Chanman's Blog

Cross Country Controversies

Posted in Coaching by Andy Chan on January 27, 2010
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There are two high school cross country controversies taking place right now. Although neither one has a direct effect on me at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), I am following both situations with interest as the final decisions will affect the integrity of the sport that I love.

In Oregon, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) State Championship Committee is considering a change in the Oregon cross country state championship meet format. In almost every championship cross country meet that I know of the top placing teams at the regional or sectional qualifying meet move on to the championship. These teams consist of seven runners. Also qualifying to compete are the top placing individuals who are not members of a qualifying team.

The OSAA is considering eliminating the team aspect of qualifying, to make qualifying for the state meet based on individual performance only. There would still be team scoring at the state championships but it wouldn’t be the team scoring that is currently associated with cross country (top five runners score, runners number six and seven can displace, fifteen is a perfect score, the lowest score wins). The new scoring system would award the most points to the first finisher, say 200 points for first place, 199 points for second place, and so on. The sum of your team’s total points would be your team score. The highest score wins. Each team will have a team score whether they have one runner in the race or seven.

The OSAA appears to have been tasked with two jobs, to save money and to strengthen the competitive level of the state championships. I am not sure how this saves money, but by having the fastest individuals and not the fastest teams qualify, the quality of the competitors is increased. It becomes the state track & field championships on trails.

I think another reason for the proposed change has to do with a pet peeve of mine – they are trying to make all sports conform to the same rules. Team sports like basketball and volleyball qualify as a team to post-season playoffs. There are no individuals in the post-season. You can be the best basketball player in the state but you don’t go to the playoffs if your team doesn’t qualify.

Then there are individual sports like wrestling, swimming, and track & field, where you qualify for state championship meets strictly based on individual performance (relays notwithstanding). You don’t send your whole team to the state meet just because your miler is the best in the state. There simply is not enough time in the day, lanes in the pool, or lanes on the track to accommodate the top athletes AND all their teammates at the wrestling, swimming, or track & field state championship meet.

There is a team component to the wrestling, swimming, and track & field state championship meets but it’s similar to the scoring system proposed for cross country. That’s precisely it. The OSAA doesn’t want cross country to be a hybrid, part team sport, part individual sport. Their proposal would make cross country an individual sport, with qualifying and scoring like wrestling, swimming, and track & field. In fact, the OSAA is considering the same changes for the sport of golf.

From my perspective this is crazy. Cross country, as those of us in the United States know it, is seven runners with five scoring, low score wins. That’s the beauty of the sport. Championships are often won and lost by a fifth runner battling in the middle of the pack. By changing the format of the state championship meet Oregon would be changing a core value of the sport – teamwork. The sport as the OSAA proposes it would no longer be all about the team. No longer would there be pack running strategy or suicide race plans. Every runner would only be concerned with how they did in the race. Depending on a teammate for team success would be a thing of the past.

A lot of “mid-packers” get to participate in the cross country state meet. Athletes who can’t even think about qualifying for the more elite track & field state meet can dream about making it to state in cross country (I was one of these people). It’s also pretty ironic that Oregon, home of Nike, the University of Oregon, and Prefontaine, a state rich in cross country tradition is the state that’s looking to buck history.

There’s been quite an outcry against this proposal. You can read lots more about the topic, become one of more than 4,400 fans of the Facebook page “Save Oregon High School Cross Country!”, or sign an online petition (they have over 2,000 signatures) “to save Oregon cross country.”

A lot has transpired since the initial news broke. Due in part to the outcry against the proposed changes, the OSAA is rumored to have had a conference call and may soon announce that the proposed format change for the Oregon state cross country championship will not happen.

Closer to home is a controversy involving the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) and senior boys running in the Junior Varsity (JV) Boys Division. Late in the 2009 cross country season, about two weeks before the SCVAL Finals, the league commissioner, citing league bylaws, stated that senior boys who were not on the varsity team would be ineligible to run at the SCVAL Finals in any other division.

The controversy surrounds whether or not the league bylaws have an exception that specifies that sport bylaws can supersede league bylaws when it comes to seniors participating in JV. There is also controversy about whether or not the current cross country bylaws include such an exception clause. Regardless of the existence or non-existence of such bylaws and exceptions, the reality is that senior boys have been running in JV races in the SCVAL for more than fifty years. The league commissioner’s declaration caused quite a stir and some parents from Mountain View actually took the league to court. In the end, seniors boys not in the varsity seven were allowed to run, but they ran as non-scoring members in the varsity race.

However the story isn’t over yet. The SCVAL board of managers is meeting to consider changing the cross country bylaws so that moving forward seniors boys and girls will not be allowed to run JV. While the initial ruling in 2009 affected only the boys, a change in bylaws would affect both girls and boys in the future.

SCVAL coaches and parents have banded together to make their pitch to the board of managers for allowing seniors not on varsity to compete in JV races. Among their arguments are: the long tradition of seniors not on varsity running JV in the SCVAL, the fact that having seniors running in JV does not cost the league additional money nor deny any non-senior of a competition opportunity, and the fact that all the other leagues in the section (including the West Catholic Athletic League, where I coach) allow non-varsity seniors to compete in JV. For that matter, their research of all the leagues in California that publish full league final results with the grade level of each runner, indicates that every league in California (other than the SCVAL) currently allows seniors to run JV. The matter is now being researched by the section commissioner and she will report back to the board of managers in April. Look for a decision from the board some time after that. If you want to keep abreast of the news on this topic join the parents’ SCVAL Cross Country Yahoo group.

Again, this may be a matter of trying to have one set of rules apply to all sports. That doesn’t always work. In sports that have rules limiting how many players can play at any one time, it is logical to exclude seniors from JV. Why have a senior taking up a roster spot on the JV when you could have a non-senior in that spot learning skills and preparing for the varsity level the next year? I’m all for that. But everyone competes in cross country. A senior running in the JV race is not taking away anyone else’s opportunity to compete or train for the future.

I, like most cross country coaches, see the value of having seniors on the JV team. Cross country is not just about being on the varsity team. There are innumerable ways (leadership and team spirit being the two major ones) that seniors contribute to a program while being members of the JV team. Some of my favorite people from SHCP, people who still keep in touch with me, were seniors who never saw a varsity race. Many spent three or four years on the team and we developed a close working relationship. These people were dedicated and committed and I counted on them to make sure the varsity worked hard at practice, to set an example for the younger runners, and to be enthusiastic at the meets.

Cross country is one of the purest and simplest sports. There are very few rules and for those that participate the rules are pretty easy to understand and follow. It’s sport in a very simple form – run from here to there as fast as you can. The same rules have applied for many years and it is a shame to see two administrative groups attempting to change the rules of our beloved sport. I’m sure they mean well and have the sport’s best intentions at heart, but I wish they would leave well enough alone.


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