By Jonathan Gault
December 19, 2018
2016 was a banner year for girls’ cross country in the state of Maryland. That fall, four Maryland girls qualified for the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships, more than Maryland had sent in the previous 21 years combined. No state had more girls’ qualifiers that year, despite the fact that Maryland ranks just 19th in population.
At the national meet in San Diego, Maryland made more history. For the first time, two Maryland girls finished in the top 10, with Hayley Jackson of Patuxent High School in Lusby taking 8th and Maria Coffin of Annapolis High School placing 10th. As Chris Graff saw it, there was only one problem: Jackson and Coffin — the two best runners in the state, and two of the best runners in Maryland high school history — did not race each other that fall until the Foot Locker Northeast regional meet in New York.
“I looked at that as a problem,” says Graff, who placed 5th in the 10,000 meters at the 2004 Olympic Trials (pbs of 13:37/28:03) and now serves as a volunteer assistant coach at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. “You have three Division I athletes (including Abigail Green, who finished 21st at Foot Locker) who are the state’s three 4:50 milers and All-American cross country runners and they have to go to New York and to San Diego to race each other. It seems like we could be doing a better job of finding a way to push each other to be better without having to travel all over the place to do it.”
Maryland, like many states, does not have a unified, all-division state meet in cross country. Instead, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) holds a state championship with four divisions, 1A through 4A, based on school enrollment. Throw in a small school and large school private school state championship and Maryland has at least six different state championships for a state with just six million people.
Graff, who is originally from New York, felt it made no sense that states like New York (4th in population) and New Jersey (11th) held all-division state meets while Maryland did not. So he spoke to some of his friends at Under Armour, the athletic apparel manufacturer headquartered in Baltimore, including Gary Powers, sales manager in charge of team sports in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Graff floated his idea for an all-division Maryland state meet — which would also include the state’s private schools that do not compete in the MPSSAA — and wondered if there was anything Under Armour could do to help out.
“Under Armour’s two objectives for the year were to get better in touch with grassroots efforts and to really boost their efforts in all things running-related,” says Graff, who does not work for Under Armour. “So we thought it might be a nice fit for us to partner together.”
Graff then began reaching out to other Maryland high school coaches. Would they support (and attend) an all-division state meet?
“Everyone seemed pretty enthusiastic about it,” Graff says. “The general reaction was, Yeah, why don’t we do that?“
He also reached out to Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, which offered to host the meet, free of charge. Everything seemed to be working out.
In August 2018, Graff announced that the inaugural Under Armour Maryland Meet of Champions (MMoC) would be held at Mt. St. Mary’s on November 17, the Saturday between the MPSSAA state meet and the two regional meets for which Maryland athletes are eligible (Foot Locker Northeast and Nike Cross Southeast). Qualifying schools and athletes would be selected based upon their performances at the MPSSAA championships. Graff would serve as race director, while Under Armour would cover some of the costs associated with the meet, such as timing and the construction of a mobile stage for awards.
Graff and Under Armour were worried that, because the meet would take place after the MPSSAA season, the student-athletes would be risking their eligibility if they competed for their high school teams. So they decided that, in the same way Nike gives out singlets to all runners at events like BorderClash and Nike Cross Nationals, Under Armour would give singlets out to every athlete at MMoC, with teams representing their “club” as opposed to their high school. Graff estimates that the retail cost of that gear was roughly $18,000, with Under Armour kicking in an additional $2,500 or so for costs associated with staging the meet (Under Armour declined to comment for this story).
“The goal was breaking even, just covering our costs with the entry fees and keeping it under $20 per athlete,” Graff says.
Reaction to Graff’s announcement that the meet would actually take place in 2018 was overwhelmingly positive.
“I was excited,” says Josh Dawson, the coach at Northern High School in Owings, which has won the last three girls’ 3A state titles in Maryland. “New Jersey does a great job with their meet of champions and it’s fully school-backed and the state athletic association backs it, as far as I’m aware, and I’ve always been jealous of that. It really brings a true state champion.
“…[The coaches] all loved the idea, we thought it would be really cool. I think me as a fan, even if I didn’t have any athletes there, I would have still been very intrigued and very interested in finding out those results and watching the race. And I think I have fellow friends that are in the same boat.”
Josh Alcombright, whose Severna Park High School boys’ and girls’ teams both won the 4A state title this year (the boys also won last year), supported the idea in principle but felt that for strong teams with NXN aspirations, the timing could be better.
“I thought it was a really, really good idea, a really good concept, but the date was not really the best,” Alcombright says. “I know they had to work it around and that was probably the only date they could find. But we have counties, regions, states, and then if we the have Meet of Champions the next week and then you go down to Nike after that, it was probably not the best date to have it on.”
Alcombright said that he still was still planning on bringing his B team to the MMoC, and that if there was a weekend of rest in between the MMoC and NXR Southeast then he would “strongly consider” bringing his A team to the MMoC. But for that to happen, the MMoC would have to work with the MPSSAA to push the rest of the season’s meets ahead by one week.
“I’m not sure that’s gonna happen,” Alcombright says.
For many runners, the MMoC offered an additional opportunity to face top competition without having to travel out of state over Thanksgiving weekend. John Kaneko‘s daughter, Katie, was one of the top freshmen in Maryland this fall. John and Katie looked at the post-state meet opportunities available to her and decided that the MMoC would be their top option, for three main reasons: Katie would get to compete against all of the top runners from Maryland; the location was closer to their home and required a smaller travel commitment; the timing was good as she would not have to extend her season too much and would not have to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday.
