Athletic directors and cross country coaches are still working to hammer out details for the 2020 fall season, but one thing is for sure: It’s gonna be different.
That was the statement Heron Lake-Okabena cross country mentor Gary Hildebrandt made Monday morning while he prepared for a special personal milestone. Later that day, he was enshrined in the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and while contemplating the speech he was about to make, he returned a telephone call from The Globe to comment on the fall.
“I’m glad we get to have a season, but a lot of question marks,” he said.
In making plans for the Minnesota high school sports year, the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors announced last week that football and volleyball will be moved to the spring while soccer, cross country and tennis will still be played in the fall. But no more than three teams will be allowed to participate in regular season cross country meets, and there will also be fewer events.
Hildebrandt said his coaching goals are always to prepare his runners to be at their best for post-season meets, but having a limited number of competitors to run against doesn’t help athletes achieve their optimum performances late in the year.
“They’re not going to have that opportunity to prepare as they should,” he admitted.
The state’s best runners may be affected the most, and last year the state’s best Class A girls runner was Murray County Central/Fulda junior Morgan Gehl, who in her fifth consecutive state meet won her first championship with a 5,000-meter time of 17:53.5. It was an incredible 27 seconds faster than her nearest competitor.
Gehl is an athlete who naturally runs fast. Throughout the 2019 regular season, she was rarely challenged. But it’s worth pointing out that she ran her fastest race of the year at the state meet when she received her stiffest competition.
Murray County Central/Fulda athletic director James Wajer said this week that the new 2020 rules could harm Gehl more than other runners in other conferences. To fill their three-team meets this fall, athletic conferences will tend to schedule meets with teams in their same conference, and the Red Rock Conference -- where MCC/F belongs -- typically contain teams with smaller cross country enrollments.
Fewer competitors means fewer opportunities for good runners to be challenged.
But Dominic Damm, head cross country coach at MCC/F, isn’t quite so sure those numbers will be quite so small.
“Most of the schools have got smaller teams, but MCC/Fulda usually has a pretty big-sized team,” Damm said. “But with football and volleyball being moved, the coaches are saying they expect to have more than normal numbers.”
Damm is sure that Gehl will make the best of it. Still, it’s not the kind of set-up a champion would wish for.
“Obviously, it’s not the best-case scenario. But Morgan has got go-fast in her blood. She will still run very good times. I’m 100 percent sure of it. But I’m sure she’ll miss that head-to-head.”
When the MSHSL limited meets to three teams, they were concerned about the need for social distancing in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some wondered if meets would include staggered starts.
But that seems to be less necessary for smaller meets, such as the meets MCC/F is likely to run in. The starting line in cross country racing is wide, Damm pointed out, allowing for good spacing.