Ray's Theory: A Personal View Of IHSA Cross Country Changes

Finding the sources of optimism in the approved IHSA postseason changes and yes, why it might even be good for the sport

On January 21, I wrote about the proposed changes to the regional/sectional structure that the IHSA Cross Country Advisory Committee discussed. That piece was a fairly objective summary of what the proposal was and why it existed. Nothing had been finalized at that time, so my goal was to inform and give a knee-jerk analysis of the potential implications. You can find that article here.

Out of curiosity, I created a virtual map at the 3A and 2A levels and assigned schools to four sectionals and twelve regionals to assess what exact changes we should expect. At the moment, IHSA Advisory Board members have asked us not to publish any mock maps on a large scale to reduce the external influence on assignments, but I am free to discuss topically some expected changes for specific regions. 

This past Tuesday, February 11, these changes were officially approved. The press release can be found here. Since this change occurred, the reaction to this change has been mostly negative, with some going as far as saying the changes are bad for the sport. Whatever support exists for the changes is either in a vast minority or is (most likely) just silent at the moment.

Now that these are approved, I will depart from the objective report, and attempt to fill the aforementioned void-although it seems unpopular at the moment, as an Illinois cross country alum, reporter and coach, I am very excited about the new changes and hope to argue why there is great room for optimism, and even argue why our sport will benefit largely from these changes. Such is my personality, to give benefit of the doubt to authority and its decisions, and make the best of circumstances.

The current criticism

There appear to be two main schools of criticism here, each being fair concerns. Although each critic has nuance in their view, I will summarize the collective views here as well as possible.

1. Since a sectional was cut, but sectional qualifying rules did not change, we lose an entire sectional worth of athletes who get to run at the sectional level. This is bad for our sport because far fewer athletes (141 per division, so 564 total) get to compete at sectionals, where strong performances often occur. The season is now a week shorter for these athletes.

The implicit principle applied in this concern is that "More competitions for athletes the better" and subtracting a meet is an objective net loss. There is value in allowing as many athletes compete as possible late in the season, and having 18 fewer teams in each division is too great a loss. Additionally, leaving the sectional qualification criteria untouched gives the appearance that the committee neglected to consider the effect of the changes on a regional level.

2. With only four sectionals, rather than five, achieving geographical representation at the state meet will be more difficult because traditional 'regions' of the state will be blended together, sometimes putting traditionally strong programs into regions without stronger programs.

This topic is more polarizing because not all agree with the IHSA's commitment to maintaining geographic representation at state competitions. Even with this in mind, there is a general skepticism now towards the Advisory Committee because reducing sectionals will make their own geographic task much more difficult. This will disproportionately affect certain regions of the state whose paths to state now become far more difficult.

A third view that I expected to hear more at this point was concern about the possibility of a super-sectional that would be overly loaded with powerful teams. Since this concern has not been raised, and the maps that I drew seem to suggest this will not be an issue, I will focus on addressing the other points of criticism.

Why the changes will be good for the sport?

Firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge that the Advisory Committee stated that addressing the competitiveness of regionals was their focus. There seems to be speculation regarding their intent, but in my mind, there is no reason not to take the Committee's word at face value. Furthermore, I think it is wrong to accuse the Committee of neglecting to consider the effect at the regional level-that effect was the primary purpose of the change in the first place! So, we cannot discount elements of the changes due to negligence, and must-see each effect as an intentional outcome.

Every regional in the state will be a more compelling race, and the number of regionals that eliminate no runners should fall to zero now. At worst, we may have regionals that eliminate only four teams, but that is similar to an average regional now. These races do not become barn-burners, but there should be good competition between teams that don't typically find themselves in situations to compete for qualifying spots, at either level. Regionals will shed their current 'off week' skin for many teams and adopt more of a postseason feeling, like what sectionals currently have, and give athletes a chance for their performances to be boosted by the competition a week earlier in the season when the weather potentially could be better.

My favorite outcome of this arrangement, however, is not how it affects regionals but how it affects sectionals. Previously, 18 teams would race for 5 qualifying spots. Since some regionals have been porous, a good number of those 18 teams have no real shot at those 5 spots, which is really a low number. The absolute most competitive sectionals may have 10 or 11 of those teams racing for those 5 spots, where some sectionals are so top-heavy that maybe only 7 or even 6 teams are in shouting distance of state. But now that each field of 18 will be higher quality, and these deeper fields will qualify 7 teams, sectional races make for incredibly compelling competitions. I would estimate that a typical sectional would have about 10-12 teams racing for those 7 spots, with potentially as many as 14 teams with realistic chances at grabbing one of those spots (the variance of a seventh-place finisher at a meet is much wider than the variance for a fifth-place finisher). A greater number of individual performances at a given sectional can have an effect on qualifying outcomes.

I think I would still like the proposal if only 24 total teams qualified for state, but 28 teams qualify so we do not have to square away a smaller state field, thankfully. I am confident that in most situations, those extra three spots will be occupied by strong teams from strong regions who previously would have been locked out by a deep sectional. Detweiller Park can certainly handle those extra runners, so we welcome these larger fields at state with open arms.

Directly responding to the points of criticism

With that base for optimism established, now I can respond to the two points I mentioned earlier.

1.      Since a sectional was cut, but sectional qualifying rules did not change, we lose an entire sectional worth of athletes who get to run at the sectional level. This is bad for our sport because far fewer athletes (141 per division, so 564 total) get to compete at sectionals, where strong performances often occur. The season is now a week shorter for these athletes.

