What About the Sport? Portland, You Shouldn’t Be Tanking Your Conference Meet

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By Jonathan Gault
October 30, 2017

On paper, the men’s race at the 2017 West Coast Conference Championships in Oakland on Friday should have been the best in the conference’s history. #2 BYU, undefeated all year and fresh off a victory at Pre-Nats, was set to take on #3 Portland, which had taken second at the Wisconsin Invitational two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, that matchup never truly materialized. The fans that turned up at Metropolitan Golf Links on Friday morning did not get to see the Portland team that ran at Wisconsin as coach Rob Conner decided to run a skeleton crew instead, electing not to enter his #3, #4, #5, and #6 finishers from Wisconsin.

It is possible that in the two weeks between Wisconsin and WCCs, one or more of those men experienced a serious illness, injury, or some other extenuating circumstance that prevented them from competing at the conference meet. I don’t know for sure — Conner did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. But considering Conner’s comments to Flotrack after Wisconsin, it appears likely that he held out Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, Logan Orndorf, Caleb Webb, and Noah Schutte so that they could train for the NCAA regional and national meets.

“Not really. Not too worried about that,” Conner said, when asked by Flotrack whether he wanted to win a conference title against BYU. “I’m not a conference meet guy. I like other meets. I like regionals. I like nationals. We gotta be careful. We gotta be careful with how you get up and how you present the challenge.

“Our challenge will just simply be, like I said last year to the guys, let’s see how many guys we can get in their top seven. We only had two, I think, at conference. So this year, the same challenge. They could score 15 points on us, even. So the challenge will be, let’s see if we can get a few guys to crack into their top five. No concern about winning.”

Photo courtesy Portland Pilots XC

Photo courtesy Portland Pilots XC

Conner’s remarks proved to be eerily predictive as BYU ended up perfect scoring the meet and going 1-2-3-4-5 on Portland.

In recent years, coaches of major college programs have grown more and more cautious about racing their top athletes. And to a point, I can sympathize. Certainly, with an athlete such as Syracuse’s Justyn Knight, whose track season extended all the way to the World Championships in August, I can understand if he sits out of the first few meets after taking a break. Chris Fox would be doing Knight — and thus, the sport — a disservice if he rushed Knight back too quickly just to run a largely meaningless cross country meet in September.

And I’ll admit that the end of a cross country season can be grueling. Between conference, regionals, and nationals, that’s three races in 22 days, finishing up with two 10ks in a eight-day span.

But Conner should not be proud of what he did on Friday. Every school that makes NCAAs has to run conference, regionals, and nationals in the span of three weeks. Sure, some teams may not peak for conference or may hold out a guy who is banged up to give him extra time to get ready for nationals. But for the most part, teams take it seriously. Winning a conference title means a lot to the athletes, and it means a lot to the alums — who, along with parents, are basically the only fans of college cross country. Examining results from around the country this weekend, Portland is the only top team I could find that truly sandbagged its conference meet. For the coach of the #3 team in the country to admit that he doesn’t care about his own conference meet is disappointing.

One of running’s biggest problems is that people only care about the championships. But conference meets are championship meets. If you don’t think conference meets matter, please go to Van Cortlandt Park and tell that to the Columbia women, who went from last to first to win their first Heps title since 2005. Go to Springfield, Oregon, and tell that to the Stanford men who ended Colorado’s six-year winning streak at Pac-12s. Michigan seemed pretty excited when they swept the Big 10 men’s and women’s titles on Sunday in Bloomington, Indiana.

Most top college coaches have already decided that none of the meets before Wisconsin/Pre-Nats matter, which means even fewer people pay attention to a sport already struggling mightily for popularity. If we decide that conference meets don’t matter as well, what’s the point of having a season before NCAAs at all?

#2 BYU vs. #3 Portland should have been a race that fans of those schools would have talked about for years. And BYU fans probably will, since the Cougars wound up going 1-2-3-4-5. And through no fault of their own, BYU’s incredible result is cheapened (just a little) because of Conner’s actions. Conner held out four of his top six guys, and because he did that, it’s fair to wonder whether his top two guys were under instructions to hold back as well. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. But it makes you wonder.

My point is this: what should have been a terrific race, a rare chance for the WCC to shine in the national spotlight, was effectively over before it started because one of the teams decided to wave the white flag.

And what about the athletes? Do you think it’s any fun to train all summer and fall and barely ever get the chance to race? The 2017 NCAA cross country season began on September 1. From then until the Wisconsin Invitational, only one of Portland’s top seven competed at all.

