Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the Road: Lundstrom on State Qualifying

In his column this month, Chris Lundstrom, who refers to himself as "old school" on the matter, weighs in on the debate over State Meet qualifying.

Section 6AA Blues

As a current high school coach (St. Paul Como Park) and former runner (Northfield) in the Minnesota State High School League system, I'm interested in the discussion and controversy revolving around the process of state meet qualification.

To review…the #3 ranked Edina boys team did not make it to the State Meet this year, as they happened to be in the same section (6AA) as the #1 and #2 teams, Wayzata and Eden Prairie. This unfortunate occurrence brought some new fire to the idea of changing the process of state qualification.

First off, I give Coach Jamie Kirkpatrick a huge amount of credit for both building the Edina program over the years and also for the temperate, well-thought-out comments published on this site. Few coaches I know (myself included!) would remain so philosophical in what is obviously a frustrating situation. Jamie nailed it on the head when he said it’s a blessing and a curse. Kids, and athletes in general, rise to the level of their competition.

Section 6AA was clearly the toughest section in the state this year on the boys’ side. I don’t know anyone who would argue that. Many 6AA coaches, parents and athletes believe that they are always the toughest section. In looking over the last fifteen years of results, I think that is arguable. The reality is that competitive level varies from year to year in each section. Some sections tend to be stronger than others, but none hold a monopoly on state meet success.

Looking back through the top boys teams in the state over the last ten to fifteen years, you see Willmar (2AA) , Marshall (2AA), Hopkins (6AA), Stillwater (4AA), Wayzata (6AA) and a few other teams popping up again and again. These teams – and others – have all had periods of being consistently at or near the top. You can look through girls AA results or Class A results and pull out the top teams from those divisions as well. You can look deeper into the past and see some real dynasties – Minneapolis South and Minneapolis Southwest, for example.

Ultimately, the only consistent trend is that teams rise and fall. They dominate for a time, and then are replaced by others at the top. What makes them great, and what makes them fade? Passionate and high quality coaching, beneficial trends in demographics, the inspiration of a small group of exceptional athletes – it’s probably a unique set of circumstances in each instance.

So while I can certainly see how it would seem like being a boy’s team in section 6AA appears to be an impossible obstacle to overcome, I think history teaches us that that is simply untrue.

That said, it undeniably stinks to be ranked #3 and not toe the line at state. So it is certainly worth taking a look at the options ...

The Pluses and Minuses of an At-Large System

In his interview, Jamie Kirkpatrick touched on the fact that MSHSL simply will not approve any type of at-large system for entry into the state meet. Cross country is considered a team sport, and entry into the state tournament must determined by head-to-head competition for all sports under the umbrella of the MSHSL.

Setting aside the snowball’s chance odds of ever getting an at-large system for team qualification approved, I’d nonetheless like to take a look at the benefits and the drawbacks to such a system.

The proposal that DtB's Charlie Mahler put forward last year on this site involved adjusting bids per section based on the prior year’s results at the state meet. Section champions would qualify automatically, and the next eight slots would be allotted to sections based on previous state meet results. This system would be similar to the NCAA.

This proposal ignores one key thing: the MSHSL practice of doing sectional realignments every two years. Every other year, teams change sections. Under this system, half of the time state meet slots would be awarded to teams who may not have even been in the section the previous year. While some schools have been in the same section for as long anyone can remember, others – Como Park, for example – are accustomed to switching sections.

It might seem unfair to kids to have their chances of going to state determined by the section they happen to be in. I can guarantee that it would seem much more unfair to have their opportunity for qualification determined by how a bunch of kids (many of whom have since graduated) from another team (which may or may not still be in your section) ran on one day almost a year ago. Most people will take head-to-head competition over that any day.

Another idea I have heard thrown around is having coaches bid-in a certain number of teams after sections, based on results throughout the season. Another idea is utilizing results from early in the season to determine those at-large bids. For example, you could take the four teams who beat the most state qualifying teams but did not qualify out of their section.

