Making Sense Of IHSA Proposed Cross Country Changes

On Wednesday morning, January 8, 2020, the IHSA Cross Country Advisory Committee met in Bloomington to discuss a number of proposed changes to the rules and other topics entering the 2020-21 school year. The significant result of this meeting was the determination to restructure the postseason qualification system, pending the approval of the Executive Board, which includes athletic directors from around the state. To clarify the changes, and discuss their meaning, we summarize the situation and give relevant context here.

The notes from the meeting referenced can be found here:

What is the current structure, and what is the proposed change?

The postseason sequence, on consecutive weekends, is Regionals, Sectionals, and State during cross country. For all three classifications, there are three regionals that qualify for each of the five sectionals, which means there are fifteen total regionals in each classification. Six teams currently qualify from regionals to sectionals, and five teams from sectionals to state. Five individuals beyond these teams advance from regionals to sectionals, and seven individuals from sectionals to state.

The changes proposed will reduce the number of sectionals at the 2A and 3A levels only from five to four. The number of teams that qualify out of each sectional will change from five to seven, and individuals from seven to ten. In 1A, the number of sectionals remains the same, but the number of teams that qualify to state will increase from five to six out of each sectional.

What is driving the change of structure?

There are two major factors at play, in the committee's eyes. The first is the level of competition at the regional level, where few teams are eliminated from the postseason competition as compared to the sectional level, and in some situations, no teams are eliminated. In 2019, nearly every regional in 3A (boys and girls) was assigned nine teams, which means two-thirds of teams in those regionals qualified for sectionals. For 2A girls this paradigm was even starker, where three regionals were assigned only seven teams, meaning just a single team was eliminated in each of those regional fields. These team numbers assume each school will field a scoring team as well, and in the case of some of the smaller regionals, every team with five runners qualified for sectionals.

Although pushing for more eliminations to occur at the regional level does not sound like a desirable outcome, utilizing a weekend of post-conference competition for a meet that hardly has consequences is currently an unpopular arrangement, so this is generally viewed as a must-address situation.

The other factor is the decreasing the unwillingness of schools to become event hosts-this has been an issue largest at the regional level, where 90 unique meets are currently hosted on that weekend (15 for each gender at each of the three levels). The cutback reduces the need for regional hosts from 60 to 48 in 2A and 3A combined, and sectional hosts from 20 to 16 (boys and girls considered separately for these numbers).

Will these proposed changes be approved?

Statewide support for these changes are certainly not unanimous, for reasons that will be listed later in this article. However, the criticism of the current Regionals situation is so pervasive that the approval of these changes appears to be inevitable. Note that the Advisory Committee, which is comprised of a number of coaches and athletic directors with strong repute in the sport, voted unanimously to propose these changes.

What effect on regionals and sectionals will these proposed changes have?

Note: When numbers are presented in the following format (75%/50%/25%/10%) this refers to statistics in 3A Boys, 2A Boys, 3A Girls, 2A Girls, respectively.

Here's where it gets a little complicated/fun, depending on how you look at the changes.

The committee took a slightly surprising approach to address the issue of Regional competition. Scaling back the number of regionals per sectional (from three to two, for instance) seemed to be the likely measure is taken, but instead the committee's proposal involved cutting the number of sectionals per classification and keeping the number of regionals per classification, and therefore cutting the number of total regionals. This means there is one full sectional's worth fewer spots to qualify for out of regionals, making the slightly larger regional fields compete for fewer spots at sectionals.

The numbers illustrate exactly how much the competitive nature of regionals (and sectionals) shift with these changes. Take the numbers from the 3A Girls level in 2019, for instance-138 teams in 3A competed for the 90 spots at sectionals, a qualification rate out of regionals of 65%. The sectional reduction means these 138 teams now will compete for 72 spots, a 52% qualification. Specifically, on average, about 11 or 12 teams will compete for six spots in each regional.

With the changes, the sectional qualification numbers change from (66%/63%/65%/67%) to (52%/50%/52%/54%). The state qualification numbers change from 28% in each sectional to now 39% in each sectional, at every level.

These changes effectively address the noncompetitive regional issue, with such a substantial drop in the number of teams qualifying at every level. Even in the smallest regionals that have non-scoring teams (<5 runners), a handful of teams will be eliminated from regional competition. Although cutting sectionals rather than regionals is a surprising strategy to address regionals, strictly according to the numbers, this arrangement appears to do the trick.

The committee could have decided to select six state qualifiers from each sectional and virtually keep the state field the same size (25 to 24) but rather decided to expand the field to 28 teams in each of the four classifications. This may indirectly address a less urgent but still present issue regarding the representation of talent at state-especially in the large-class Chicagoland sectionals, top teams in the state frequently do not qualify for state, since the sectionals are so deep. Sectionals with seven qualifiers will alleviate (slightly) this depth issue, depending on how the sectionals are assigned regionally. Which is the real crux of the issue...

What will be the fallout of executing this new arrangement?

