Cross country coaches breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when the IHSA announced its plan to move forward with their sport this fall, along with boys and girls golf, girls tennis and girls swimming, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coaches and athletic directors are now scrambling to remake schedules under the IHSA’s guidelines, knowing the big invitationals each Saturday will not happen and that the postseason series is still in doubt.
Still, the consensus seems to be that a truncated season is better than no season at all.
“Whatever we have is more than nothing,” Jacobs boys and girls cross country coach Kevin Christian said. “So I’m going to take it. After track season (not happening), I’ll take anything.”
The IHSA ended its activities because of the virus in mid-March, just before the Classes 1A and 2A Boys Basketball State Tournaments and as Classes 3A and 4A boys basketball teams prepared for their sectional championships.
Eventually, the spring sports were canceled as the risk of spreading the coronavirus halted all sports at all levels.
The IHSA moved football, girls volleyball and boys soccer to the spring, but kept cross country and three other fall sports, deemed as lower risk for spreading COVID-19, at their usual spots.
On Friday, the IHSA released further guidelines for each of the four fall sports. Regarding cross country, the IHSA is encouraging schools to host dual and triangular meets, which would be most effective at ensuring social distancing and smaller groups.
Practices can start on Monday, the first races can be on Aug. 24 and the end of the season will be on Oct. 24. It is yet to be determined if there will be a state series, but the IHSA recommended that teams keep the Oct. 24 date open for a potential state series event.
The IHSA did address the prospect of hosting larger meets, although will limit those to 50 runners per race. “If schools have scheduled large meets such as invitationals or anything larger than a triangular, then again, hosts must ensure that ALL event attendees are held to capacity guidelines in IHSA Return to Play Phase 4 as well as this document (i.e. combined total of no more than 50 student participants, coaches, officials and timers per race).”
Also, the IHSA wrote this regarding multiple races: “If multiple races will occur at a site, then those participating in the race can only be in the vicinity of the racecourse during their scheduled time specified by the meet manager. Once that time expires, participants must vacate the racecourse area.” The IHSA clarified that vacating means student participants have either left the premises or are in a location that is completely removed from the event.
It will make it difficult to host the larger meets on Saturdays, which is where runners see the best competition, but it is something.
“It was so stagnant for the past few months, training and now knowing if there were going to be any track meets,” said Marian Central senior Peter Walsdorf, a Class 2A All-State cross country runner last fall. “When there was not, you still had that motivation for the fall, but you’re not sure about it. I was excited something was happening, even though it’s going to be different.”
Rock Falls boys and girls cross country coach Mark Truesdell experienced mixed emotions about the news. The Rockets will not get to host their invitational which usually opens each year.
“At first you’re super-excited that it’s going to happen,” Truesdell said. “Then, (the IHSA) started giving you the parameters and it was like ‘Is this any better?’ I’m trying to stay positive. At least we can do it. My kids ran all summer. We keep telling them, ‘Hey, there’s a purpose to this.’ The positive is that we have a purpose. We have a season.”
‘WE HAVE TO GET CREATIVE’
In normal cross country seasons, teams often view the weekday meets as training runs and gear up for the big competition in Saturday invitationals.
Now, those smaller meets within their conference or COVID region may be all teams have.
“Having three teams and not having invites is going to be different,” Seneca boys and girls cross country coach Kim Foster said. “We have to get creative. Even though we’re running meets with three teams, we can still have medals, we can still make it fun. The kids, regardless, are going to be happy that they are running. They love big meets, but we’re happy with whatever we can do.”
Huntley boys and girls cross country coach Matt Kaplan thinks most of the competitions may move to Saturdays. The 10-team Fox Valley Conference usually has meets with three or four teams during the week, scored as duals.
“On a Saturday, maybe we can get some three-team competitions to make up for (no big invitationals),” Kaplan said. “Everybody’s going to have to put on their thinking caps. I welcome anything. Throw out some ideas and see what sticks. I’m all for it.”
The chips on runners’ bibs are activated when they cross the starting line, so staggered starts could help with physical distancing during races. It would not be the same as competing with the top runners and with teams pack running together, but it could alleviate the crowding problem at the start of races.
Another solution to include more teams could be flighted or segmented races.
“We could have three different races,” Foster said. “I don’t know. Maybe have more regionals (for the postseason). We usually have 14 teams, we could host half and (Peru) St. Bede could host half. Instead of top seven to sectional, maybe top three.”
Christian liked an idea floated out by the FVC where the dual meets determine the top three teams and those teams run for the FVC Meet championship.
The key component to making any plan work is keeping coaches and athletes from being infected with COVID-19. It will require masks and distancing on bus rides, and perhaps fewer athletes going to some meets.
Truesdell saw first-hand what the coronavirus can do in the spring. His mother (Kaye) and brother (Aaron) both were infected, Kaye spent time in the hospital recovering.
“What happens if somebody gets it at school?,” Truesdell said. “Do we close down? I was fearful. There’s definitely anxiety trying to do what’s right and not get these kids sick. We ran all summer and everybody pretty much had the same group and we got through it.”
Foster is not as worried about her athletes when they are together as when they are not.
“I know it’s hard and they like to be close to each other,” Foster said. “It’s never been more important to follow the rules. They’re not going to get (COVID-19) from cross country. They’re going to get it after school hanging out or going to Buffalo Wild Wings, even when we tell them not to.”
WILL THERE BE A POSTSEASON?
The first IHSA Boys Cross Country State Meet was held at Urbana Country Club in 1946, so that 74-year string of state events is in jeopardy.
When the IHSA initially announced it was keeping some of the fall sports, it indicated the postseason series would be dealt with on a sport-by-sport basis, which still is the case.
It might require more than 50 runners, or three teams at a time on the course, but coaches are hopeful that if the number of COVID-19 cases remains low enough, the IHSA might consider changes.
“There’s all kinds of possibilities,” Truesdell said. “Maybe run five (runners) instead of seven. Some kids wouldn’t get a chance, but you’re in desperation mode. Do you have it over a course with several days? What do you do at the finish line? There’s still a lot of questions we don’t understand. I keep telling my kids, ’Be positive.’ There’s days when I don’t feel positive.”
The season likely will be a learn-as-it-goes process.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a state meet,” Christian said. “We might see COVID region champions. Maybe have a couple regionals and have a COVID sectional champion. I’m laughing because it sounds ridiculous, but it’s more than nothing. I’m going to take it.”