September 3rd – Should Indiana Go To A Class Cross Country Model?
By: Drake Sterling
Lately, there has been an awful lot of talk, especially on the Indiana Runner Message Board, regarding the competition of cross country as a “class” sport. This refers to the IHSAA promoting multiple State Championship Tournaments for multiple divisions based on school enrollment. The argument comes up every year as frustrated small schools attempt to somehow keep up with the 2-3-4,000 student powerhouses that dominate most IHSAA sports.
The fact is, Indiana is one of the very few states that still race based on a single class system (everyone races together during the State Tournament). In fact, it has been brought up that the only remaining states with the single class system may be Indiana and Hawaii. Without looking up State Meet results for all 50 states, I will assume that this may be true, but from basic knowledge, we can safely assume that less than 5 of the 50 states use the single class system.
We also know that in Indiana, cross country (and track) are one of the few IHSAA sports left that are not classed. This in itself brings up an issue that was quickly addressed by one of the coaches I spoke with who wished to remain anonymous:
“For example, in the last 5 years in boys cross country 98.33% of the state meet teams were from the largest 50% of the schools and 1.67% were from the smallest 50% of the schools. This does cause problems in recruiting athletes for your track/cc programs when coaches in other sports are touting long tournament runs and realistic possibilities of reaching the state championship. It puts the non-classed sports at a distinct disadvantage. Some athletes tend to go to the teams that are considered most successful. I started coaching before any sports were classed and saw a distinct difference in the ability to recruit athletes after classed sports came in.”
Take that for what you will, but it does make sense. Kids want to succeed…and in the current times where everyone needs to feel like a winner, it doesn’t help the popularity of our sport that it can be such a long shot at achieving measurable success versus other sports.
I should start the base of this article by saying, until the last few days, class cross country debates are ones that I often tune out or don’t participate in. I think this is probably true for a lot of coaches and athletes around the state. Growing up, I attended a high school with nearly 2,000 kids, then competing at an NCAA Division 1 college, then coached at two high schools, both right near the 2,000 student mark. So I have absolutely no experience in the small schools. Since day 1, I have felt that my job in reporting on Indiana Runner should be to present all topics objectively. As a result, I felt it was best I learn more about various small schools and what their mentality on class cross country is. So I decided to pull in as many of my resources as possible to “poll” Indiana small school coaches on their feelings on the matter. This is an article containing those arguments for and against class cross country presented with just the facts, and as objective as possible. While this article may not persuade you one direction or the other, this is a small snippet of one of the biggest issues we face in our sport.
My first goal was to determine what questions needed to be answered. Below are those three questions:
1. What is the goal of our sport on the high school level?
2. What advantages and disadvantages does the class cross country model pose in our state?
3. If class cross country was implemented, what would be the best way to do so?
Within each question, there are follow-up questions that were addressed just because of how the structure of my research ended up. Those will be explained later but these were the three most pressing questions. After all, before we agree to do anything in life, it is best to first step back, weigh the pros and cons, and figure out the reason for doing something, and the best way to go about it.
For your reference, throughout this article, feel free to refer to the IHSAA’s official School Classification system for 2013-2014. This system is based on the Football classes but most important to take from the table is the total enrollment numbers.
There are 322 IHSAA schools noted in the IHSAA Football enrollment figures. Currently, the following small or medium sized schools are ranked on today’s (Sept. 3rd) IR Top 25 rankings:
2. Brebeuf Jesuit – 717 students (152nd in enrollment)
8. West Lafayette – 721 students (150th in enrollment)
24. Guerin Catholic – 714 students (154th in enrollment)
3. West Lafayette – 721 students (150th in enrollment)
17. FW Concordia – 675 – (160th in enrollment)
21. Evansville Reitz Memorial – 752 students (142nd in enrollment)
22. Fremont – 373 students (266th in enrollment)
25. Oldenburg Academy – 200 students (317th in enrollment) *Non-Football School
Now that we have our groundwork laid, let’s get into the meat of the argument…
Question 1: What is our goal as a high school sport?
