Rethinking the IL State Meet: Team Scoring Makeover

Grayslake Central Boys took home the third place 3A trophy in 2024. (Jack Borchers)

We are currently in that purgatorial space in-between the IHSA track season, summer track, and summer cross country training. Naturally, this is the time of the year that coaches reflect on the state track meet and all its glory and its warts. We have an imperfect system for the perfect sport, and already a number of ideas about how to improve the state series have gained trained on social media, including adjusting the preliminary schedule and shifting all 3200 sections to Friday night before Finals Saturday. 

I decided that I wanted to throw my hat into the ring addressing a comment that I have heard a number of times from different individuals across a number of years. 

"I wish we had a TRUE team state meet." 

The premise behind this statement is simple: the points scoring system at state doesn't accurately reveal who the best 'teams' in the state are, and in the proper order. There is an implied view here which is that strong teams are the ones that field depth across many event groups and score well in an invitational-type setting. But when the state meet comes around, and only the nine best athletes get any points at all, we get a messier picture. 

Although the large-class champions for both boys and girls this year were generally well-rounded, deep programs (Edwardsville, Oak Park-River Forest, Prospect), we don't have to dig back far enough to find instances of individual prowess dominating the state meet scoring. In 2023, Champaign Centennial won a third place trophy with just five qualifiers in the meet, and only two athletes competing on Saturday. They got their money's worth on Saturday, though, with Daniel Lacy winning the sprint triple crown and Voldy Makabu winning the high jump. Lacy and Makabu wore lots of hardware (four individual championships), but does it make sense to send them home with a team trophy as well? 

I think the issue goes beyond just individuals being capable of winning trophies. At the 2024 Boys' 3A State meet, 77 teams scored at least one point. Does this 1-77 ranking mean anything of substance? How many of those teams even paid attention to their point total at all? With 45 teams scoring nine points or fewer, that's hundreds of points on the board that don't contribute anything meaningful to the state championship picture. 

The suggestion of having a 'team state meet' a separate weekend has surfaced in the past, with some traction especially after the 2014 season. But extending the season another week to created another meet to host is a massive burden for somebody, or everybody. How can we rethink the team championship without a massive change? 

What if teams were rewarded for their excellent preliminary performances in state scoring? (Jack Borchers)

The idea I had was this: how about only scoring athletes from certain teams at the state meet? The obvious follow-up question is, how would we determine WHICH teams have athletes scored, in a consistent, simple, and non-arbitrary manner? 

Enter the proposal that I have for our state:

Team Advancement to the State Championship 

1. The top two teams by point score at each sectional will advance to the State Final. 

    i. Ties for second will be broken on the basis of greater number of qualifiers to the state meet. 

2. All teams that finish third or fourth at their sectional are eligible for an at-large selection to advance to the State Final. In Classes 3A and 2A, the three at-large eligible teams who have qualified the most number of athletes and events to the state meet out of the sectional, will advance to the State Final as a team. In Class 1A, the two at-large eligible teams who have qualified the most number of athletes and events to the state meet out of the section, will advance to the State Final as a team.

    i. If there is a tie for the final at-large spot, then all teams involved in the tie will advance to the State Final.

3. Only athletes who are competing for a qualified team will be scored at the State Final. All athletes who are not members of a qualifying team will be eligible for all-state and qualification to finals, but will not be included in the team scoring. 

4. Each event will be scored 10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. If there are fewer than nine entrants in a final who are members of a scoring team, then the remaining scores will be distributed to the highest placers in the preliminaries who did not qualify to finals, until the last point value is assigned. 

As a coach and athlete with a cross country background, the general premise of this proposal is strongly resonant with how we do things in the cross country season already. Dozens of individual athletes are not scored at the cross country state final. In order to gain passage to the State Final as a Team, then it requires you to beat teams on your way there!

Cross country does contend with the 'imbalance of power' in sectionals, as does track, of course. That is why I added the at-large clause, which uses an objective and easy-to-identify criteria to advance teams. Since all teams in the same class have the same qualifying standards, the playing field for at-large bids is equal. Three at-larges in 3A and 2A make for a field size of 25 teams and one at-large in 1A makes for a field size of 30 teams. I think these field sizes, while large for an invitational, will more closely simulate a true track meet scoring atmosphere. 

What are some of the advantages of adopting this system? 

-Nothing changes about what you see with your eyes. The same individuals make it to the state meet, compete, advance to finals, and get all-state medals. 

-The only teams that will accrue points at state, and therefore get a state rank, are those who have demonstrated enough depth to succeed in an invitational setting at two different scales (sectionals and state). Point values will be higher, and the main players for the trophies will have more athletes and events who affect the outcome of the meet. 

-Your team rank at state will scale much more closely to the overall strength of your team relative to the state. 

-Preliminaries will matter even more. Just like at the state cross country meet, every place matters! Toeing the line on Thursday or Friday means you are eligible to help your team score points and place higher at state. All non-qualifiers will know their point total at the conclusion of preliminaries, and therefore a 'Live Leaderboard' at the end of day 1 will be available for teams to see where they stand entering Saturday. 

-A greater number of races (on both days) and individuals will have an impact on the team race. 

-Competition is enhanced at the sectional level. If being scored at State is a goal for your team, then you cannot afford to throw any events away--rather, there must be intentionality and strategy for a coach assessing how to balance scoring the most number of points at a sectional, as well as maximizing their athlete's abilities to qualify individually. 

-Teams will have the opportunity to celebrate a 'Team Qualification' which is not currently something that exists in our state. 

What might be some drawbacks or criticisms?

-As previously mentioned, not all sectionals are created equal. This is already an issue with all sports, including cross country and track, so it is a difficult issue to eliminate. However, the objective at-large criteria gives a route for teams with placement into difficult sectionals to the State Meet, which doesn't exist in cross country. 

-There will need to be clarification about how to handle athletes who do not contest the final or are DQ, as well as ties in field events that are not done to completion during preliminaries (high jump, pole vault). 

-There may be an advantage to delaying your sectionalto have the knowledge entering the meet of how many qualifiers might be needed to be an at-large, an advantage to a later sectional, especially Friday.

How would this have actually looked this season? 

Big thanks to Travis Shepherd from Lakes High School, who spent a lot of time re-scoring the meet to see how this would have looked at the 3A Boys and 3A Girls levels in 2024.

3A Boys | 3A Girls

Commentary on my perspective

I have a bias to acknowledge--I am a cross country coach! So I am inclined to see the state meet and series through the lens of the state meet that I grew up with, which is the fall meet at Detweiller. Does the rest of the state even see the team scoring at state as a problem? I wanted to publish this proposal so that dialogue could be made. Sprint and field coaches -- what do you think? Distance coaches, do you like this? Please engage with us on social media or via email ( if you have feedback or other ideas!

If your team has a lower rank with this theoretical format, I encourage you to consider how your team might have risen to the occasion if this was the format--and also pick apart aspects of the proposal in general, not just specific instances in a theoretical!