Under either of those systems, Edina would certainly have gotten into the state meet this year. However, these ideas have drawbacks as well. Getting to the state meet could become political if coaches vote. Basing state entries on results from earlier in the season puts undue pressure on coaches and athletes to race fast early in the season, when the focus should be on training. The state meet could become secondary to the race to gain entry into the state meet; performances at the end of the season, and the long-term development of athletes, could be compromised.

Plus, I think it’s important to step back and look at the point of the whole thing. On the one hand, part of the state meet is about having the best teams and the best runners at the line at the same time. But that is not the only – or even the primary – purpose of the meet. If it was, there would never be a two-class system. We would get to see the best of the best, and forget about handicapping based on enrollment or any other factors.

So what else is the state meet about? I believe it is about giving athletes something to strive for, something to push them to elevate themselves to a higher level than they would otherwise have achieved. As evidenced by Jamie Kirkpatrick’s comments, that can occur whether the team makes it to state or not. I think that it is about providing exceptional teams and individuals a fair and clear opportunity for qualifying. Under that criteria, I believe that Edina had a fair shake this year. They knew all year the teams they would face and have to beat in order to go to state.

Northfield High School, Circa the Early 1990’s

As a one-time member of a 3rd place sectional team back in my days at Northfield High School, I can certainly understand the disappointment of this year’s Edina boys. My senior year, we failed to qualify for state despite placing 5th in state the previous year and returning most of our top runners. Unlike the Edina boys of this year, we were extremely close to qualifying – a few points from 2nd and a couple more points from 1st in the sectional meet – this despite taking the first two spots individually. It was hard, especially after the magic of the previous season.

My junior year, we had a pretty strong top three entering the season, but our team had never made it to state before. We needed something special to happen for us to get there, and it did.

Our fourth and fifth runners – who only emerged later in the season – were seniors who were out for the team for the first time. We pushed each other hard as a group, each runner just a step behind the others, always there to challenge and motivate the next guy on the team.

We ran out of our heads at the section meet – 15:33, 15:44, 16:05, and a couple 16:40 somethings – for a team time under 81 minutes. By the way, that’s faster than any boys teams including national powerhouse Wayzata ran at their section meet this year. Then it was on to state and a fifth place finish for the first ever Northfield boys cross country team to make it there. We didn’t run as well, but we were pleased nonetheless.

What Makes 6AA Great?

Let’s be real. Many of the schools in 6AA are situated in a geographical area encompassing a corridor of wealth that runs through the western suburbs. I’m going to go out on a limb and posit that they have some very real advantages over an average school in Minnesota: resources, parental and community involvement, extensive and well-funded youth sports programs, and high enrollment which allows for sheer numbers unimaginable at other schools.

Add to that the socio-economic reality that most of these kids aren’t working to help support the family, and I doubt that many are required to be home to prepare dinner for their family and care for their younger siblings before they even think about doing their homework.

Lack of other commitments is a luxury, and it creates a situation where the athletes are able to focus on their own development. They can train year-round, and they often begin to do so in their early teens. By the time they are seniors, they have logged thousands and thousands of miles. Those miles are the currency of cross country performance; they are cashed in every fall for fast times.

Lessons on the Course

As a coach at a smaller AA school in a lower socio-economic area, in a school district that doesn’t even have junior high cross country, I may at times envy the position of my suburban neighbors. However, I’m not about to quit trying, and I’m not about to cede the meet before the season even begins. I have coached state qualifiers in cross country, Nordic skiing, and track at Como Park – even a state champion in track. No, we haven’t come anywhere close to a team qualifier, but I see that as just a few more steps away. White Bear Lake, Roseville, and Stillwater probably aren't going to get any worse. We're going to have to get a lot better.

Yes, the advantages of the suburban behemoths are very real, but I question the notion that there is an unshakable order in any section or in the state. The beauty of cross country is in the accessibility of the sport. Look at the history of state meet finishes, and you will see excellence from every corner of the state.

A little trivia – if you add team place from the 2006 and 2007 state meet for boys AA, which teams would have the lowest scores?

Rosemount (3AA), 4
Brainerd (8AA), 7
Willmar (2AA), 7
Eden Prairie (6AA), 11

Rosemount and Brainerd did not qualify this year. Ultimately, it takes a little bit of luck and a little bit of magic. It’s about putting it all on the line, and staring up through the haze at the end of the race to see what the clock says, and what the scores add up to. The clock treats us all the same, and the places are set in stone when the race finishes. That is the beauty of the sport.

