|What We Hoped For|
by Dave Devine, DyeStat assistant editor
Consider, for a moment, what unfolded this weekend. The first stages of the closest thing we have seen thus far to a legitimate national team championship in high school cross country. Not a popularity contest. Not a straw vote or a gut feeling. Not a round of berths based on rankings. Championship bids awarded based on athletic prowess on a given day. No hiding, no dodging, no legal teams or letters to the editor. Legs and lungs applied to five kilometer courses in three different states.
This is what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? The opportunity for teams to race their way into the Big Dance? An excuse to step away from the inevitable subjectivity of a small group of dedicated decisionmakers and embrace the inconsistency and unreliability and occasional perfection and persistent joy of sixteen- and seventeen year-olds competing on Saturdays? Isn’t this, for all of its blemishes, the thing we’ve been hoping would come down the pike?
Certainly, there have been hitches along the way. Information posted and withdrawn. Disagreements about regional compositions and claims of gerrymandered boundaries. Scheduling conflicts and double-booking. Uncooperative state associations. Registration hiccups. Midstream changes that have vacillated between inconvenient and infuriating.
But what took place on Saturday was still nothing short of a minor athletic miracle, given the obstacles.
This weekend we witnessed most of the best teams from three different regions, deciding who will attend a national championship by entering the one fair, honest crucible for qualification—the race. Good teams may have had bad days; champions may have faltered and underdogs risen, but no one can say the decision took place in some shady back room or fluorescent-lit corporate conference chamber. The decision took place where it should have, where we hoped it could all along, in the mid-race efforts of the young men and women who have been etching out their reputations all season. December tickets to Portland, Oregon, were booked on the hills and flats and finish line straights of Boise and Sioux Falls and Terre Haute.
Because changes like this tend to take place incrementally, in fits and starts, with planning and proposals and years of development, it’s possible to forget what a sea change this represents in the sweeping arc of prep running history. Not that long ago, teams were still assembling on leaf-blown and snow-dusted tracks for late autumn two-mile time trials, the results of which were promptly typed up by a coach, on a typewriter, and placed in an envelope, with a stamp, and mailed to a remote address with promises of future comparison to other teams throughout the nation. It was called a postal meet. Results might come back in a month or two. Or three. There was your national championship.
Now we have European-style cross country courses raised from city parks in South Dakota. Team t-shirts exchanged at pre-race socials in Idaho, where the hot-ticket item is a shirt from a team out of Kodiak, Alaska. We have caravans of buses and parents and half the population of entire towns, cutting across the Midwest for nothing more than a chance.
Not a numbered ranking on a list. Not a place on a post-season poll designating a hypothetical national champion. Not a carefully ordered, state-by-state breakdown in a magazine or a newspaper.
Isn’t that what we hoped for all along?