This response may be the one I receive the most heat for because it justifies the exclusion of a number of high school athletes from competition. If regionals are to become more meaningful, which is a wide desire, then limiting the number of spots for teams to qualify to sectionals is necessary. Keeping the same number of teams in sectionals would be rearranging seats on the deck of the Titantic-we can shuffle regionals around all we want but they will be equally diluted with 90 teams running at sectionals. Any productive solution will involve shrinking the sectional fields.

Additionally, the tragedy of shrinking these fields is overstated. Sectionals represent postseason competition, which no number of teams is entitled to in any sport, and by its nature, must be exclusive. If sectionals represented a week where every runner on qualifying teams could run, my concern would be greater. If the state were eliminating three weeks of competition, my concern would be greater as well. But as it stands, weeks of competition is lowered from ten to nine, for just eighteen teams, and only the varsity runners of those teams (as well as individual qualifiers)-I do not see this marginal shrink as being holistically bad for our sport. In sports, athletes, coaches and teams are adaptive, and I do not think most teams who do not qualify for sectionals will feel cheated by the system. That is just how the system runs, as we have a current system that runs.

I also propose an alternative way to view the change with respect to these 141 non-qualifying runners and all other runners. As I mentioned before, there are two implicit principles that seem to be at work in the backlash.

a.       As many runners as possible should be given the opportunity to run in situations that propel them to run well.

b.       A competitive race with a special atmosphere and stakes, like sectionals, bring rise to great stories and performances.

With the new arrangement, now, we will be seeing more of these stories that typically occur at SECTIONALS now occurring at the REGIONALS level because these meets now have more of the characteristics of sectional meets that make them special for runners! Of course, these regional meets will not be the same level of the sectional meets. But for many teams, the regional meet will be much better at providing the environment for the stories and performances we love than the current regional meets. Additionally, many of the 141 runners who would qualify for sectionals in the current arrangement but would not in the new arrangement, are in old regionals so thin that they may be near shoe-ins for sectionals, but too far back in the sectional pack to consider qualifying for state-which means neither week provides a chance for true racing for a qualifying spot! So for these athletes, instead of simply just 'losing' a sectional meet, they swap a diluted regional and relatively hopeless sectional situation for a very meaningful and consequential regional race, in the spirit of competition.

I have heard a number of ideas to offset the exclusive effect of the changes, namely changing the number of sectional qualifiers from six to seven from every regional. While I think six is a fine number, seven would be as well, and I can get behind doing so to lessen the exclusive impact-regional competition should still be fair, although we would inch a little closer to some walk-in regional situations. Still, I am favorable toward this suggestion.

2.      With only four sectionals, rather than five, achieving geographical representation at the state meet will be more difficult because traditional 'regions' of the state will be blended together, sometimes putting traditionally strong programs into regions without stronger programs.

The exercise of creating sectional and regional maps is a tough one, and I learned this first hand as I experimented with potential 2A and 3A maps. Doing so, I found the concept of "Equal Geographic Representation" to be abstract and transient. What constitutes geographic representation? Does this mean an equal number of runners from each region? What determines a region, anyways? Should sectionals have different numbers of teams because some regions are more densely packed? Since many possible interpretations of 'geographic representation' exist, I found that when making the map, to be as geographically inclined as possible, this required me to be blind to the identities of the schools, make sectionals roughly the same size, and group teams together as logically and fairly as possible. A necessary result from this is often the divorce of teams in what I personally interpreted as the same 'region' which may be an arbitrary definition (for example, having some Bloomington area schools in one section with others in another section, who is to say that those schools should be considered in the same 'region' anyway?) to allow these sectionals to be somewhat equal.

All of this is to say, that in my mind, what constitutes geographical parity is subjective and will be difficult to completely agree upon. Any number of sectionals, unless we had the same number of sectionals as schools, only approaches perfect parity without achieving it. So, this is all to say, that sectional assignments will be the biggest determinant in geographical parity.

To be fair, there are a few specific regions that seem to be on a crash course to large changes, regardless of the assignments. An obvious example is St. Louis area schools, especially in 3A, whose sectional appears to be absorbing southwest suburbs like Plainfield, Oswego and Naperville. Another is the south suburban schools, whose Thornridge sectional from 2019 will be completely dissipated in 2020. Finally, the IHSA will have to make some tricky decisions about which schools will end up in the Central 2A sectional, which was hosted in Bloomington last year. I cannot deny that some of these regions will be disproportionately affected, as well as some that are difficult to foresee.

I respect all of these criticisms because they are coaches who simply want their athletes to have a fair chance. Sometimes sacrifices that are good for a collective whole affect only a small population, and these coaches are just advocated for their own athletes.

In summary

Ever since the approval of the new sectional arrangement on Tuesday, there has been mostly negative reaction. I suspect many coaches and teams welcome the changes but are not stating their support publicly, so I am here to voice my support of the changes while "steel-manning" the criticism and recognizing the drawbacks of the change. Despite the low qualities of some regionals in the present, the truth is that in Illinois, the running talent is so strong that we enjoy such a high floor of competition. There are bunches of sources for optimism present in these changes, and 2020 will be a year to bring in a new decade of cross country in our state.

We will likely have to wait until September 2020 to see how these maps look, but there are a number of mock-ups out there. I will have a video or another article pointing some things I noticed in the map-making process, but please reach out if you have other questions or points of curiosity.