On September 23rd, cross country athletes, coaches and fans finally received good news in a year where good news has run thin: the IHSA Board of Directors voted to expand the postseason in golf and cross country, moving from the regionals-only format to one including sectionals as well. This means the current season is scheduled to end officially on Halloween, rather than October 24th, still the date of regionals.
You can find the press release here: https://www.ihsa.org/News-Media/Announcements/ihsa-board-expands-golf-cross-country-state-series-to-include-culminating-sectional-tournaments
As mentioned above, this is a light of hope that is much needed for the cross country community in Illinois. Without the promise of a state meet, the opportunities for the finest talent in the state to compete against each other seemed sparse. Shazam's championship meet has provided some of that hope to this point, and the IHSA is doing its part to let the kids run. The re-institution of sectionals actually creates more questions than answers, but for once these are questions that we are glad to ask and try to answer. In general, what does this decision now mean? Let's break it down.
Why, and how, was this decision made?
As the season began, the rule preventing teams from competing outside their COVID region made sectional and state competition impossible. Regional competition could still theoretically occur, but would have to be heavily modified since many regions expand beyond COVID region boundaries. There is sound logic behind this rule, but in practice, it has felt like an arbitrary constraint especially with the allowance of intra-conference competition. Many conferences expand beyond COVID region boundaries, and we have even seen teams who are in neither the same region nor conference compete because they share a mutual opponent as meet host.
In the press release from Wednesday, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson says this about the region rule: "We have been granted exemptions to compete outside the COVID Regions in instances, for example, where assigning schools on or near a region border creates a better balance in the number of participants at aside." This is a huge development because this change alone likely permits sectionals in their normal form to happen. The breadth of the 'exemptions' appears unclear at this moment, and will likely be left to the judgment of IHSA. This likely means that IHSA will focus on the traditional constraints of geographic representation primarily, and balanced competition secondarily.
What do we currently know?
We don't know a lot yet, but we do know that sectionals will happen on the same weekend as usual-October 31st this year (the meets may also start as early as Thursday, October 29th). We also know that cross country will be qualifying five teams from each regional to the sectional level, and will likely still have five individuals also qualifying from regionals to sectionals. But, we do not yet know hosts, assignments, or even the number of sectionals at each level.
Not all schools will choose to participate since there is a financial commitment to participating in postseason competition. There will also be no statute requiring a certain number of competitions run for a team during the year to enter postseason play.
What obstacles still exist to overcome in making sectionals happen? And what decisions still have to be made?
The typical hurdle for IHSA to jump in making the cross country postseason happen is finding a number of willing and able schools to host postseason meets. This is usually most difficult at the regional level but is still a problem with sectionals too, especially when trying to find good geographic locations for the teams in an assigned sectional. The pandemic environment likely limits the number of available hosts and makes the host selection more complicated. We will probably hear who the hosts are soon, but there is still another very complicated step that needs to happen... assignment.
As you may remember, last winter the IHSA voted to move from a 5 sectional to a 4 sectional alignment in 2A and 3A. Qualifying standards also changed for the state meet. Given the new constraining challenges, it is unclear whether IHSA has selected the new or old sectional alignment but there is no indication they are reverting, so the prevailing assumption is that there will be 4 total sectionals in 2A and 3A, and 5 sectionals in 1A. This means that there would be 12 regionals in 3A and 2A, with 15 in 1A, and 15 teams at every sectional meet.
There is interesting wording in the press release regarding assignments: "IHSA staff attempted to maintain COVID regions and keep participant levels as low as possible when making assignments, but in some cases, generally those involving schools on or near a COVID border, schools were assigned to a tournament outside their COVID region." The verbiage suggests the number of exceptions was low, but check the math-there are 11 COVID regions, and only 4 sectionals in the higher levels. That means on average about 3 regions are represented in a sectional, in some cases less but potentially more in other cases. This also suggests that assignments are already made so we may be receiving word on assignments when the hosts are revealed.
Finally, the actual structure of the meets themselves is not determined. The decision to have five qualifying teams from each region is puzzling because this reduces the fields only slightly by one team from each regional yet does not make the meet small enough to be run in a manner different from an 18-team meet.
Fifteen teams with fifteen additional individuals mean there are a total of 120 runners per sectional. Three waves of 40 runners may be one option for running these meets (one must hope that the weather this year is not like last year's sectional weekend, where grounds were sloppy and not the same from race to race). Perhaps sectional meets will be very long affairs this year. There will probably be a standard meet format determined by IHSA but this may be left to host discretion as well.
What happens next, after sectionals?
There is a great deal of speculation that IHSA will reinstate the State meet. There are still many hurdles left between the present that that final step, not the least of which are the political implications of having cross country have a state meet and other sports not. Golf state is scheduled to occur two weeks prior to the cross country state. If Golf has no state meet, it is farfetched that IHSA will have one for cross country. There is also the financial strain of hosting a state meet that is modified for the pandemic, as well as the necessary step of ignoring the COVID region boundaries altogether. Regardless of what happens, Shazam will still be hosting the Shazam Champs, so teams will have this early November chance to compete. We will have many areas of hope to focus on during this season.