It's that time of the year when prep athletes are hopping into cars, vans, and buses for the trek to the annual track and field state meet, each one vying for the top step on the awards platform - dreaming their performances might be a springboard for a collegiate career.
I've been going to the TF state meet in Charleston Illinois since the early 80's and have cheered for Olympians like Evan Jager, Aja Evans, David Kendziera, Tori Franklin, Zach Ziemek, and Kelsey Card during their prep years, wondering if they might step onto the biggest stage one day - the Olympic Games.
In Illinois (or any state for that matter) this should be competition with the best of the best, the state's elite - but in truth many are filled with lackluster athletes, ones who, like someone who was born on the right side of the tracks, happens to be lucky - at the qualifying site with little talent. This inequity needs to be resolved.
Where to begin?
First and foremost, why is there a qualifying system which punishes successful programs strong in event areas (i.e. throws or sprints) leaving athletes who would certainly come home with a state meet medal watching from the sidelines. There should be no limit on entrants per team if we want this to be an elite meet.
Think York HS males in the distance events during the 70's, 80's, and 90's, or the East St. Louis female sprinters in the 80's. Is there any question that in just one event three athletes from the two schools could have been wearing a medal around their necks? How about the Newbury Park distance runners?
Why should they be punished for being successful?
Elite athletes are often excluded at the expense of ones like a recent Illinois 3A female competitor who ran 13.12 in the 100m, another with a 5:46 in the 1600m, and a pole vaulter who turned in a qualifying mark of 2.37 - yes, 7'9". Does a 2A male with a 11.45 in the 100m or another with a 3200m time of 11:04 make this a better meet? I think not.
The response is always, "it's a great experience for the athlete." Yeah, it would be a great experience if I could race in the Indy 500 - I mean, I am a good driver. Uh huh. Maybe every athlete at the state meet needs to show a modicum of proficiency, demonstrate they haven't taken the spot of a more deserving competitor.
Certainly we can come up with a better system to qualify prep track and field athletes. One that rewards great performances during the season, eliminates lackluster competitors that every state meet has, and requires head-to-head battles before you can challenge the state's prep elite in the final.
Maybe the NCAA model is a place to start.
If we did there would be a state meet with only sixteen or twenty-four competitors (I know some already do this), shortening the meet because extra heats and flights were eliminated, the quality of participants now what we expect to find at this championship level.
Instead, we have systems that hurt some of the best athletes - a state meet where below average athletes who are lapped in the 3200m can impact the outcome of elite runners, or have initial relay exchanges in the 4x800 that are much too crowded, or even in the pole vault when the best athletes wait over an hour for their initial attempts.
This shouldn't happen.
The officials of the Illinois High School Association think the way they run the state meet is the proven to be the best. Not even close. They don't have a clue and can do better. Improve on the failings rampant the first day of competition and make the final day even more exciting. I'd like to think they care.
But I doubt it. Those pompous fools think their...well you know the rest.