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Great American 2003

  • NSSF plans "pomp and pageantry"
  • date will move to first week in October
  • venue still not announced

NSSF and the Great American
By Marc Bloom

Friday night lights for high school cross-country?

That’s one of the many enhancements under consideration by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation, which has assumed ownership of the Great American Cross Country Festival and begun to make plans for the 2003 event.

“We want to add to what is already a great meet,” said Mike Byrnes, who heads the NSSF, a non-profit foundation, with Jim Spier. “We hope to make the meet more what Rick Hill had originally intended--a celebration of running with pomp and pageantry.”

The NSSF, which also conducts the Nike Indoor Classic in Landover, Maryland and Adidas Outdoor Nationals in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week purchased Great American from Rick Hill, a commercial real estate developer who founded the event in 1999. Great American gives the NSSF major meets in all three seasons and makes the organization the most powerful force in high school track and field and cross-country nationwide.

The Great American meet, founded on the unique idea of inviting top high school teams from around the country, started in 1999 with about 85 schools and 1,700 athletes. This season’s meet, held on Sept. 27-28, featured more than 250 schools and 4,000 athletes, along with national-class college races. The meet, which boasts Nike as the presenting sponsor, has become the premier cross-country team event in the nation.

“I feel very comfortable passing on Great American to the National Scholastic group,” said Hill, who is leaving the sport and moving to Louisville where he grew up. “There’s no question they will do an incredible job. They’ll take the things that are working well and build upon them. They’ll take any pieces that are broken and fix them.”

The same NSSF professionalism that has made its indoor and outdoor track extravaganzas must-run meets for high school athletes will be provided to Great American, which has gone through difficulty finding a permanent home. This year’s site, the Ballantyne Resort in Charlotte, was the event’s third site in four years.

Cross-country, subject to the elements and sprawled among many acres, can prove unwieldy to manage. In its second year, in 2000, Great America saw its course at McAlpine Park flooded by rain and the meet was almost cancelled. Hill pulled off a miracle in running the meet but then changed the site in 2001 to Winthrop University in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina. Teams were spread among many hotels in the region.

Seeking a central location, user-friendly meet headquarters and a more challenging course, Hill switched the event to Ballantyne where it was run on a hilly golf course. Pre-meet rain affected the meet again, making the course muddy and posing a challenge for effective course management. It was an exciting but trying weekend.

The NSSF will have its large staff of officials, already in place from the indoor and outdoor meets, ready for duty at Great American. The organization is considering a number of sites for the event, all in the Carolina region, and will announce the 2003 site later this fall. Whatever site is chosen, the NSSF expects it to be a permanant home as the organization nurtures cross-country with many new ideas.

One thing’s for sure: there will be a new date. Next year, because a Jewish holy day falls on the last Saturday of September, Great American will be held one week later on the first weekend in October.

“The later date will work in the meet’s favor,” said Spier. “Teams will have another week of training. The weather should be a little cooler. And there will be less chance of lingering rain as the hurricane season is over.”

The NSSF hopes to streamline the entry process as well as the many tasks coaches have to perform in order to get their teams to the starting line. The meet will make use of the latest in technology to speed all processes. Spier himself has worked in the computer field for decades.

In its fifth year, the event will become more a festival with music serenading the runners as they compete, bands playing as they do at major marathons and other features. “We hope to jazz things up,” said Spier, “and give the athletes an exciting experience.”

Part of that excitement could come from racing on Friday evening instead of Saturday for the Race of Champions teams. “Friday night lights,” especially in the South, adds to the luster of high school football. The NSSF feels that same intrigue can enhance cross-country.

The college races are currently held on Friday night, and this season the fields were better than ever with a superb national entry. The reigning NCAA champion BYU women competed, and they defeated national powers like Arkansas, North Carolina State and Georgetown. Northern Arizona won the men’s title. The NSSF has vowed to keep the college divisions and possibly expand them. There are also plans to add youth races.

The NSSF reputation, emboldened from more than a decade of serving high school athletes, will now operate year-around on behalf of the high school community nationwide. Committed to the promise of “giving U.S. Olympians a head start,” the NSSF, established in 1990, has provided more than a half million dollars of travel assistance to athletes so they could have the opportunity to compete in national meets. Over 60 percent of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team was made up of athletes who had benefitted from NSSF support.

Last June, the NSSF funded the travel of 26 high school athletes to the USA Junior Nationals in Palo Alto, Calif. This was the qualifying event for the world junior championship in Kingston, Jamaica, in July. Of the 26 athletes, 17 made the U.S. team, enhancing American efforts at the worlds, and many of these same athletes will likely be contenders at future Olympic Games.

One of the “graduates” of NSSF track events is Alan Webb, the celebrated mile record breaker. At Great American this year, Webb, sponsored by Nike, was on hand to sign autographs and the line of fans stretched about a hundred meters. The NSSF will have Nike performers at future meets as the field comes full circle--athletes who were given a head start in high school returning as professional stars to teach the young ones how to excel.

2002 Great American

is published by
John Dye

Baltimore MD