Approving these changes will open the Pandora's Box of redrawing regional and sectional maps for the state. The task seems simple enough-find a way to sort all 134-143 teams in the state into four sectionals and divide those groups of 33-36 teams in 3 regionals of 11-12 teams. The geography of Illinois, however, makes this difficult, since Chicago is such a densely packed population center.

There are major philosophical disagreements about how to draw sectionals, as well. The IHSA has repeatedly affirmed its desire to have equitable regional representation at the cross country state meet, rather than to find the top twenty-five teams in the state and seed those at the meet. Talent is not distributed equitably throughout the state, so both masters cannot be served in the process of drawing sectionals. For example, in the 3A levels, the deepest regions tend to be northwest and western Chicago suburbs. In 2A, there is more talent distribution, but there has been a recent heavy trend of depth upstate (think: Kane, McHenry, Boone counties). If more state spots are to be reserved for more talented regions (which is a transient property as it is), this requires subtracting spots from southern and central Illinois, most likely. As mentioned previously, IHSA stands by its vision to make the state meet representative of the geographical areas of Illinois, rather than the most talented teams.

This means there are two realities the IHSA now must face as they face the task of re-drawing. The first will be the borderline unwieldy sectional sizes, where the average distance traveled for schools will increase, dramatically. Since downstate teams already have large travel distances, the schools that will experience the largest difference in travel distance are probably those on the periphery of Chicagoland.

The redrawing will affect 3A and 2A differently, because school size tends to shrink the farther the school is from Chicago. 3A will be more difficult, with the current 'geographic' sectional breakdown as the following: North/Northwest Suburbs, North city/Near western suburbs, Upstate/far western suburbs, south city/southwest suburbs, and south suburbs/downstate (largest area by far). There is no immediate apparent consolidation of these regions and will likely require the IHSA to rethink its definitions of the western suburbs. In 2A, where the current sectionals are city/very near suburbs, southside/south suburbs, central Illinois, southern Illinois, upstate Illinois, the redrawing will be a little easier, with regions in adjacent large sectionals being absorbed into each other.

The second potential issue is the potential for an even larger talent misrepresentation issue than before, because of the re-drawing problems previously stated. At the 2A level, the upstate sectional having seven qualifiers would alleviate the competitive jam-up, unless that sectional absorbs significant teams from the north suburbs and near part of the city which seems likely. However, that issue does not appear to be as potentially problematic as the 3A can of worms.

3A's sectionals is most nearly four sectionals densely packed around Chicago, and one catch-all sectional in the central part of the state. The south/central Illinois sectional is either going to have seven qualifying spots for the weakest area in the state or will include teams from southern Chicagoland that will dramatically change the geographic make-up of the sectional, the likelier outcome being the latter. This then leaves the four Chicago-area sectionals, which certainly can be consolidated, but complicated regional gymnastics will be necessary. Since there are twenty-one spots at play in these three sectionals, there a number of distribution possibilities, the two extremes being the following. If all three of these sectionals include Chicago suburb teams, there may be twenty-one spots occupied by the strong large public suburban-type teams. If anyone of these three sectionals avoids majority Chicago-area teams (that is, if for example, Lake county, upstate, and far west suburbs get their own sectional) then there may be another full sectional with a notably weaker field. This can swing either way and if the IHSA sticks to its guns regarding the geographic distribution, it seems that they will be blind to this consideration.

The biggest risk will be if, especially at the 3A level, one sectional absorbs almost all of the strongest teams in Chicago suburbs, which would be major collateral damage since it exacerbates the talent misrepresentation in the most dramatic fashion possible. This would most likely happen in a super-sectional the near western suburban schools (some of the schools in the Niles West/Lake Park sectional) and southwest suburban schools (typically those in the Marist/Hinsdale Central sectional) are lumped together because of proximate geography. Even with the 40% increase in qualifying spots, a field like this would certainly be far more than 40% deeper.

No arrangement will be easy. There is a loud opposition amongst some coaches due to the travel strain and potentiality for the issues mentioned above-but given the IHSA views regional-level competition as the main issue, and talent representation as a non-issue, this change does make sense.

If you have an hour (or three) to burn, go to the following links, which are PDF maps of the high schools in Illinois. Try assigning schools to just one of four sectionals in the state, and see if you can do so in a way that 1. Minimizes average driving distance, and 2. Keeps talent as equitable as possible between sectionals. This is an unenviable task.

Full State Map:

Chicagoland Map:

In short, what is the take-away?

The proposed postseason structure changes, which are likely to pass, will change the state series experience for many teams at the larger levels, potentially in dramatic ways. The task of drawing sectionals (and reasonable-size regionals) is now a challenge it has invited on itself by decreasing the number of sectionals rather than a number of regionals. There is potential for this to be a very positive change, especially since regionals are guaranteed to become more meaningful across the board, but what kind of travel, geographic representation, and talent representation headaches it may create remains to be seen. 


Summary of Sectional and Regional Sizes and Qualification


# of schools (2019)

Avg sectional size (2019)

Avg sectional size (proposed)

Avg regional size (2019)

Avg regional size (proposed)

% of qualifiers out of regionals (2019)

% of qualifiers out of regionals (proposed)

3A Boys








2A Boys








3A Girls








2A Girls