Fall XC – Hear from the Athletes (8-14-2020)

My position on the Fall XC season has been well documented. The kids should be able to run XC this fall, if they and their family choose to do so. Wave starts, limited competition numbers, and outdoor air make the sport of XC low risk by any governing body standards. To my knowledge, contract tracing has not found COVID spikes from individuals competing in road races this summer. The state of Colorado trialed trail runs with 12 runners per wave with each wave separated by :30s. By their own review, this worked well and kept athletes separated, but they did say they would consider :60s wave separation for future events.

The PIAA’s Executive Director, Bob Lombardi, recently said that he sees no reason why golf, tennis, and cross-country should not compete this fall, even in the presence of online education. He mentioned he has no knowledge of wide-spread COVID transmission in these populations that are low to no contact. To go even further, we all have seen soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball tournaments going on all summer. Has there been spread there? Again, if there is, it isn’t being reported by the state or by contract tracing reports. That said, if contract tracing were to show community spread from these events we all need to take a harder look at the season.

So, while elected officials are making the decisions, what do the student athletes think? Do they still want to have a season? What would they do to make the sport even safer?

The runners in our Senior Journal series share their thoughts.

Colton Sands, Penns Valley

There is only a few weeks left before the start of the 20-21 school year and the cross country season, yet we athlete are still unsure if we will be able to race. Just yesterday the Big Ten Confrence cancelled the fall season. The govenor has pressured the PIAA to do the same. As a rising senior, this season will be my final one. To lose it would be devastating. The previous three cross country seasons have highlights of my high school experience, and this year offered a final chance to tie the bow on what has been a great four years.

However, this is no ordinary year. The COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing we have ever experienced. For the past 5 months there has been nothing. No school, no meets, no college visits. The fall season seemed a beacon of hope during this time. But, as we get closer to go time it seems less and less likely, as case rates remain fairly steady and the virus continues to spread.

Multiple ideas have been floated to make this season happen. Some want to see teams race separately in a time trial format, while others want to just go full steam ahead, risks be damned. I don’t feel either of these ideas is ideal. Time trial type competitions might work, but it kills the spirit of the sport. My favorite aspect of cross country is the racing, one against many, where you have to be tactical and decisive to get to the line first. This might make it seem I’m in the other camp, but I can assure you I am not. While the virus doesn’t pose to much risk to the lives of young people, many athletes live with family members who may be at risk. In addition, the long term implications of the virus on the body may be detrimental to athletes. In my opinion, if the PIAA cannot find a way to make a true racing season happen in a way that is truly safe for the athletes and their families, we should not race.

Obviously I want to race this fall, but if it cannot be done safely, it may be better that we wait untill spring. However, I believe that if the people of Pennsylvania take responsibility and follow government guidelines, wearing makes, and practicing social distancing, case rates may fall to the point a season is possible.

Stay positive, keep grinding.

Margaret Carroll, Northeastern

For this upcoming fall season, I think that high school sports should move forward if there is a way to do it safely. I believe that for low contact sports such as cross country it is more than possible to start the season safely. Fall sports season is something that many students work hard for and I think they should be given the opportunity to compete, Although there is always going to be some risk of infection which should be taken seriously, the risk of student athlete mental health at this point is greater. Ultimately, it is the student athlete and family’s own decision on what level of risk they are comfortable with and no one is forcing anyone to do something they feel is unsafe.

Despite this risk, the season could continue with a little creativity and problem solving. Some ideas for how to have a safe xc season:

Practices: Temperature checks could be taken at the beginning of each practice. Coaches and athletes would be told not to come if they are experiencing symptoms or have come in contact with anyone who tested positive. During practices, we could do as much outside as we can staying within small groups of people who usually run together anyway. Of course, masks could be worn when just talking or not involved in strenuous activity.

Meets: Again, athletes and coaches could have temperature checks/health surveys before they are allowed to participate in a meet. The main issue would be the start lines which could be solved by starting in waves based off of those small groups and then there could be social distancing between teams. For larger meets this would be harder, but they could be spread out over several days based on class (A, AA or AAA), a team’s ranking or by location. If things get worse with COVID-19, there could also be virtual races, where a course might be open for a week for teams to come run and then times could be sent in and scored that way. As for spectators, they could wear masks and there could be markers spaced six feet apart at the start/finish lines where people tend to congregate to encourage social distancing.

Transportation: Athletes could be directed to sit closer to others within their smaller groups on the bus if social distancing is not possible. Parents could take their athletes to meets and athletes who are able to could drive themselves and teammates within their small groups to minimize the number of people on the bus.

Stephen Schousen, JP McCaskey

I think we should do our best to provide opportunities for our athletes. Juniors and seniors hoping to be recruited particularly need chances to showcase their skills. These opportunities could come in the form of competitions adjusted to adhere to social-distancing guidelines or, for sports where direct competition is deemed too unsafe, skills combines that allow athletes to showcase their improvement for college coaches. As for cross country and most other non-contact sports, I think there is a way to safely compete by limiting the number and size of races. 

One way to limit exposure to covid-19 is to run only invitationals. Seeing as we race all of the teams we race in dual meets at the league meet, I think it would be safer to have one meet instead of six or seven. In addition, invitationals seem to be better places for runners to produce performances useful for the recruiting process. 

Typically, invitationals are too big to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines, but I think there are some ways to make them safer and ensure social-distancing. We could limit the number of races offered and spread the races out over the course of a full day. Most meets, like Ben Bloser and Carlisle, have different races for smaller schools and bigger schools. By running the small schools in the morning and the big schools in the evening, we could limit the number of people on the course at one time and sanitize in between the races. Another way organizers might be able to keep invitationals safe would be to limit the number of competitors. By inviting back the top teams and finishers from last year’s meet, they could keep the meet size relatively small while still providing fun and competitive races. 

