It’s called making the best of a bad situation.
The COVID pandemic threw all state high school governing bodies across the country into crisis mode, trying to balance the overriding concern of safety in the face of a virus that has taken over 220,000 American lives as of mid-October as well as trying to give the kids an opportunity at state competition under very trying circumstances.
The WIAA, after canceling all of spring competition, brought back the fall season in a limited form in September. It also offered schools the opportunity of taking part in a modified regular season with tournament opportunities to be determined as the pandemic peaks and flows.
Out of safety, some entire conferences and areas (The City of Madison, several of its suburbs and large areas of the Fox River Valley) decided to go with an option of an alternative “fall” schedule in the spring of 2021.
And that forced even more changes on the WIAA and its membership even as the pandemic is hitting new peaks across the country, especially in Wisconsin, where case numbers have risen dramatically in the past few weeks to highs of over 3,800 a day.
These have forced the WIAA into making some interesting and not always appealing decisions, especially in cross country
Which are fully on display this week in the sports’ vastly reimagined program, which got an interesting review as it began on Oct. 19 and 20 at WIAA cross country sub-sectionals across the state including at Rotary Park in Menomonee Falls and Tendick Park in Saukville.
Traditionally, cross country had all the teams assigned to sectional meets where the top two teams and first five individuals not on those teams advanced to the state meet (for decades at The Ridges’ Golf Course in Stevens Point).
But given the various miseries of the pandemic, the WIAA took a long time coming up with plans with how it was going to conduct the state cross country program in 2020. Details were not revealed until a few weeks ago when a carefully written (and probably overly lawyered-up) three-page list of protocols were finally issued.
On the surface were some health basics: No tents, no concessions, no awards, t-shirts and no yelling encouragement (for fear of spreading droplets).
Runners are required to keep their masks up until just moments before the start of the race.
And instead of the traditional sectional qualifying races on the D1, D2 and D3 levels, those sub-sectional races were added as an earlier layer to winnow out more teams earlier and reduce crowding at later races.
The top two teams and first five individuals not on those teams advanced to sectional competition on Saturday, Oct. 24.
There were two sub-sectionals per sectional and because of fewer teams being involved overall, there are only six sectionals in D1 (usually there are 10). That will lead to a 12-team D1 state meet as opposed to the usual 20-team event.
The sub-sectionals were run with an abundance of caution. There were eight or nine teams in all sub-sectionals and in order to maximize safety, the teams are broken up into two flights of four or five teams each and then results were determined afterward by comparing the times of the two flights.
It created some interesting race dynamics as competitors were limited in their ability to control their destiny. They could only hope they would go faster than the competitors in the other flight and if in the first flight, hope they wouldn’t get edged by a little bit by runners they did not get to compete against
There were also no awards ceremonies and teams from the first flight were required to clear the site well before the second set of races were run in order to minimize crowding.
Meet officials were as vigilant as they could be in maintaining mask protocols. I heard officials at the Tendick call out a few times to people near the finish line to put their masks up.
“We have kids here!,” one barked to a couple with masks down.
The WIAA is carrying over the “no crowding” protocol over into sectional competition on Saturday, Oct. 24 as only four teams and 10 individuals will take part in the sectional qualifying races (a maximum of 38 people per race), with the top two teams and first five individuals not on those teams advancing to state.
And even with those much smaller sectional fields (they are traditionally two to three times this size), the WIAA is spreading everyone out at the start line again just as a precaution
The state meet plans, still being formulated, are going to be even more interesting. I got word from WIAA Communications Director Todd Clark earlier this week that the plan is to run the state meet at three different sites (one division per site) and then within each state race both boys and girls, the meets will again be flighted to reduce crowding with times being compared to determine state champions.
