“It’s Been a Giant Relief”: In a Season of Uncertainty, NCAA Conference Meets Offer Taste of the Familiar
By Jonathan Gault
October 29, 2020
Certainty is scarce for NCAA cross country coaches right now. The NCAA xc championships originally scheduled for November 21st are now scheduled for March 15 at Oklahoma State, but nobody is quite sure of the path teams will travel to get there over the next four and a half months. There will likely be cross country meets this winter, though nobody knows exactly where or when. Simultaneously, there is supposed to be an indoor track season to worry about, and with the NCAA indoor championships scheduled for March 12-13 — leaving just a day of rest before the XC champs — coaches will be forced to make hard decisions about which athletes to enter in which meets. That is, if we even have an indoor season. With the path of the coronavirus uncertain — the US just reported over 500,000 cases last week, its highest tally yet — many coaches are hesitant to commit to firm plans for the winter season. Too much can change between now and then.
That is why the five Division I conference cross country championships set to be held this weekend are so important. The ACC, Big 12, and SEC championships (Friday) and the Conference USA and Sun Belt championships (Saturday) don’t just represent valuable competition opportunities for athletes robbed of their outdoor track season. They also come as a welcome relief for the coaches entrusted with guiding them. A tangible, meaningful goal to focus on. Certainty, in a time when precious little exists.
“Getting yanked off the track in Albuquerque [ahead of the 2020 NCAA indoor meet] and then having no outdoor season and then the cancellation of the Olympic Trials…I think it’s been a giant relief [to have a cross country season this fall],” says Arkansas’ Lance Harter, coach of the reigning NCAA women’s champions.
Of course, that relief did not extend to every NCAA school. Five conferences will hold championships this weekend, but 27 will not. Some teams, like Northern Arizona and BYU, winners of the last four men’s national titles, had to scramble just to put one meet on the schedule this fall. But for those schools competing this weekend, conference week has lost none of its significance.
“It’s as important as a typical year,” says Iowa State assistant coach Jeremy Sudbury. “The Big 12 is identifying this as the championship for the year, and we want to treat it that way and go out there and give it everything we’ve got.”
In some ways, this year’s conference meets are more important than usual. Unlike in years past, there will be no NCAA regional meets this year — and thus, no automatic qualifiers. Instead, a selection committee will pick the field. And the number one criteria they’ll be considering? Performance at the conference championship.
That has put at least one team in a tough spot. Back in August, before his athletes had returned to campus, Wake Forest coach John Hayes held a Zoom meeting with his men’s team. Several athletes were concerned about the limitations COVID restrictions could place on their training. Specifically: contact tracing, and the potential for a mandatory two-week quarantine.
“You’re with somebody that asymptomatically tests positive and happens to be your roommate, next thing you know, neither of you feel bad but you miss two weeks,” Hayes says. “You’re missing two weeks, it’s going to hurt your season a lot.”
As a result, a number of Hayes’ athletes chose not to return to campus. They would train at home, safe in the knowledge that they would not miss out on an NCAA championship this fall. Included in that number were Wake Forest’s presumptive top two runners: Zach Facioni (7:55/13:48 pbs), who chose to stay in Australia, and Aaron Las Heras (3:43/14:02 pbs), the 2019 European U20 5,000m champion who remained in Spain.
On September 22, however, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved plans to hold the NCAA XC meet on March 15. Suddenly, Wake Forest was at a major disadvantage.
“It’s unfortunate that whoever’s deciding on the NCAA qualification measures, that they tell us that after our kids have decided not to come back, when the whole purpose is our kids want to compete at NCAAs,” Hayes says. “These kids are motivated, have trained hard and everything. But the NCAA is gonna use the ACC championships — where probably 40% of our top five’s not there — to judge as the main factor in whether we make that meet or not.”
Hayes is still excited about the opportunity to compete this weekend, and he has several men running well at the moment, including sophomore Carter Coughlin and senior Jack Tiernan (younger brother of 2016 NCAA XC champ Patrick). He plans on entering his team in cross country races this winter and believes that, once his squad is at full strength, they can earn Wake Forest’s first NCAA bid since 2001.