Unfortunately this approach would mean many athletes, especially freshmen and sophomores, may not have a chance to compete at some venues, but given the social-distancing guidelines we could not have invitationals if they included the number of athletes they did before the pandemic. And even though they might not have a chance to compete in a given race, athletes would still have a chance to train with their teams and participate in road races and time trials. While it may seem unfair to prioritize juniors and seniors over some freshmen and sophomores, upperclassmen are in their last seasons of high school running and need these invitationals for college recruitment. Underclassmen will have multiple seasons ahead of them.

Obviously I am no medical expert and would defer to the professionals on whether or not safe competition is possible this season. Of course I hope to have the opportunity to run this fall, but I recognize the gravity of the situation we are in and would completely understand a possible cancelation. We are just starting our running careers and, even if worse comes to worst and we miss our season, our best days will still be ahead of us.

Erika Moriarty, Kutztown

Personally, missing my senior year of cross country would be absolutely devastating and would take a toll on many people’s mental health. The risk we would be taking by still having a season is there, but running is much different than say softball, or football. As for softball, they’re all touching the ball and bat, right? As for football they’re tackling one another. In cross country we really don’t make physical contact as much as other sports would so for us to not have a season and other sports to still have their season wouldn’t be ideal whatsoever. As for recommendations on how to make the season safer, I believe spectators should wear masks, social distances themselves or have no spectators at all. I’ve heard about this option and honestly thought it was completely stupid for lack of better words, due to the fact that the spectators are most likely the athletes’ parents. This means if the athlete’s parent is ill then the athlete may also be ill, so for the parent not to be there and the athlete to be able to be there would make no sense whatsoever. Another really good recommendation may be to have a maximum limit of runners from each team or in each race. To further elaborate, we could potentially base our times off of mile split, and do waves as if it were track season. There would be less people in the race, therefore less chance of physical contact. As for social distancing while we run, we try our best. We’re human and nothing will be perfect. No plan we have will ever be full proof, so let’s just do the best we can and try.

Brendan Colwell, Penns Valley

We should try to have a season because our sport is built around distancing yourself from others. We’re not touching each other, we don’t have 1 ball that everyone touches, nor do we have anything that anyone else is supposed to touch. I want a season so thag I can put on display the training that I have put in over the summer.

To help make the sport safer we should do a combined state meet earlier in the year, like mid-October, completely declassified, top 200 girls and boys go (to Hershey). I think the earlier, the better, because there are less cases in the area if you do it early.

Jordan Reed, State College

I think we should have a cross country season this fall if it can be done safely and everyone involved is willing to follow safety precautions put in place. Having sports run through schools could provide better control and opportunities for everyone to post official times.

One idea of how to make the XC season safer is lowering the number of people at the meets. Spectators cheering on races could spread germs to each other and the athletes from the sidelines, especially if they take their masks off to yell. To allow people to still watch the meets, there could be a livestream of races (at multiple places around the course) or high quality race videos. A set up like this could even allow relatives and friends far away to watch races.

Anne Martin, Warwick

It is undeniable that the ideal thing to be done in order to get rid of this virus would be to put everything on hold and go into lockdown. Other countries that have beaten COVID have proven this much. However, we’ve already tried this approach, and it’s clear that not everyone is willing to put others’ safety before their own personal agendas. So, I think it’s time we start looking for other ways to beat COVID. With the hopes of a vaccine arriving mid winter, I believe it would be better to focus on keeping at-risk people safe, rather than eliminating the virus itself. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to keep people who aren’t high-risk busy in controlled environments, such as school and extracurricular activities for teenagers. I would argue that ALL fall sports must have their seasons. I understand that this could be a difficult situation for many athletes that have a high-risk person living in the same household as them. However, I don’t believe that’s a strong enough argument to cancel fall sports. My dad was recently categorized as a high risk patient, and I’ve made the decision to go online for school so I don’t risk exposing him to the virus. However, I would never want that risk to impact the lives and fall seasons of so many student-athletes. This is just an example of how kids will have to adapt to their family situations if school and sports are allowed to continue.

The PIAA has a choice to make, let kids who don’t have to worry about exposing their family members to coronavirus continue playing sports, or let no kids play sports at all. To me, the choice seems obvious. I’m giving up my senior school year because I’m not willing to risk getting my dad sick, but I don’t want my friends and classmates to have to give up their school years because of people like my dad. Sports will work the same way. Families have to decide what’s best for them. That may mean that some athletes don’t get a chance to compete, but the majority of athletes in PA will get that chance. It’s not completely fair, but right now there is no perfect solution for everyone. To me, it sounds like a much better alternative to the PIAA canceling everything, and Governor Wolf canceling school. If everything is canceled in order to encourage our communities to go into lockdown, I’m scared to think of how people will react.

We can’t be forced to stay home or wear masks at private events. Keep kids, parents, and communities safe by keeping teenagers in controlled environments like school and sports and away from uncontrolled public areas.

I think the best way to stay safe in cross country is to wear masks at every possible moment (whenever we’re not racing or working out), and to social distance. Athletes know how important it is to stay healthy, and we’ve been doing a good job at following the health and safety guidelines set by our individual schools. As an extra precaution to ensure athletes are following all the guidelines, coaches, officials, and administrators could ban athletes from practices or races if they aren’t following guidelines.

Eli Spence, Shippensburg

I would say eliminating non essential races would be the first step (dual meets etc). Additionally, sending 7 waves 1 minute apart, starting with the fastest varsity runners and going down the line to the number 7 guys. Obviously, mask rules will have to be applied at all times except when racing. I feel like this will make invitationals a somewhat safe enviroment. I would love to have a season!