12 comments:

brentnet said...

Here's what I tried to write last night. Let's see if I can post it today. For the record, this comment is on the previous post, but seems to be somewhat similar to what is said here.

I commented on this and I'm still not a fan.

I don't have last year's polls, but polls are pretty meaningless. Polls are "impressions" and "hunches" but they have no bearing on actuality. Cross country is so different than track. In track, you can rank the top 10 milers based on mile time knowing that they are going to be pretty consistent.

I have looked at last years team polls on the Class A side. Here's the actual finish place at state versus where they were polled.

1) Perham (1)
2) Adrian (6)
3) Pequot Lakes (unranked)
4) Pine City (9)
5) Long Prairie (3)
6) Mora (unranked)
7) Saint James (7)
8) Esko (11)
9) Minnehaha (5)
10) Staples-Motley (10)
11) Lake City (8)
12) Holy Family (2)
13) Byron (4)
14) Albany (unranked)
15) Redwood Valley (unranked)
16) Fairmont (12)

Here's what the girls side looks like:

1) Adrian (1)
2) Holy Family (4)
3) Perham (2)
4) Staples (3)
5) Mora (10)
6) Esko (12)
7) Luverne (11)
8) Fairmont (5)
9) St. Cloud Cathedral (8)
10) Rochester Lourdes (6)
11) St Paul Acad & Summit (unranked)
12)
Paynesville (unranked)
13) Blue Earth (9)
14) LacQuiParleValley (unranked)
15) LaCrescent (7)
16) Crosby-Ironton (unranked)

It's a small sample size, but it shows you how rankings don't really reflect the actuality of the sport. Some teams are actually better and some teams are worse than they are collectively perceived. Even time is irrelevant. A 17:00 on one course can be a 16:10 on another course with the right weather/right competition/etc and it can be close to 18:00 on a different course/wrong weather/worse competition.

I believe the system they have now is solid. It leaves some good teams home, but everyone knows the deal. Finish top 2 in your section and you move on. Finish 3rd and you don't go to state. I can't imagine anything lamer than going to a section meet, finishing second or third and then saying "...well, we'll go home and see how other teams do." A clearly s

8A - Perham champ
3A - Adrian 2nd
7A - Pequot 3rd
5A - Pine City 4th
6A - LPGE 5th
5A - Mora 6th
2A - Saint James 7th
7A - Esko 8th

The section champs are Plainview, Jackson County Central, Adrian, Blake, Mora, Albany, Pequot, and Perham. Based on the first plan, the sections receiving an additional birth are 2, 3, 5 (3 spots), 6, 7 (3 spots), and 8. Sections 1 and 4 receive only one team as they didn't "earn" a spot last year. So the new teams that make the state tournament are

Annadale - 5A
Eveleth-Gilbert - 7A

The two teams getting the boot are:

Byron - 1A
Mounds Park Academy - 4A (#3 in final polls)

Does a system that boots the #3 team and a team that arguably has a great shot at winning the state tournament from the tournament seem "more fair"? It's great when it works (allowing Edina in the AA tournament), but isn't it more unjust when it doesn't work?

Using your other system (using top 6 plus two wild cards), the two additional teams "booted" out are:

Esko
Fairmont.

Mounds Park Academy likely gets in on a vote meaning their is one more spot for some random team.

To me, a "vote" is ridiculous. Who wants to get "voted" in or voted out? Don't you feel cheated if your section ran on a rainy Thursday on a hilly course in northern Minnesota while some other section ran on a perfect flat course on a perfect day in southern Minnesota. Who's going to get voted in - the team that averaged 17:50s on a hard course or the team that averaged 17:30s on an easy course? Doesn't both teams have a legit argument...

