said. "I believe you need to foster new runners before they're able to reach higher levels. I want to foster that environment where they want to be part of the team."
Few of his charges have prior cross-country experience. Many don't come out for the team until their sophomore or junior year.
"It's a demanding school," Roof said of Lane Tech's college prep curriculum. "Parents want their kids to focus on academics."
Because of Lane's selective enrollment status, Roof, who's held the title of head coach since 2003, is unable to recruit promising eighth-graders. Instead, he scouts talent inside the building.
He discovered Jon Jackson in history class and encouraged the teen to try out for track, based on little more than the fact that Jackson looked the part.
His instincts proved spot on: In 2010, Jackson became a state champ in the 300-meter hurdles and now competes for Indiana State.
"Jon never did competitive running" before high school, Roof said. "But he had those Lane Tech qualities. He wanted to be a student of the sport."
Roof knew he had turned a corner in developing his athletes when he could no longer hang with his best runners.
"I'm not fast enough to run with the varsity boys," he said. When that moment happened, he told his assistant, "Now we're a program. The kids are so competitive, they just push each other."
Success seems to have translated into increased interest in the sports among students. This year, 16 freshmen boys came out for cross-country, the largest group Roof's ever fielded.
"They're already what I call 'running dorks,'" he said. "They're tightly knit, they're going to be good."
As successful as his athletes have been — Roof estimates his teams have collected more than 20 city championships during his tenure — racking up victories isn't his primary goal.
"I'm in coaching to build relationships with the kids," he said. "I'm not such an X's and O's guy. It's more about being involved with the runners. I take it personally if a kid quits. What did we do wrong?"
Roof models his style after his uncle, a high school football coach in his home state of Washington, and his own high school track coach, who Roof describes as "half motherly, half serious coach."
"I admired the rapport she had with athletes."
In college, Roof competed in cross country and track for DePaul in 1995-97, hanging up his spikes his junior year to become a manager for the university's athletics facilities. While earning a master's degree, also at DePaul, he worked as a graduate assistant for athletics facilities.
"I just like being around the sporting culture," he said.
He found a home at Lane Tech, which has a strong athletic tradition as the "school of champions," a fact he was reminded of recently.
It's been 50 years since Lane took first place at the state cross-country meet — the only CPS school besides Jones College Prep in 2012 to win a state title. Roof had the opportunity to meet and compare notes with Len Jareczek, coach of the '63 team, who has since died.
"The coaching was much more intense," Roof said of his predecessor. "There was less recovery. It was hard day after hard day. The mileage was significantly higher."
Where Roof's top runners might max out at 45 miles a week, members of Jareczek's dominant squad — a pair of runners finished second and third at state — were putting in 90-100 per week.
"My philosophy is, I want them to get to college. I train them so they can be the best they can be without killing them," said Roof. "Then let their college coaches pound them."
With the '63 team's milestone anniversary approaching, Roof went hunting for the team's championship trophy.
"I heard rumors that it broke years and years ago," he said. "I went down into the basement." It wasn't there. "It was either misplaced or tossed."
Primo Rodriguez, a member of the '63 team (he came in eighth place at state), called the Illinois High School Association and reported the trophy as missing. They, in turn, pointed Rodriguez toward the association's current trophy vendor, and the alum personally bought a replica.
"We'll invite Primo to come back" and have a little ceremony, Roof said.
But at the moment, there's little time for Roof to reflect on whether one of his own cross-country teams will add to the school's collection of championship hardware.
The busy coach — who has a wife and 8-month-old baby at home — is already prepping for track-and-field season in the spring.
He's holding an informal meeting this week for students interested in joining the team — there are no try-outs, no cuts.
"I don't know who will show up," Roof said. "I'm sure there will be a couple of diamonds in the rough."