Answer: This question is fairly simple. We want to increase participation, increase the popularity of competitive running, and to increase the likelihood that our athletes become the best that they wish to be.
So how would class cross country help or hurt this goal? A lot of talk about the most successful programs is that the best ones have a winning ‘culture’, meaning that whatever program the coach has implanted in the team is one that athletes and parents can agree with and get behind. This is true but only to a point. While a coach can provide a positive culture, they can only coach the athletes that are available to them. In a school with 300 kids for example, the likelihood that you are able to find 5 talented sub 17:00 min runners is less likely than at a school with 3,000 kids.
In theory, class cross country would help in our goal. More kids would have more success because there would be more opportunities to qualify for Regional, Semi-State, and State Meets. The immediate disadvantage to this more widely seen success would be that we may not be able to see the truly elite small school athletes match up against the best in the big schools. Just last year, Connor Sorrells of Barr Reeve (approx. 180 students) won the Indiana Cross Country State Championship. In a recent conversation on the IR Message Board, Sorrells said, “The IHSAA is adopting the kindergarten mentality of “Everyone’s a winner”, and it sucks. For me, those Indiana-shaped medals were the pinnacle. And now 25 people are going to get them instead of 15? Even if XC was only split into two divisions, 50 boys and 50 girls get to call themselves ‘All-State’ Runners and go home with medals. Not to mention the fact that there is more than just one State Champion. ”
A lot of the coaches and athletes I spoke with mentioned the same thing. They would rather compete against the best of the best, win or lose, than to win versus inferior competition and never know what they could have been. Below is a piece of my conversation with Wheeler coach, Louie Guillen:
“The fact of the matter is when Wheeler placed 3(beating Chesterton and Laporte) that was a moment that was pivotal for the program. Would that moment meant as much if we were in a small school race? I’m not so sure. It gave Wheeler street credit at that point. It didn’t hit me till a coach mentioned to me, “Hey you gonna beat Chesterton again this year?” at last year’s track clinic. That is not a dig on Coach Ray and his program as I have the utmost respect for his team. We are just happy to be mentioned in the same conversation with teams 3-4 xlarger than ours.”
A similar conversation took place with Bethany Neeley, formerly a State Champion from Eastern (Greentown), a school with just 456 students. Bethany and her sister both had a chance to play in the State Finals Basketball Championships (2A) and still had this to say about classing cross country:
“Without the class system in basketball, Brittany & I would have never got to experience the state finals, so I am very grateful for that. But on the girls side of Indiana high school basketball, some of the state’s best 1A & 2A teams could compete and possibly beat the 4A state champions.”
The last part of the answer to the question, what is the goal is that we want our athletes to be the best they can be. Many consider competition against bigger schools to be motivation enough to stay in a single-class system. Like what Guillen mentioned above, below is an excerpt from Coach Brandon Mink of Eastern (Greentown):
“it’s entirely possible that our girls’ team might have been state champion last year (if not the year before) but in my mind a classed championship would ring a bit hallow. I found it far more rewarding competing with the best of the best and fighting to try to reach the podium last year– though we ultimately fell just shy of that There is something that just makes it more special defying the odds.”
The smallest of schools that I was able to make contact with on this subject was Perry Central. The Commodores have been one of the most successful small schools in recent memory. They sport just 344 students, and yet have qualified for multiple State Championships. I really wanted to catch up with head coach Jason Barnett. Below is his take on the same theory:
“We don’t look at our size of school as a disadvantage, but as a motivational factor to work even harder. I feel that a class system would definitely water down competition and cause athletes to never reach their full potential.
Life is tough and full of challenges. Everyone is not going to get a trophy, but we all have the same opportunity to work for that trophy. My coach always told me that hard work, given time, will beat talent. To this day I believe that is true and will preach it to my athletes as long as I live.” Barnett