"We ran a harder course"
"Yeah, well we ran the faster times"

The other thing... what happens when sections realign? As an FYI, the sections for every sport realign (sometimes somewhat drastically) every two years. A few schools are on the Double A/Class A bubble and will bounce back and forth depending on enrollment. Sometimes the section realignment are somewhat drastic. What happens if a quality team moves sections: For the sake of argument, let's take a team like Pequot who is currently in Section 7A, but could also be in either 6A or 8A. Pequot goes out there and wins state this year. They graduate 2 out of their top 7 for next year, but they get moved to either section 6A or 8A (conceivable - they are about 117 miles from Cloquet where the section was held this year, but only 53 miles from Park Rapids where the 8A section was held and 126 from New London where the section 6A section was held. Anyway, they win the state and move to section 6A or 8A. If Albany/Long Prairie or Perham/Staples don't perform well at state next year, Pequot is in the boat where they have to finish first in the section even though they won the state "earning" a bonus slot for the section they don't even fit in anymore. And don't think it can't happen. In 2003, Section 6A went 1-2 in the boys (Staples/Perham) and 1-8 in girls (Staples/Perham). Both schools are now in Section 8A.

There are just so many similar scenarios that I can think of. Look at 2004 versus 2005. In 2004, Eveleth Gilbert absolutely walked away with the state finishing 48 points averaging 19.6 seconds seconds faster for the scoring runners than the second place Perham team. In 2005, they made it to state again, but they finished 15th. Was their 2004 success any indicator of how good they were the next year? Not really. I could look at the results and see that their top 3 and their fifth runner were all seniors. Yet, any attempt at formulating some sort of "system" wouldn't recognize graduating classes, injuries (either the previous or following year), and advancements in training.

"G" said...

Lundo - I love ya buddy - but how can you say "the clock treat us all the same" when a team that is and has been clearly in the top 16 numerous times does not compete in the state champs!That's just not right. And neither is the fact that the MSHSL either has blinders on or wants to treat every sport the same. That is the tragedy of the sport! Full disclosure: I went to Edina West and currently volunteer coach for the Edina CC & Track squads.

maxpower2911 said...

I think we can all agree that the current system isn't prefect, but neither is any other system. This debate continually seems to me to be an argument between 6 of one or a half dozen of the other.

I think we can all agree that the idea of having coaches vote on the rest of the qualifiers is ridiculous.

The second part of Mr. Lundstrom's article is something that I have been wanting to emphasize over the past month. Section 6AA are some of the wealthiest schools in the state. I graduated from a school where 73% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many more are forced to take on the extra responsibilities that Mr. Lundstrom pointed out. We still managed to qualify for the state meet as a second place team. To say that my old section, 5AA, should give up one of its spots in the state meet stings, because in reality, the playing field isn't level, and won't be for some time.

It appears to me that if the qualifying system ever would change, the state meet would tend to be more of a suburb meet.

Charlie said...

Brentnet,

Thanks for the comment and the time you put into compiling the data for it ...

I do notice that the 6-earned, 2-selected plan puts all the ranked Class A teams in the meet -- it picks up #3 MPA, which you note, and the "random" team" you didn't identify would have been #12 Fairmont.

It's your right to call selecting teams by a committee vote "ridiculus," but that is how all divisions of the NCAA top off their XC fields and, for that matter, how the NCAA hoops tourney reaches its final numbers.

I agree there are downsides to committee selection, but reasonable people have found them to be practical in some cases. In a setting where a straight earned-the-State-Meet-before system doesn't target quality sections well enough, perhaps its a good fail-safe.

Again, thanks for commenting on DtB!


-- Charlie

Lundo said...

G,

I was speaking to the concept of head-to-head competition. What I meant is that the results at the finish line are black and white. Everyone has the same rules, and they're the same every year. Top two teams.

There's no waiting for a call the next day after a committee convenes to do at-large bids. The race is run, the scores are tallied, and everyone goes home and goes on with life.

I know this won't make you agree with me any more than you do, but I wanted to clarify that I'm trying to get at the value of competition and the lessons that -- hopefully -- high school athletes learn from competing.

Hopefully they compete with all their heart, and they accept the results gracefully.

Bill Miles said...
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Bill Miles said...

Chris,

I appreciate your observation about the true meaning of competition, lessons and priorities. The lesson I want my athletes to learn is that hard work is rewarded and merit is recognized. We all understand that disappointments will be encountered and difficult lessons learned and we hope that all will accept those disappointments and lessons gracefully. However, when a system is established that consistently excludes highly qualified teams and there are alternatives used in other states or at other levels that would be more just, I feel that we do a disservice to our athletes if we do not attempt to challenge that system. That might not be a bad lesson to teach our kids.

