In an interview last week, Clarke County senior Hannah Ventura said running in last year’s Class 2 state cross country championships was the most memorable moment of her athletic career.
Thanks to Thursday’s Virginia High School League Executive Committee vote, more cross country runners will get a chance for a similar feeling compared to what was first proposed last month.
The initial “Championships + 1” draft released by the VHSL on Aug. 24 called for only one team from every region in all team sports to advance to state competition, but cross country will now have two teams per region advance to the state meet. Cross country personnel had argued that while other sports were seeing a 50 percent decrease in the number of team state qualifiers from region competition, they were seeing a 67 percent decrease. Under normal circumstances, cross country has three teams from each region advance to state competition.
“I think it’s a benefit to everybody, state-wide, that they’ve allowed that second team in, not just because we’re in a tough region,” Millbrook cross country coach Jamie McCarty said. “I think it’s just going to make the competition better. When you only give away one spot, it makes it pretty tough. I think this opens up the competition level and evens the playing field a little bit for everybody I think.”
Region 4C is particularly competitive. Loudoun Valley has won five straight state Class 4 state titles on the boys’ side and the Vikings have won two straight state titles on the girls’ side. Both the James Wood and Millbrook boys and girls return veteran teams that each qualified for the Class 4 state meet last year, with the Pioneers and Colonels girls taking third and fourth, respectively.
Clarke County coach Jeff Webster pointed out that last year’s Class 2 state third-place team, Madison County, would not have qualified for the state meet in 2019 if only the regional champion moved on.
The Eagles scored 35 points to win the Region 2B meet while the Mountaineers scored 36. Madison County actually beat the Eagles at the state meet, taking third place while Clarke County took fourth.
“I think it’s a much more fair determination to bring two from each region,” Webster said. “Especially when you have a situation where one region might be stronger than some others.”
The VHSL has expressed concerns over the past month about the number of people that will be allowed at facilities for events because of COVID-19. So while it increased the number of teams advancing on Thursday, it did cut down on the number of individual state qualifiers from five (which is what the number is under normal circumstances) to three in each region.
Under normal circumstances, 26 people from each region advance to the state meet (21 from three teams, five individuals). The initial proposal called for 12 (seven from one team, five individuals), and Thursday’s vote bumped the number up to 17 (14 from two teams, three individuals).
James Wood coach Matt Lofton said he was happy to see an extra team get in, but he hopes that the VHSL might be open to returning to the traditional number of five individual state qualifiers.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction as far as allowing more kids into the state meet,” Lofton said. “But I think you’re really hurting the individual athletes by narrowing it down from five kids to three per region. There’s a lot of kids, especially in our region, that are not on those teams that are going to be the state qualifiers. Therefore some kids who are potentially in the hunt for the state championship won’t be able to make it if they happen to have a bad day at the regional meet.”
The first practice day for cross country is Feb. 15, and the cross country season will be preceded by the indoor track season. If there’s no indoor track season, Lofton wonders if the VHSL might want to give cross country runners more opportunities to compete to make up for a lost season.
“At the same time, if we do have an indoor track season, maybe they’ll see it’s a little bit safer [to compete] and they can allow more kids,” Lofton said. “Either way, I hope they can see that it’s not going to make that big of an impact just to add a couple more kids per region.”
COVID-19 and school decisions
During Thursday’s meeting, VHSL executive director Billy Haun talked about the state’s return-to-school instruction schedules with information from the Virginia Department of Education.
Haun said of the state’s 132 school divisions, only 10 currently have in-person instruction (at least four days of the week). A total of 54 have either partial in-person, all hybrid, or partial hybrid schedules. There are 68 divisions that are fully remote. The Winchester, Frederick County and Clarke County school systems are offering varying degrees of reduced in-person learning or 100% online classes.
VHSL chairwoman Shannon Butler, the principal of York High School, said the York County school division is one of the 68 that is completely virtual, which means no athletics right now. Butler made it clear that while the VHSL can establish parameters for when athletics can take place, the organization has no control over when students can participate in athletics. Those decisions are up to the respective schools.
“I think there’s a common misconception out there from parents, and the state, and the community, that if the Virginia High School League Executive Committee decided [Thursday] that we would bring back fall sports on Monday, then that means everybody’s playing on Monday,” she said. “I think what the parents didn’t understand that I spoke to [on Wednesday], us as the Executive Committee and the Virginia High School League do not have authority over local school divisions and local schools and localities.
“What I mean by that is if we said we going back and playing on Monday, that doesn’t mean my school division, who’s all virtual, is going to be on the field on Monday, or the other  that are all virtual will be that way. I do know in speaking with a number of superintendents, they feel strongly that the primary responsibility of schools is to get kids in school. It’s going to be very hard for superintendents and localities to say it would be fine for us to have full-blown football practice on Monday afternoon when there’s no students allowed in the building. ... [The VHSL] can open sports up if we chose to do so, but that doesn’t mean all our kids would be able to play.”
‘Let Them Play’ movement
The comments about returning to school instruction followed Haun’s opening remarks about the “Let Them Play” movement. A rally took place in Richmond on Monday as part of the movement to allow high school sports to be conducted sooner than December, which is what the “Championships + 1” plan features.
Haun said the VHSL has received numerous emails from parents sharing the concerns about the fact that students are not participating in sports this fall. Haun added the VHSL has been made aware of a “Let Them Play” petition with more than 5,000 signatures on it to let students play in the fall, though Haun has not received a copy of it yet.
Haun said there are four main concerns that have been shared by parents. Those are that many children have been participating in club sports yet can’t play for their school; students could suffer mental and emotional strains because they’re not on participating high school sports teams; students could be missing scholarship opportunities; and that students in other states are being allowed to participate in high school sports.
Haun pointed out that as of Thursday, Virginia is by no means alone in not conducting high school sports this fall.
According to the National Federation of High Schools, for fall sports in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., 14 associations are playing with no modifications; 29 are playing with modified schedules; and eight associations are not holding competitions. In terms of football, 14 associations are playing with no modifications, 19 have modified their seasons, and 18 are not playing football in the fall.
“[We want] to let parents know that we understand and appreciate their passion and their advocacy for their children and their students,” Haun said. “Losing last spring was very difficult, and now not having competitions in the fall is difficult. We, the VHSL members and the executive committee, are career educators. Along with our parents, we want to do what’s best for our approximate 190,000 student-athletes and our 318 member schools who participate in our activities.”
In addition to announcing team contest limitations, the VHSL also released a document on Thursday outlining the limitations for athletes who choose to compete in events as individuals. In 2020-21, all sports schedules will be 60 percent of a normal season.
In wrestling, for example, under normal circumstances, an athlete could compete in up to three events as an individual. An example of these types of competitions is the Beast of the East at the University of Delaware. But now they can only participate in two of those events as part of the overall eight-contest limit for the sport.
Contest limitations for other individual sports: girls’ wrestling and girls’ golf, 3; indoor track, outdoor track, cross country, 2.
For volleyball, teams are limited to 12 contests as a whole. However, volleyball teams can also choose to do 10 dual matches and one invitational event or eight dual matches and two invitational events.