On the heels of his team's 3rd place finish at the Section 6AA cross country meet on Wednesday, Down the Backstretch asked #3-ranked Edina's head coach Jamie Kirkpatrick to talk about his team's section race and to share his thoughts on the State Meet qualifying system.
Kirkpatick's Hornets have finished 3rd in Section 6AA four times in the last six years, but have never found themselves ranked worse than #7 in the state in the end-of-the-season polls during that span. Edina earned a trip to State from 6AA in 2004 and finished 4th there.
Kirkpatrick (pictured) offers his take on his team's race, the reality of life in 6AA, and his ideas about what, if anything, should be changed in the MSHSL qualifying procedures.
DtB: How did you and your team approach the Section 6AA meet, knowing the top three teams in the state were racing for two berths at State?
Kirkpatrick: We generally prepare for all meets in the same way – we don’t want to start changing things all of a sudden at the end of the season. That being said, we probably “backed off” a bit more than we would have otherwise since we knew it was do or die. Maybe we backed off too much, who knows?
DtB: Was the 6AA meet something that loomed over the team all season?
Kirkpatrick: I don’t think so. We took the season one meet at a time, but it is obviously hard to ignore the fact that the top three teams in the state are in the same section. The kids are always pretty confident in their ability to do things, I think the coaches were more worried than anything.
DtB: When could you see that finishing first or second wasn't going to happen for your team?
Kirkpatrick: I knew we were in a bit of trouble about 2K into the race. One of the guys we needed to have a big day was a bit off the main pack and not looking very good. Then, at about 3k, I knew we were all but done. Our 5th guy was going the wrong direction and the Wayzata and Eden Prairie kids were moving very well. If you have watched those two teams race much, you know that it’s pretty rare for them to fall apart in the later stages of a race.
DtB: What was your immediate reaction to ending up third?
Kirkpatrick: I guess I was pretty upset, but it wasn’t so much about being third. I don’t think we performed very well. Wayzata and Eden Prairie ran so well that I’m not sure we would have been able to beat them on our best day. I am pretty confident that the two best teams qualified out of our section, but I felt like we got out there and stunk up the place and made it a bit easy on them. Obviously we didn’t have the kids prepared well enough and they didn’t step up enough to make a run at it.
DtB: How did your team take the result?
Kirkpatrick: Some took it harder than others, but as you would imagine, they were all pretty disappointed. At the same time, they are kids and they are resilient. They got their cool down in and it didn’t take them long to start looking forward to the NXN Regional and Track season.
DtB: A number of people -- myself included -- see your situation this year as further evidence that the MSHSL cross country qualifying system is seriously flawed. How do you feel about the system?
Kirkpatrick: That’s an interesting question, because it probably seems like I would be a huge detractor of our current system considering we have been 3rd in Section 6AA in four out of the last six seasons. But I see it as a blessing and a curse. There is no doubt in my mind that our teams have been better as a result of having the tough State qualifying situation. We have had to work harder to be competitive, and it is pretty clear that we have even more work to do! I would be surprised if Bill [Miles of Wayzata] or Jeff [Lindlief of Eden Prairie] said that their teams weren’t better because of it as well.
At the same time, I would be lying if I said that it isn’t horribly frustrating. But the fact of the matter is that we have the same qualifying structure as every other sport in Minnesota – one that is geographically based. No other sport has provisions to get top teams to the State Championships if they are cursed with a tough Section.
Where I see it as being more problematic in our sport, versus say Basketball, is that we don’t have a team-versus-team, one game elimination tournament. There is less notion of the “on any given day,” something good could happen for our team. If you are the 4th best Cross Country team in 6AA (read Minneapolis South this fall), you aren’t just playing against Edina or Eden Prairie or Wayzata, you are playing against all three at the same time. Not to mention the solid teams who are nipping at your heels. The chances of an upset in that type of scenario aren’t good.
It has been tough being the odd team out quite a bit recently, but in my mind it would be even harder to show up at a Section Meet year after year with no chance of qualifying. There are programs that field very good teams year after year and are never in the hunt in 6AA, but would have qualified for the State meet many of those years in other Sections. I can’t imagine that is good for those kids or the programs. While they might not admit it, or might not want to hear it, there are teams in our section that will never make it to a State Meet in our current system no matter what they do – even if they manage to put together a top-10 type team.
All that being said, the system is what it is and it probably won’t change anytime soon. The way I look at it is that it certainly hasn’t slowed Eden Prairie down very much, they have been to the State Meet seven straight years on the boys side. Many of those years they weren’t favored to do so, but they figured out a way to get the job done. We have figured out how to get third – so we can complain about the system or we can work harder, coach better and run faster. But that doesn’t help the teams that are a bit further down the “list” than we are.
DtB: What changes to the system would you make?
Kirkpatrick: I would love to see a regional qualifying plus at large system like is used in the NCAA, but I don’t think that is very realistic. I think the best shot at making things a little more palatable is to move to a “super regional” system where there are four regions with four (or more) qualifiers. I will say that there are a lot of coaches that don’t want the system changed for a variety of reasons. This will make any change a tough sell to the MSHSL as the first question they will ask is “do you have support of your coaches’ association?"
DtB: Next year, it's likely your team will again be in the thick of the 6AA fray. Are you eager for another 6AA battle or anxious about it?
Kirkpatrick: I think you are right, we have a lot of talented young kids in our program and we should be right there again next fall. The same can be said about Wayzata and Eden Prairie – and it would be silly to dismiss teams like Minneapolis South and Minnetonka who have put together very good squads the last several years. With regard to whether I am eager about that race or anxious about it, it’s probably a bit of both. It is easy to be excited about getting on to next year when your season ended somewhat abruptly, but by the time next October rolls around, there is no question I will be a bit uneasy about the meet.
It is unlikely that things are going to get better in 6AA anytime soon – although there is always hope in years of section realignment, which will happen for 2009. Bill Miles and I were talking before the race on Wednesday about how everyone (currently in 6AA) would be happy if Wayzata went to Section 5 and Eden Prairie went to Section 2. But that isn’t going to happen, so we will just have to get to work.
DtB: How difficult will it be to see the team trophies awarded at State this year -- especially, perhaps, the third-place trophy?
Kirkpatrick: To be honest, it is much tougher to see the other section results rolling in. There are a lot of teams headed to Saint Olaf next weekend that we raced and beat pretty handily throughout the season. The State Meet is a special experience, and it goes beyond getting on the awards stand for the top three teams. I wish our kids had that opportunity this fall, but it will have to wait.
Photo by Kraig Lungstrom