“Give us one or two races in February and my assumption is that we should be able to prove ourselves worthy,” Hayes says.
All athletes competing at ACCs, which will be held in Cary, N.C., must pass a COVID test 72 hours prior to departure and another rapid test conducted at the course on Thursday. Big 12 athletes must pass a test 24 hours prior to departure to the championship site in Lawrence, Kansas. SEC rules stipulate that athletes must be tested within 72 hours of competition; that would mean anytime after Tuesday morning ahead of the SEC champs in Baton Rouge, La.
This is nothing new for these athletes. Sudbury and Harter say Iowa State and Arkansas’ runners have been tested weekly since the start of the school year.
“We do the PCR test, which is the way-up-the-nostril process,” Harter says. “It’s the one that has the highest accuracy rate, so there’s minimal false positives. We’re spending $1.8 million as a university in testing. It’s a major undertaking.”
Both the Big 12 and SEC meets are allowing masked spectators, but, per conference guidelines, the ACC is not.
“I understand there are meets going on where there are spectators and they’re outside, so I think there are people who are certainly frustrated with that decision, but we’re just happy to be competing,” says NC State coach Laurie Henes, whose school is hosting the meet.
Of the three Power 5 meets, the Big 12 men’s race features the best head-to-head showdown, with Oklahoma State — #5 in the newly-released USTFCCCA poll — facing #10 Iowa State. OK State won the teams’ first encounter at the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater on October 3 by a score of 23-32 and will be shooting for its first conference crown in four years. Iowa State has won the last three titles after OK State won nine in a row from 2008-16. That race also features perhaps the top individual in the entire NCAA in the Cyclones’ Wesley Kiptoo, who has won both his races in dominant fashion so far this year.
The best depth belongs to the ACC, which will feature four ranked men’s teams (#6 Notre Dame, #16 Virginia, #17 Syracuse, and #21 NC State) and five ranked women’s teams (#4 NC State, #12 Notre Dame, #21 Florida State, #25 Georgia Tech, #27 North Carolina).
That sort of quality is something most teams haven’t seen yet this season, as all of the major invitationals were cancelled. The NC State women, for example, has faced just one ranked team (North Carolina, twice).
“We’ve basically had three tri-meets, so it’s quite different for people without experience to go into part of a championship season without any of those bigger meets where we’re used to people learning a lot from,” Henes says.
Beyond the certainty of this week, every team is approaching the rest of the fall differently. Hayes’ athletes at Wake Forest will take time off before building back up for the indoor/XC season. Harter plans to have his team continue training until Thanksgiving — as they would in a typical year — before taking a break, perhaps running a road race or time trial after the conference meet is over. Henes says she hasn’t totally decided what her athletes will do yet, while Iowa State’s athletes will follow their own individualized plans.
“Some guys will take a break and regroup and build up for indoors/cross country season that’s coming in the winter,” Sudbury says. “Some guys may continue their season — I know there [are] quite a few meets that are being thrown around that are track outdoor meets that are on December 5, so potentially we could see some athletes continuing their season to December 5 and then shutting it down after that.”
As for 2021, no one knows quite what to expect. Harter, whose school is slated to host both SECs and NCAAs indoors, is optimistic both meets will be held; he says Arkansas’ event management staff went through its hosting protocols with the NCAA two weeks ago.
“The worst-case scenario as a collective group of coaches from the SEC, we have a plan B where we will at least have an SEC championship,” Harter says.
Others aren’t so sure, however. The size of track & field teams, length of meets, and the enclosed nature of indoor track present significant challenges when it comes to holding an event safely.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we’re gonna have indoor,” Hayes says. “That’s just my honest opinion. I don’t know that we can do it safely with 15 teams in a building for ACC championships, the NCAA championships. Unless something drastically changes in our country between now and March — which I guess we should all be hopeful for — I don’t think it’s a safe environment indoors.”
All the more reason to savor this weekend’s meets.