Sites were just determined on Thursday as Hartland Arrowhead will get D1, Colby D2 and West Salem D3. Already, the choice of the Arrowhead course is drawing flack because it is flat as a pancake and not a true cross country layout. It is thought, however, that the WIAA was looking at geography in this plan too, finding a spot that is reasonably close to the most qualifiers per division.
Overall, everyone I spoke to at the two sub-sectionals was extremely appreciative of the WIAA’s efforts to create a state meet given that the COVID pandemic is on the rise again in Wisconsin (as it is in many states) and even thought the three separate sites idea for each division was a good idea too
But the idea to split each race into flights where top athletes may not get a chance to compete against one another to determine a true champion is raising hackles among some coaches and athletes.
“This is the state meet, not a track meet, not a time trial,” said one top runner who chose not to be identified. “This is cross country and we should run that way. This is not what cross country is all about.”
There are two arguments advocates of running a state meet in normal fashion are making. One is, the science of the virus so far says that it is easier to control outside, especially if masks are worn and socially distancing is observed.
At all the WIAA qualifying races, masks are required until just a few moments before the state of the race and then runners are asked to put them back up as soon as practical after they are done.
The second argument goes, is that cross country is naturally a sport of social distancing.
“We’re trying to run away from one another, not to each other,” lamented one veteran coach at the Falls sub-sectional.
Compounding that notion further, is the fact that many four, six, eight and 10 team meets have been run this fall. I was at the eight-team North Shore Conference meet on Oct. 10 at Tendick. Almost all the aforementioned safety protocols were in check. Runners largely wore their masks until just before the start.
But all eight boys teams and all eight girls teams ran at the same time and were encouraged to scatter once they got into the finish chute. I made sure to keep my mask up and keep a safe distance when interviewing runners’ and coaches.
Almost everyone on site had a mask on and runners had masks up when not competing.
The junior varsity runners competed much later in the day, again to minimize crowding. Several other conferences too ran fully competitive championship races. Some even scheduled the JV races for another day to minimize the risk.
Even with all these precautions, no one really knows if these events have been “super-spreaders” or not. Some coaches I spoke to at the sub-sectionals said that they had to deal with quarantine issues in this limited season and one even noted that it left him a man short for sub-sectionals.
Everybody I spoke too and especially because they are dealing with children, is for safety, though there was a bit of chaffing at the WIAA protocols.
It was not a perfect system, they said, but it was light years better than having no state competition at all.
The WIAA successfully ran girls golf and state individual tennis tournament state championships earlier this fall (again with a reduced number of participants), but those are sports where it is somewhat easy to naturally socially distance.
No state champions will be crowned in football because of the delayed start to the season and just two rounds of playoffs will be run (usually there are five) because the lateness of the date and conflicts with the still being formulated winter campaign.
And already some Madison area schools and conferences have pulled out of winter competition as a precaution as medical officials say as people head inside because of the colder weather, it will be harder to control COVID, even if a vaccine is developed.
So right now, cross country is the guinea pig, with a hybrid, highly-modified “championship” series. No one is happy with it and hopefully it will not have to be repeated next fall (or even for the modified “fall” program athletes competing in the spring of 2021).
But it is something and as one coach told me, given the uncertainty of how bad the pandemic will get and whether or not governmental agencies will stop the infighting and do what is right by people and get this tragedy under control (more masks and more social distancing please), it is better than nothing.
“They’re (the WIAA) saying ‘We’re providing you with (state) competition,'” said one coach at the Falls meet. “‘We could have canceled the whole thing but this is what we came up with.”
So, he and the others interested in providing the kids some level of competition are accepting this plan, warts and all.
I, for one, for all my concerns about safety during this pandemic, don’t like the plan either, but after covering 37 years worth of cross country and having grown to really love the sport, I will accept it too.
Two comments I solicited at the Tendick sub-sectional may have summed up everyone’s feelings this way:
“We’re so lucky to be having a season,” one said. “So many others are not.”
“(And) We’re just thrilled to be here,” added the other.
Good luck everyone!