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.