But Katie Kaneko would not run at the MMoC. Nor would anyone else, for that matter. On October 26, Graff received a memo from MPSSAA executive director Andy Warner, informing him that the MMoC had “the serious potential of jeopardizing the eligibility of many student-athletes in the State of Maryland.”
The reason was MPSSAA Rule .04C(5), which states that “eligibility to participate in a specific sport is automatically forfeited following participation in an all-star event for that sport” (seniors are allowed to participate in two all-star events following the completion of the season; all other athletes forfeit their eligibility for doing so). The MPSSAA considers an “all-star event” as one in which “players were selected to participate in the contest based on their participation as a member of a high school team. e.g. school records, player statistics, or league honors.”
Because NXN and Foot Locker regionals, both of which are open to any high school student, did not rely on in-season results for selection, they were okay. But because invitations to the MMoC were determined by the results of the MPSSAA state meet, the MPSSAA deemed the MMoC an all-star event. Graff was forced to cancel the meet.
“The reaction around the state when the meet was created was overwhelmingly positive,” Graff says. “I had a number of coaches whom I’ve never met email or find me at local races and just say, hey coach, this is a great idea, thanks for doing it, let me know how I can help...When the meet was cancelled, a lot of all the same people were very disappointed.”
Warner told Graff that the MMoC was brought to his attention by “fellow high school coaches,” though when LetsRun.com asked for the names of the coaches, Warner, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Dawson said that when his team found out the MMoC was cancelled, they were disappointed, and that he did not know of any coaches, athletes, or parents who were against the meet. Alcombright, similarly, said that the athletes on his B team were “bummed” when they heard the news.
“I didn’t hear anybody that was against it,” Alcombright says. “Some of the coaches just shared concerns about when it was, that’s all. That was really it. I don’t think anyone was against it at all. Anytime you get your kids an opportunity to compete, it’s always a plus.”
Katie Kaneko wound up running the freshman race at Foot Locker Northeast, and while John Kaneko says that they ultimately enjoyed the trip, they would have preferred to race at the MMoC.
“Given that she’s a freshman, a more local race would have been something that would have made things a lot easier for everyone,” John says.
Graff says that, after he announced the MMoC’s cancellation, a common response from coaches was one of frustration.
“They understood the explanation but were just upset about their point of view, which was that this was not in the best interests of athletes,” Graff says. “If the point of the governing association is to do what’s best for athletes, then this isn’t it.”
That seeming contradiction is at the center of the issue. LetsRun requested a phone interview with Warner, the MPSSAA executive director, and was instead referred to Maryland State Dept. of Education director of communications Bill Reinhard, who responded to our questions over email.
“The regulations [regarding all-star events] are intended to protect students from exploitation in which amateur status and both interscholastic and intercollegiate eligibility may be challenged,” Reinhard says. “Many all-star tournaments are scheduled with little instructional and practice time. Accordingly, this rule protects students from for-profit organizations for whom the safety and welfare of participating students may not be paramount. The rule also discourages for-profit organizations from attaching their name to high schools and high school students.
“The rule aligns itself to the mission of educational based-athletics where an emphasis is placed on varied seasonal activities, broad participation of students and promotion in the ideals of teamwork. Often all-star events are either located out of town or scheduled at times when students may be practicing with their high school team. Participation of students in a range of all-star competition during various seasons will inevitably affect school teams and participation opportunities for other students.”
When asked whether he thinks the MPSSAA should remove its all-star event rule, Alcombright deflected.
“That’s not really for me to say,” Alcombright says. “It’s a rule, and I’m sure they have it for a good reason…I’m sure they have the best interests of the student-athletes in mind when they make rules.”
Under Armour is a for-profit organization, but Alcombright does not believe that their sponsorship of the MMoC would come close to exploiting athletes — particularly when the Nike and Foot Locker meets, which operate on a much larger scale, are still permissible.
“It’s getting the athletes excited about competing,” Alcombright says. “It’s a genius marketing scheme. Look at Nike. That’s what the Nike Cross championships is. One, Nike is a running company at its core, so they want to get the best teams together, but it’s also you have such a captive audience, and it’s marketing.
“Under Armour is trying to do what Nike has done in Oregon. They’re trying to build themselves a name and put their stamp on the state of Maryland. I don’t think they’re exploiting the kids at all. Those kids are excited to get free stuff, to feel important, especially in our sport. People don’t grow up dreaming to be cross country runners, particularly in Maryland. I mean lacrosse is a huge sport [here]. So anytime you can celebrate these kids that work their tail off, for not only themselves, but their coaches and each other, and celebrate the great sport that we have of track and cross country is amazing.”
Graff says that he still has a desire to stage the MMoC next year, but wants to make sure he does so in a way that does not jeopardize anyone’s eligibility, perhaps by allowing open entries but dividing the fields into seeded and unseeded races if the entries grow too large.
“Basically if we can satisfy the workarounds to make it compliant with MPSSAA rules, there is interest in having it next year,” Graff says.
When asked if the MPSSAA would consider making an exception to the all-star event rule for cross country, Reinhard responded that “the regulations are applied equitably to participants in all sports,” and said that “there have been no recommendations at this time” to introduce an all-division MPSSAA state meet (he declined to answer whether the MPSSAA would be willing to work with Under Armour to stage such a meet in the future).
In that respect, Maryland is not alone. Even the smallest state in the union by population, Wyoming, does not hold an all-division state cross country meet. But Graff can’t help but think that Maryland high school cross country runners are missing out on a great opportunity.
“I don’t have a dog in the fight financially,” says Graff, who trained under the legendary Frank Gagliano as part of the Reebok Enclave and Nike Farm Team after competing in college for St John’s. “This isn’t a business for me or anything. My motivation is just to make running better because that’s what the coaches who taught me how to do this instilled in me.”
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