Cross country preparing for smaller races, new precautions
Of all the major changes coming to high school sports in the 2020-21 school year, cross country will look as different as any.
Those Saturday mornings when police are needed to direct traffic because there's so many spectators showing up at forest preserves for a big high school race?
In the age of COVID-19, those are a thing of the past.
No more invitationals with 20-plus schools. No more huge crowds. Schools aren't even able to race at forest preserves, now moving to their own high school campuses to hold meets.
But kids are still running, still competing, limited mostly to triangular meets, and that's what Dan Iverson is focusing on. The Naperville North girls coach, whose teams have won eight state championships since 2001, is determined to do all he can to make that work.
"I haven't spent a lot of time mourning the loss of some of our bigger meets," Iverson said. "I try to transition into whatever the season will give us we will take. I told the girls since beginning of summer you need to try not to have an opinion of any of this because we can't control it. I've tried to be the same way."
Under the IHSA's return to activities guidelines, cross country teams are limited to 50 runners in a race. Naperville North, a member of the DuPage Valley Conference, is working with the DuKane Conference to come up with a series of triangulars run at schools like Waubonsie Valley, St. Charles East and Lake Park.
The cross country season begins Aug. 10 and ends Oct. 24, with meets beginning Aug. 24. DVC and DuKane schools hope to run races on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, with the girls teams and boys teams taking turns. One gender sets up the course Friday and runs a varsity, frosh-soph, JV and open race, and then the other gender does the same Saturday before breaking the course down.
Naperville North's course is set up with three chutes so runners finish only with their teammates. Runners will have their own masks to put back on after finishing the race, which they also wear in team camps, on the starting line and team huddles before the race begins.
After taking their mask off just before the race, an assistant coach will gather the masks with each runner's name on them, put them in a zip-lock bag and into a mesh laundry bag which they will then dunk in bleach before giving the runners their masks back after they finish.
Iverson said studies have shown that the virus disperses quickly while in motion and outdoors which is why masks are not required while running.
Kurt Hasenstein coaches the boys team at Glenbrook South. He's interested to see if he gets more runners out for cross country with football and soccer now shifted to the spring season.
If so, numbers that usually are around 60 for his team could go to 80-90, and Hasenstein wonders if he can get another assistant, especially now that extra supervision is needed with social distancing and other safety precautions.
He's also getting used to more races on school campuses. If it wasn't for football and soccer moving to the spring, that wouldn't be possible at a lot of high schools who need that space for their courses.
"I'm excited about it and I think the kids are excited to know they have a season too," Hasenstein said. "The kids, we know it's good for them mentally and socially to be out running, but it gives them a lot more purpose to be out and compete. Maybe you don't have the big Saturday invites and getting to go to Detweiller (in Peoria where the state meet is held) and that's disappointing but I think if you put your jersey on and if we line up next to Glenbrook North and Maine South, the kids know they are going to be racing and it has given their summer training some purpose."
St. Charles North boys coach Kevin Harrington said if guidelines change during the year and more than three teams are allowed, they would still like to host their annual invitational. Under current restrictions that wouldn't be possible as COVID region restrictions would apply.
Harrington and girls coach Shari Hayes have a plan to run what he called a "heat meet" that is similar to track and field. If 21 schools enter, seven would race at a time, leave, then seven more race, etc.
Coaches have suggested other ways of running flighted races, limiting the number of runners at a starting line. If the No. 1s go first, then the 2s, etc., it helps further social distance the sport.
They also are prepared for positive COVID cases. Iverson said he's going to avoid his top seven training together in case someone tests positive.
"We want to keep as many of girls out of close contact as possible," Iverson said. "It's (a positive) likely to happen, it's a reality we have to deal with."
Several questions remain. Whether there is a postseason is one, as is spectators.
Right now fans are allowed.
"I wouldn't be shocked if the IHSA nixes that at some point," Iverson said. "At some level it would be a whole lot easier if the IHSA came in and said no spectators. I hate to do that to parents but it may be one extra thing we don't want to have to police. We want to do this right. We start doing it wrong we are going to lose the privilege."
Kaneland athletic director David Rohlman said in the Interstate Eight, host schools will decide if spectators are allowed. The IE schools will run duals this fall, similar to the Fox Valley Conference which has decided to have a FVC bubble only running against conference schools.
Whatever the postseason develops into, if there is one, is still unknown. A full state series seems unlikely.
A conference meet at a league the size of the Central Suburban League is a possibility. The 12-team league can be split into two divisions, which puts 42 runners on the starting line.
"Anything bigger than that, I don't know how they would manage it," Hasenstein said. "I don't see the state loosening restrictions."
While different, coaches realize the new-look cross country season beats the canceled spring by a mile.
"If we can provide a good experience this fall of any kind, that's going to be a massive win," Iverson said. "Regardless of how we finished in any race, to be able to build a team is priceless and we are going to do everything we can to do that."