Four points (three of them which I acknowledge are petty)

1.) The 3rd best XC team in Minnesota belongs in the State Meet. Any system that fails to accomplish that is flawed- whether it was Apple Valley in Region 1AA in the late 1970s or Edina from Section 6AA in 2008. XC is not like football where the field only holds two teams at a time. The St. Olaf course has room for 20 teams. It is unfortunate that when most other high school leagues and the NCAA at all levels can figure it out that the MSHSL and the Minnesota High School Cross Country Coaches Association can’t.

Petty or nit-picking:

2.) Your argument that 6AA is more affluent and thus should stop its whining probably doesn't play so well at Mpls. South. They win Swain, are highly ranked and would be going to State in a number of other sections, but with the exception of Kebede they get to cheer on Saturday. I believe that was one of the key points Coach Kirkpatrick made. Simply because some kids at some schools in a section don’t have to work doesn’t mean every kid or even the majority of kids at all schools in that section are affluent.

3.) I would be surprised if any 6AA coaches believe that 6AA has always been the deepest section. I’m not sure the parents and athletes have the benefit of time that many 6AA coaches have. Understand that since 1997 when this year’s seniors were in 1st grade, there have been 26 teams rated in the Final State AA Boys Coaches Poll who were not allowed to compete in the State Meet. One was from Section 2, two from Section 4, and twenty-three from Section 6AA. This might explain why some parents and athletes from 6AA grouse a bit, (Don't forget that Rosemount, runner-up in 2006, was from 6AA that year and also in 2003, 4 & 5 when they didn't qualify). So call it petty Section 6AA pride, tempered with a sense of history when I acknowledge that there are cycles when different sections dominate (4AA in your era and 1AA before your time), but for the kids today 6AA is tough.

4.) I realize that your 1992 team had two very fast runners and I realize that the Owatonna Course was 5000 meters exactly, but I hope that you were not suggesting the 5th place team in 1992 which finished 124 points behind the champion squad, a team I remember well, would win the 2008 State Championship. I don’t know which team is better, the 1992 Wayzata squad or the 2008 Wayzata squad, but I am pretty sure that they are well within 100 points of each other.

Sincerely,
Bill Miles
Wayzata Boys XC Coach

InfluenzaRemix said...

In regards to Bill's second point, Minneapolis South is a bad example of a poor inner city school. South has a large portion of affluent families that have been attracted by the school’s magnet programs. South has half the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and one third the percentage of students with limited English proficiency as the rest of the Minneapolis district. The fact is cross country is still a sport dominated by rich white kids. The western suburbs have a large collection of those kids largely as a result of white flight. There is a big difference on a student’s ability to focus on sport development when they have to be worried about being pestered by drug dealers after they leave the school building. Having schools that have the majority of their kid’s families below the poverty line compete against a school whose nickname is the “Cake Eaters” and expecting a competitive result is ridiculous.

Noah said...
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Noah said...

How about four super-regions where the top four teams qualify (as mentioned by Coach Kilpatrick)? The super-region teams could be determined based on results from the current sections.

Another option would be to have the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place teams from the region meets compete against each other in a second region meet (24 teams - 2nd-4th places from all the regions) where the top eight qualify for state. Although this would add another meet, it would get the top ranked teams to the meet. It would also be a big incentive for teams to win their region (because they would skip the extra qualifying round). Qualifying for the extra regional could also provide added incentive for many teams that are not good enough to be in the top two at regions (e.g., A developing team could make the extra regional a realistic goal for their season) . This system would still rely purely on the current season's end of the year results. Thus, no formulas from the previous year, no polling, and no added pressure to race well early in the season in lieu of training. It also keeps the state meet at 16 teams, which keeps the MSHSL happy. This extra meet for extra qualifiers might seem too harsh, but what other sport has 16 qualifying teams? I do not think it would be too much to ask kids to run an extra meet to earn the final eight positions.

Any thoughts?

Lundo said...