Portland’s top seven at Wisconsin

  1. Jeff Thies — 6th at WCCs (#1 on team). 2 races in 2017 (Wisconsin, WCCs).
  2. Nick Hauger — 7th at WCCs (#2 on team). 2 races in 2017 (Wisconsin, WCCs).
  3. Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse — Did not race at WCCs. 1 race in 2017 (Wisconsin).
  4. Logan Orndorf — Did not race at WCCs. 2 races in 2017 (Dellinger, Wisconsin).
  5. Caleb Webb — Did not race at WCCs. 1 race in 2017 (Wisconsin).
  6. Noah Schutte — Did not race at WCCs. 1 race in 2017 (Wisconsin).
  7. Reuben Kiprono — 11th at WCCs (#3 on team). 2 races in 2017 (Wisconsin, WCCs).

So they rested before Wisconsin. And perhaps that was necessary. Conner did say before the team’s first major meet, the Dellinger Invitational, that a number of his athletes were sick around the time of Dellinger. But they also rested after Wisconsin. How much rest do they need?

Rob Conner is a terrific coach. I’m not disputing that. And perhaps holding out four guys from the conference meet was the best way for him to maximize Portland’s performance at NCAAs. Perhaps he has an athletic director who doesn’t care about the conference meet at all. But how much of a difference would it really have made if they raced on Friday? I doubt the guys who didn’t race today were sitting on their asses last weekend. Surely they will have run some sort of hard effort. Why couldn’t that hard effort have been a race?

Look at the top two teams in the country, Northern Arizona and BYU. Both of those teams have run their top guys at four meets so far this season. The most that anyone in Portland’s top seven has raced this year is twice. Now if Portland comes out and upsets both of them to win NCAAs, maybe I’ll reconsider my thinking. But how much of an advantage is Portland actually gaining by holding its guys out of races? 

Portland has finished on the podium once in its history, in 2014. Portland only finished five guys in that race, but its top four finishers at NCAAs all raced at WCCs as well. David Perry, their top man at WCCs, also ran NCAAs but wound up dropping out. The only one of their scorers who didn’t race conference was Woody Kincaid, and Conner told Flotrack after NCAAs that Kincaid had been dealing with a stress reaction (a legitimate reason to skip conference). Before that podium finish, Portland’s previous best NCAA result was 7th, achieved most recently in 2013. That year, all six of their NCAA finishers also raced at the conference meet.

From Conner’s perspective, his gambit on Friday worked. His team probably wasn’t going to beat BYU today anyway (since BYU put five in front of Portland’s #1 runner, adding in their #3-#6 guys may not have helped much) and Portland still finished second while holding out several of his top guys.

But ignoring the conference meet is something I can’t abide. Too many times, people in the sport of running are concerned with their own self-interest as opposed to the overall welfare of the sport. Cross country may not be a popular sport, but it’s a great one. And the greatest thing about cross country is racing. You put your best seven runners against their best seven runners race your guts out for a few miles, and at the end, you add up the places and see who won. If you’re holding out people from your conference meet so that you might be able to finish a few places higher at NCAAs, you’re saying you don’t care about racing, or rivalries, or the fans, or so much of what makes the sport of running great. If Portland wants to rest guys, the place to do it is at regionals, where qualification is the only thing that really matters, not conference.

This morning, I was on the phone with BYU’s coach, Ed Eyestone, who said he didn’t fault Conner for what he did at all. But he did say something else that I happen to agree with — and something that a lot of coaches (not just Conner) could learn from:

“I think sometimes we get a little too cute in terms of, Oh, we can only run two races a year or whatever. I mean, there’s no reason why an early-season meet like Dellinger can’t serve as a great training stimulus early on and you can’t run your guys. They’ve trained hard, they’ve put in huge volume over the summertime. Running an 8k where they just know, okay this isn’t the end of the world sort of thing but we’re gonna do a hard workout on Monday and let you run hard on Friday — [the race serves as] a second hard training run of the week and we’ll do a long run — there’s no reason why you can’t do that.

“I think we overthink it sometimes. Let’s let the guys have some fun out there. And I think it would be better for our sport if we did that so it wasn’t always just one meet or two meets at the end of the year. But until we win a national championship, people will criticize that kind of mentality, I guess. But it’s worked pretty well for us over the years and we’re going to continue on that.”


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