By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

LEBANON – At 8:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, Lebanon High’s decrepit running track sat in near silence. It was 61 degrees and sunny, the oval’s northeast end shaded by large trees. Traffic on nearby Route 120 produced a soft whoosh. 

An hour later, sounds in the area were markedly different while the boys soccer team conducted its annual fitness test, a much-anticipated and dreaded event in the perpetually successful NHIAA Division II program. 

Coach Rob Johnstone, left, watches his players take off on a running segment of the annual fitness test. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

There was coughing and belching and spitting. Wheezing and gasping and moaning. Three players vomited, although nothing to the extent of 1994, when a group of Raiders attended the “second Woodstock” music festival in New York the day before the test and did not have an enjoyable experience upon their return.

During the test’s stationary portion this year, in which 28th-year coach Rob Johnstone pulls playing cards from a deck and the Raiders perform that number of pushups or abdominal crunches, one boy beat the grass in frustration when the revealed card was a 10.

“I am always scared of the test, but once you’re done, it’s a good feeling and that’s what you train for,” said senior Ben Katz, who ran three or four times a week this summer and spent time in the gym to add leg strength. 

“Then you know you’re ready for whatever Rob throws at you in preseason.”

There was absolutely no suspense about who would lead the 2021 test’s running segments. Junior Birhanu Harriman, a striker of Ethiopian descent, blew the field away as assumed, running the initial mile in 4 minutes, 52 seconds, followed by back-to-back half miles each in 2:24 and three quarter miles, the slowest of which was covered in 1:05.

Harriman’s total time was 12:42, a new program record that beat Sawyer Weale’s effort of 13:05 last year. Harriman finished nearly four minutes below the test’s cutoff for combined running time, which was no surprise to teammates who’ve become accustomed to watching him fly. His choice of running footwear however was a little off the trodden path.

Birhanu Harriman is out front to stay. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“It started at the Skip Matthews (5K) run on Father’s Day,” Cliff Harriman, Birhanu’s father, recalled Saturday while leaning on the track fence. “He said he was going to run in Crocs and we said ‘You cannot be serious’. Everyone else was wearing $300 Nike Vapor whatevers but he finished third over

For the record, they’re green Crocs and Birhanu Harriman wears them two sizes smaller than normal so they’ll stay on his feet while running. He made the discovery after jogging in his brother’s pair one day and now swears by the the popular plastic clogs known for walkabout comfort and causing fashion distress.

“I tried going back to my running shoes and I had arch pain,” said Harriman, who’s also a track standout. “Now, there’s no reason to go back.”

In all, 17 juniors and seniors finished the test. The worst time was nearly four minutes over the cut, but the other 16 were all under. Freshmen and sophomores aren’t required to take the test, which Johnstone said is merely one metric by which he assesses players.

“If you come in fit for preseason, which has three hours of soccer per day, we can just work on soccer instead of time-consuming, aerobic fitness activities,” said Johnstone, who will watch the remainder of his program’s upperclassmen take the test Monday morning. “When they buy into that, it reduces the players’ soreness and boosts their productivity.

“It’s very apparent if you haven’t trained all summer.”

Coach Rob Johnstone pulls out a face card, indicating 10 pushups or crunches. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Johnstone lightened the atmosphere during the “deck of cards” segment by announcing trivia questions and occasionally asking players to guess whether the next card would be red or black. Correct answers meant a card was skipped. 

“Kaeley Skakalski’s car is nicknamed ‘Big Jane’, ‘Big Sue’ or “Cool Karen’?” the coach demanded of one student. The answer is “Big Sue”, because the 2007 Honda Pilot is bulky and Skakalski, a recent graduate who played for Johnstone on the girls tennis team, has the middle name of Sue.

“The Celtics have drafted international players in the second round each of the last two years,” Johnstone asked the group. “Name one of the countries from which these players come.” Sophomore Bennett Hewett correctly answered Israel, home of point guard Yam Madar.

“This isn’t the perfect way to measure fitness, but I think it’s a fair expectation and a good baseline,” Katz said. “It’s competitive, trying to get a position on the team and we all go through the same, hard experience to start with. That brings us together.”

Notes: Johnstone said 46 players are signed up for boys soccer this year… Varsity players Daniel Mladek and Seth Carl missed the test while at a training camp for nordic skiing but will tackle it Monday… Goalkeeper Colbie Delisle ran his position’s requirements, which are six consecutive quarter-mile segments, and passed his target time by nine seconds… Skakalski and classmate Rachel Harrington volunteered to record player running times and relaxed trackside in camp chairs while wearing sunglasses… Tommy Wolfe, Birhanu Harriman’s regular training partner and a Lebanon junior, elected to wait until Monday’s test session to gain extra rest after running 32 miles on Saturday as part of a 100-mile relay race… Several Raiders said they had to slow their pace somewhat each time they crossed the track’s southern corners. That’s where portions of the surface are severely cracked and sand from the jump pit has leaked onto the inner lanes… The “deck of cards” results in 180 pushups and an equal amount of crunches.

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Angus Hall, left, and Griffin Auch battle for position ahead of Johnny Bieszczad. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.