Bill,

Very nice to hear your comments and perspective. I agree, a system that leaves #3 out is flawed. What I was saying was that the alternatives proposed have major flaws as well, and that I wouldn't trade head-to-head competition for any of the previous proposals.

My point in talking about the Northfield teams was not at all to suggest that we were a better team than anybody else. Pat Hoard and Adam Stuhlfaut clearly had other things to say about things that year.

As I said, we were 5th at state that year and pretty happy with that finish. We weren't the best team in state that year, and we clearly wouldn't have won state this year either.

What I was trying to get at is that it is possible to see great, breakthrough races at a section meet, and that the order is not pre-determined based on coaches polls or anything else. This is a response to the many 6AA-affiliated folks whom I have heard literally state, "It's impossible..." I hear the same thing from people in other sections as well, and it kind of makes me sick to hear adults putting this kind of attitude on display for their kids.

I very much appreciate your stats on ranked teams that haven't competed at state since 1997. I will grant that the situation is worse than I may have realized for Section 6AA. I am highly suspicious of polls: Jared Pittman and I were ranked #1 and #2 entering the 1993 state meet. We finished #33 and #41. Nonetheless, the numbers you set forth speak for themselves.

And you definitely got me with Rosemount. They were in 6AA prior to the last realignment. But then again, they were moved out of your section, yet this year they did not make it to state. To me that is further evidence that we should not be looking at previous years' results to determine state meet slot allocation.

With regard to comment #2, affluence is just one of the factors I cited that place certain teams at an advantage. I could easily have focused on something as cut and dried as enrollment. The largest two high school enrollments in the state? Eden Prairie and Wayzata, at over 3000 students. That's about three to four times the size of many AA schools. South is about 1600, twice the size of most MPLS schools, except Southwest, which also does quite well. As another poster pointed out, South lives in a different world than you find at many of the other city schools.

But my point was not really to emphasize or dwell on these factors. Rather, it was to state that regardless of these factors, the kids still have to put in the work and perform on race day. While I'm sure it's nice having a student body of 3000 to recruit from, you still only get to put seven on the line, and it is the hard work, talent, and guts of those seven that count in the meet results.

As a former Stanford "Cake Eater", I'm not suggesting that the work of a kid from Minnetonka should be rewarded less than that of a kid from Frogtown. I was simply trying to get at a lot of the things that make a team great: youth development, resources, time, coaching, family support, sheer numbers, and many other things. These are things that stack the cards in favor of, or against, certain teams year after year.

So when you talk about rewarding merit, I'm with you 100%. I just want that merit to be shown on the day of the section meet, and not throughout the season, or in coaches' polls, or in last year's state meet results. I feel that the one meet system allows the underdog team to dream and hope, and occasionally to pull something off, whereas having everything determined by coaches polls or previous results really strips the sport of the magic, and robs the kids of the chance to determine their own destiny.

Merit is exactly why I don't agree that we should award more slots to sections based on previous years' results -- that seems to me to be the anti-thesis of rewarding merit. Instead, it amounts to riding in on the wings of those who came before you, rather than having to go out and perform on the day of the section meet.

I really like the direction that Noah is going with his suggestions. I think they are both solid ideas. There may be some logistical issues, of course, as there are with any change. Thirty teams per section will require a very wide course, and the #2-#4 meet to be used for qualifying for the final eight slots would have to get funding from somewhere, and some teams would have to travel pretty far to qualify.

I'm sure the MSHSL wouldn't like these ideas much, either, because that's just the way they are. But I definitely like them because they preserve the element of head-to-head competition, and merit-based selection to the state meet.

Best of luck tomorrow to Bill and all the other coaches and athletes!

Chris Lundstrom

Noah said...

Lundo,

The extra region meet could be pretty simple, albeit large. There would just need to be an extra week of competition. The section meets would occur as they do now. Teams placing 2-4 go on the next week to "super-regions" or "pre-state". That would be 24 teams in the race. Big, but manageable. Perhaps every year each section could take turns hosting it (Make it a moving venue - share the wealth, share the burden). I think it could add another exciting element to the season. But, alas, the MSHSL probably would never go for it. They're too busy measuring the logo size on uniforms.