Alive and Well: Assignments, Creativity, and Solutions

Evan Nosek's Kaneland group is once again at the center of IHSA sectional alignment attention.


The IHSA surprised all of us when the sectional and regional assignments were released on the website roughly 168 hours earlier than usual.

After the 'announcements' (nothing was announced, these developments were quietly posted on that Deerfield had adopted 2A sectional host duties and Jones had taken a 3A regional, there were not many questions left to answer with the new assignment drafts. As there is every year, there was apprehension about the power distribution of sectionals, as well as the inevitable blind spots that sent teams past closer regionals to foreign sites, etc. 

Yet, so much of a story had already been told with the developments mentioned above: in an imperfect system that struggles to produce geographic representation with the best teams at state, there is always a pathway to solving the logjams presented by the constraints of our geographic context. 

Upon the Deerfield sectional creation, its regional hosts were MatherDe La Salle, and Hinsdale South. The regional hosts for the Kaneland sectional were LakesBelvidere and Sterling. This created a conundrum geographically speaking, since the logical placement for Deerfield as a team was in the Lakes Regional, and sending their neighbors Lake Forest and Vernon Hills (likely in the Lakes regional) down I-94 past Deerfield, and many miles west of O'Hare seemed a problematic proposition. 

Furthermore, the well-documented power over-distribution in that part of the state on the girls' side remained. Leaving the assignments as-is meant that the same near-dozen storied cross country programs of Lake, Lee, DeKalb, and Fox counties would still be competing for the same seven coveted state spots. 

It's not often the right move is so obvious, but in this case, it was. Switching the Hinsdale South and Lakes Regionals within their sectionals would kill two loud, squawking birds with one stone. The best part of this story is after a petition was made to the state association, this change was made. It feels good to drain a half-court shot, but isn't making a lay-up just as satisfying sometimes? 

The new reality in 2A isn't perfect--far from it, as the Boys' Kaneland sectional has become even stronger as programs like Riverside-BrookfieldFenwickGlenbard South, and Hinsdale South now join the population. But this new sectional does not nearly equal the power that the old Girls' alignment held. No, the new reality is indeed imperfect, but it is also much, much better. 

There is a cynical narrative that paints hosting as an opportunity to 'manipulate' the system to receive a more favorable assignment. While this claim is non-falsifiable (sure, I'll admit Deerfield girls have a slightly clearer path to state), this view ignores the difficult geographic constraints of our weirdly distributed state and the reality that increasingly fewer institutions volunteer the enviable task of hosting (italics for facetiousness). Furthermore, the story of the 2A Northern Sectional's split is evidence that there is a better framing for the host issue, as I propose: this is a chance for coaches, and by extension teams and members of the greater Illinois cross country community at large, to make a positive impact on a status of the sport in creative ways. Make no mistake, the current sectional alignment in 2A came as a result of intentional, careful conversations had over a long period of time between caring members of these programs. Deerfield and Lakes made the state better this month. 

Certainly, the four sectional system has its warts, but we can never contrive a system with skin free of blemishes. The 'sectional of death' is not an artifact of four sectionals, since this term, and by proxy, its concept precedes the 2020 institution of this new system (I recall my own puzzlement over how many ranked teams ended up in our Niles West sectional every single year). Rather, the intense squeeze of great teams in regionals and sectionals is an artifact of the greatness of the cross country competitive scene in our state. Iron sharpens iron, a rising tide floats all boats, and weekly competition within the Fox Valley, Western Suburban Silver, Illinois Prairie, Mid-Suburban, etc. Conferences mean that great teams in close proximity will inevitably receive adjacent postseason assignments. Great, deserving teams will miss state every year. Who are we to draw the line arbitrarily between teams with a '#' and a ranking precedent their name, and those without, to determine how many squads worthy of a state appearance there are in a given sectional? 

Leave no doubt, there is a competition imbalance when sectionals like Aurora (Waubonsie Valley) are as stacked as this one is. When it comes to our attitude towards reality, I propose that we remember we are cross country runners. What does that mean? It means we see the opportunity in the challenge and don't ruminate over what is past and beyond our control. Bumps in the road give us a chance to find our place and solve some problems. We have heard a litany of amazingly creative approaches to improving the assignment system within the given constraints, many of which will never change. And that's okay. 

We don't even have time to process Grace Schager's historic run on September 10th before she hits Detweiller at Richard Spring.

The sport in our state is Alive and Well. We have a champion who has returned home to break the state meet record... and she is only one of two runners who can do it this year! Did you guys see Plainfield South's run last week? How about sub-4:00 miler Connor Burns of Missouri coming to run on our state course? Or is round two of the York and Prospect girls' face-off approaching? Can you even wait for the November matchup between these powerhouses? 

We have limited precious air time to devote. Our attention is a finite resource, and every ounce of our energy will be devoted to continuing to stoke the fire of dialogue within the coaching community, while simultaneously highlighting the sustained beauty and power of the sport in our state that no bureaucracy deserves to overshadow.

Our sport is kicking butt, and even within an imperfect system of postseason assignments, so too are the coaches and teams at work. Keep the creative problem-solving and building each other up. Forward we forge.