ASAA moves forward with altered state finals setup

Cross country races will be staggered, with smaller competitor field than usual
Banners for local cross country teams wave at regionals on Oct. 3, 2020.
Banners for local cross country teams wave at regionals on Oct. 3, 2020.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 7, 2020 at 12:07 AM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 7, 2020 at 11:28 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - School banners will again wave in the wind this Saturday - a week after regional cross country meets - during Alaska’s high school state cross country championships. This year, however, will look much different than previous ones, with several changes made due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The state cross country championships, planned for Oct. 10, will take place as scheduled but not in the traditional format: Instead, the outdoor races will be set up differently from years past with staggered starts, separated sets of competitors toeing the line at one time, and an additional closed invitational taking place at the end of the day. Each race will also feature fewer runners, with only eight or nine toeing the line at any given time.

Though high school fall sports overall have undergone major changes because of the pandemic, none so far appear to have been as severely affected as some of the state’s cross country runners, a portion of whom will not participate in the state-sanctioned races at all due to cuts decided upon by the Alaska School Activities Association.

“There’s athletes here, at least on my team, that have looked forward to this for the last four years,” said Chugiak Head Coach Brian Kruchoski. "They’ve known what they can do and they’ve looked at older athletes that have gone through looking forward to state, and that’s how we train. We train as a team. We work together. And we end up in this last meet, which is the state meet, which is when it all comes together.

“It’s important for these kids,” he continued, “because they are needing something to finalize their season.”

Saturday’s state high school cross country races will include separate races for Div. I, Div. II, and Div. III schools, with regions blended in each. A closed invitational specifically for those teams that would otherwise be competing under normal circumstances will then be run by those who choose to participate, and timesheets will be combined so that team titles are eventually awarded.

“There will be a meet following the state meet, which will have the runners that would have run in the state meet had they not cut them,” Kruchoski said. “In our region alone, 31 runners would have run, and they’re not running.

“But we’re thrilled we had a season, and if this is the only option we have,” he said. “At this point, that’s great, though like I said it’s a bit disappointing we weren’t able to have a regular state meet.”

While not everyone is pleased about the changes that eliminate runners from the state meet, the alterations are part of a path the ASAA said on Tuesday it had to take, based on health risks and threats currently being seen in Anchorage.

“The largest concern involved the amount of attendance we could get at that event,” said ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland. “In a given year, we push about 3,000 to 3,400 fans attending that event, in a venue that has no capacity to be operated behind a gate.”

However, Joey Caterinichio, a representative for the local region hosting the state meet, said controlling the number of spectators at locations such as Kincaid - a public space where the state meet is set to be held - would’ve been possible whether with a permit or otherwise had an alternative plan been considered. Mitigation has been implemented at meets already, she said, and for the smaller state competition. According to her, the changes could’ve been implemented for a larger state, meet too.

“Mass starts aren’t appropriate, and neither is no crowd control,” said Caterinichio, who serves as co-director for ASAA’s state meet as well as the new team event. “So if they understood that we weren’t going to start in mass starts, and we were going to control crowds by eliminating or limiting spectators, we would create a safe environment for those athletes to come to.”

Caterinichio, who is also an Anchorage School District parent and cross country coach, was part of a push to implement mitigation for state ahead of the ASAA’s final decision: In early September, the ASAA Board - comprising spokespersons from each of the six high school regions across the state, plus one representative each for school boards and superintendents - decided to change the format of the finals for state cross country and tennis match-ups. For cross country, that meant cutting runners from the state championship roster in hopes of reducing crowd sizes. Only the top few racers were allowed, and no team scoring would be implemented.

The ASAA board member for the local region, Region IV, then tried in a meeting later that month to propose a plan that would include several mitigation techniques, such as staggered starts, spectator limits, and more, while still allowing for a full state meet. The proposal was not considered at the meeting, however, according to Strickland and several others familiar with the situation, as the motion to hear it was not seconded by any of the other regions.

State football finals, though, were allowed to proceed, with coronavirus testing, mask requirements, and spectators limited to two guests per player, all part of the mitigation plan for the tournament. Football being a contact sport with boys as the primary participants not only brought up the question of fairness but also whether or not the changes could be considered violations of Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed to people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial aid.

Strickland said ASAA’s legal team saw no violations in making changes to certain programs, but not others, at least as the adjustments are currently set up.

“There’s no pattern of discrimination,” he said. “We’re treating the boys and girls in cross country exactly the same.”

In the meantime, comments over the format of the state meet have poured in. Some have expressed concern over holding a meet at all, with several teams dropping out of the state championships altogether. Strickland said Tuesday that another team had dropped out, citing worries over the invitational - a race that is not organized by ASAA, but instead by the local high school region and backed by ASD - being added to the schedule.

Others have continued pushing for a standard state cross country meet, particularly after regional meets went on last weekend, seemingly without a hitch. Some of the recent ASAA cross country meets have included hundreds of runners; state races generally include a few dozen each, with 80 or so being the maximum, depending on how many individuals qualify from a regional. This year’s state finals follow a one-way loop around Kincaid Park, with no overlap on the course and a plan to have each race end about an hour before the next one starts so that spectators and racers can leave before others arrive.

“I do not believe a reduction in kids is a mitigation plan,” Caterinichio said. “I believe a mitigation plan is a safe race so that every kid can be present.

“The risk of COVID with an outdoor sport like running is very low,” she said. “We make our kids wear masks, make our spectators wear masks. So do I think the state meet should have everybody there? I do. I think if we could change that tomorrow, that is exactly what we would want. But if they can’t change it, it’s important that these other kids get the opportunity. The athletes are who we are working for."

Still, runners are buzzing over the upcoming meet. Michael Earnhart, a senior who runs for Chugiak, said he’s excited for his race.

“I’m pretty competitive and the fact we’re having a state meet,” he said, "I think it’ll do a fine job of kind of making up for what ASAA didn’t want to do with the team title.

“I don’t know if it’s the best idea or not,” he added, “but I think it’s cool we get to compete for a team title still.”

Even so, for some individual qualifiers, the championships aren’t the same without all their teammates in attendance.

“We’ve been working together as a team this whole season, been training really hard, preparing for this kind of all season,” said Campbell Peterson, a sophomore who also runs for Chugiak and qualified on her own to run the state race. “I’m disappointed because I was hoping I was going to be able to be there together because we’ve all been working together. I really just love to have that experience of being able to bond and have that unity.”

The state high school cross country championships will take place Saturday, Oct. 10, at Kincaid Park in Anchorage.

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