Commentary

Cross country teams press on with heavy hearts

Tuesday September 24, 2013 10:18 AM

Members of the DeSales High School cross country teams competed in Whetstone's Arrowhead Invitational on Sept. 18, as their schedule had dictated.

As has been the case for most of the last few seasons, senior Ian Lawson was the top runner for the boys team, placing seventh in 17 minutes, 21 seconds. Senior Kristin Faulkner led the girls team, finishing 26th in 21:43.

Lawson, Faulkner and their teammates heard longtime coach Bob Lennon encouraging and advising them throughout the 3.1-mile race, but only in their heads.

"Every single race I've ever run, he's been there," Lawson said. "I knew exactly what he'd be saying the whole race -- 'You'd better move now, or you'll be in trouble after the race,' stuff like that. He's always been there. This is different, for sure, being the first race without him."

Lennon, 64, was killed Sept. 15 in a hit-and-run crash while riding his bicycle on Miller-Paul Road in Galena. According to police reports, he was struck from behind by a car, nearly breaking his bike in two. Passers-by found him on the side of the road a short while later, but it was too late to help.

On Sept. 19, following up on a tip, the State Highway Patrol found the vehicle it believes was involved in the crash. The next day, Staff Lt. Anne Ralston, a patrol spokeswoman, said the vehicle had been impounded and investigators were interviewing a person in connection with Lennon's death but that no charges had been filed at that time.

Lennon had spent 40 of his 42 years teaching at DeSales and was in his 38th season as cross country coach.

The Stallions aren't the only runners in central Ohio who will be competing with heavy hearts for the remainder of the season. On Sept. 14, the day before Lennon was killed, longtime Canal Winchester coach John Bender died of leukemia.

Bender, 71, was in his 21st year coaching the Indians' boys and girls cross country teams and had coached the girls track and field team the past 21 seasons. He was diagnosed with leukemia early this year but continued to coach the girls track team. A combination of heart trouble and cancer largely had sidelined him from coaching the cross country teams since the end of August.

"We knew it was coming. Many of the kids got to visit him in the hospital and come to terms with what was happening," said Jeff Kline, an assistant cross country coach on Bender's staff since 2000 who will oversee the teams for the remainder of the season. "The hardest part by far was practice (Sept. 16). We talked for a few minutes about all the impacts coach Bender had on their lives. It was extremely touching. I told them to go off on their own and run wherever they wanted. It was a time to reflect, a therapeutic time."

Unlike the Indians, the Stallions did not have a chance to say goodbye to their coach.

"I was crying at the start (of the Arrowhead Invitational) because I saw the picture of him on the back of our jerseys," Faulkner said, referring to a photo of Lennon with "Desales (sic) Strong," "may perpetual light shine upon you" and "rest in peace, Mr. Lennon" printed on a sheet of paper that was attached to the Stallions' jerseys. "I was looking aside, waiting for Mr. Lennon to be there, because he always was. I thought of that and it made me run harder."

Two-and-a-half hours before the Arrowhead Invitational, the Stallions and others in the DeSales community had their catharsis. The runners, who served as pallbearers during visitation hours and took up several rows at St. Matthias Church, were among the first -- following members of Lennon's family -- to say their farewells. Several huddled in small groups, hugging and crying out their shock and grief from the nightmarish previous 72 hours.

The Stallions unanimously decided during a team meeting Sept. 16 that they would compete in the Arrowhead Invitational. The Indians opted not to compete in the Bob Reall Invitational on Sept. 21 at Lancaster because Bender's funeral was being held that day. They will resume their season Saturday, Sept. 28, at Heath's Bulldog Invitational.

Several members of the DeSales community, including principal Dan Garrick and new cross country coaches Emily Rizek and Katie Shelton, tried to guess how many students Lennon had taught and coached during his tenure with the school. A conservative estimate was 6,000.

Bender probably impacted just as many, albeit in different roles. The Canal Winchester native served as a city councilman and a school-court liaison in Franklin County for the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio and taught Sunday school, among other things.

To be certain, the district, regional and state cross country meets this fall won't be the same without Lennon and Bender patrolling the courses with stopwatches and notepads. But if the runners look hard enough, the coaches always will be in their rightful place.

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