Road to states in VHSL could involve significant adjustment for individual-based sports

During last week’s Virginia High School League Executive Committee work session, Jamestown High School principal Howard Townsend asked if it was possible for more than one team to advance to a state cross country meet when Season 2 (fall sports) wraps up in mid-April.

The principal of the Class 4 school made the point that some regions are so strong that the top three teams from a region could wind up being the top three teams in the state. But VHSL assistant director Chris Robinson said the organization “is trying to be consistent across the board with each of our team sports, and kind of that common theme has been one team.”

If changes aren’t made to the Aug. 24 Executive Committee 2020-21 schedule draft proposal, that theme could have major implications on the James Wood and Millbrook boys’ and girls’ cross country teams that are trying to get back to the state meet. As things currently stand, area coaches and athletes in all sports may have to get used to a harder road through the postseason. The proposed changes to the individual sports are particularly notable.

In the VHSL “Championships + 1” plan that was presented as an option at the Aug. 24 Executive Committee meeting, sports centered around head-to-head team competition would each deal with the same situation. Each of the four region champions advance to a four-team state tournament that starts with state semifinals. Before COVID-19 prompted the VHSL to vote on a condensed-season plan, region champions and region runners-up advanced to an eight-team state tournament that started with the state quarterfinals in all sports except football, which has always had a single-elimination postseason format.

Individual-based sports, two of which involve team advancement, appear to be facing more of an adjustment than head-to-head sports when it comes to the postseason under the plan released on Aug. 24. (The VHSL has received a lot of feedback on the “Championships + 1” plan, which is why it decided to not meet on Thursday and instead meet on Sept. 17 so it can review and discuss feedback from membership.)

Qualifying in individual-based sports from each region for state competition: cross country, one team and five individuals (usually three teams and top five individuals not on those three teams): golf: one team and three individuals (usually two teams and three other individuals); wrestling: two individuals (usually four); swimming: top four in each event (usually top five individuals and top four relays).

Outdoor track & field will still qualify the top four in each event and indoor track will still qualify the top three in each event for the state meet. However, during the regular season and postseason, individuals will not be able to advance to the state meet by reaching state qualifying times or marks in track or swimming like they have in the past.

That was presented at last week’s meeting because the VHSL thinks it would be best to know for certain just how many athletes are going to be at a facility due to potential restrictions on how many people will be allowed in a facility. Robinson also used that thought process when explaining the limitations on the cross country teams for a state meet at last week’s meeting. Robinson said even if the VHSL thought about additional teams, there are still concerns about what the capacity would be for the venues that would host state events.

VHSL executive Billy Haun said as of right now the state of Virginia is limiting school events to 250 people because of COVID-19 regulations. But once the VHSL gathers more details, Haun is going meet with the governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Health and ask for facilities to open up 50 percent of its capacity to people. After that, he’ll ask for at least 1,000 people at a facility, which is what’s allowed at recreational events. If he can’t get that, the VHSL will have to settle for 250 people.

In an email last week, James Wood coordinator of student activities Craig Woshner said the state advancement situation for individual sports stood out to him.

“The VHSL has had the unenviable task of making difficult decisions given the current environment,” said Woshner in his statement. “With the shortened seasons, I do understand that the League is trying to salvage some sort of state championship process while balancing the time constraints and likely state health restrictions regarding the size of gatherings.

“The proposal, however, does drastically cut the state advancement opportunities for our athletes particularly in the individual sports, and I do think there are other options to mitigate risks that I hope will be considered before the Executive Committee votes on these recommendations. As with so many other educational experiences over the past six months, including the Committee’s decision not to proceed with low-risk sports this fall, I feel that many of our student-athletes will again lose opportunities that can never be recovered or replaced.”

The VHSL calendar currently calls for winter sports (Season 1) to start in December, fall sports (Season 2) to start in February and spring sports (Season 3) to start in April.

The cross country season (Season 2) could be particularly unique in Region 4C, because there’s an abundance of talent returning to the area this year.

On the girls’ side, Millbrook (third in Class 4, third in Region 4C) only lost one runner from its 10-member team. James Wood (fourth in Class 4, second in Region 4C) returns six of its top seven from the state meet and adds eight freshmen.

On the boys’ side, Millbrook (eighth in Class 4, third in Region 4C) returns four of its top six from the state meet. James Wood (10th in Class 4, second in Region 4C) returns six of its top seven from the state meet.

Each of those four programs has quite a mountain to climb if they want to be the one team advancing to states. The Loudoun Valley boys have won five consecutive Class 4 state titles by an average of 70 points, and the Viking girls have won two straight state titles, taking last year’s crown by 23 points.

New James Wood cross country coach Matthew Lofton — a Millbrook assistant for the previous 10 years — said he understands the VHSL’s position, but he’s hoping that the organization is willing to make adjustments.

Lofton points out that under the VHSL proposal, there would be no more than 48 people in each state race.

“Are you going to have more than 48 athletes on a football field at one time?” Lofton said. “It seems a little too strict on our sport. A sport that’s outside with no contact that spreads out pretty far over the course of a 3.1-mile race.”

VHSL assistant director Tom Dolan did say in last week’s meeting that one concern with cross country is the end of the race, where an athlete might fall and have to be carried off after crossing the finish line in the chute. That was another reason given to limit participants.

New Millbrook cross country coach Jamie McCarty — a Loudoun Valley assistant the past two years — said last week that he hopes the VHSL is listening to what personnel from around the state are saying.

“Knowing how strong our region is, [the initial plan] makes it difficult,” McCarty said. “But right now, it’s just a proposal. The good thing is that I think the VHSL has shown a lot of thought into what they’ve been doing and not rushing into decisions. Just putting [the proposal] out and allowing the athletic directors and the principals in all the sports to have open dialogue and some input, I think that’s a good thing on their part.

“Obviously, we would like if they expanded [the number of state qualifying teams]. But in the situation that we’re in right now, I can understand their thinking. They’re trying to do what they feel is right for all of our athletes. Right now, that’s the most important thing.”

Swimming and indoor track have to be concerned with even having state meets. Haun said last week that the VHSL might not be able to secure venues for state competition because of COVID-19 regulations. VHSL assistant director Shawn Knight said a virtual state swim meet is a possibility.

Clarke County swimming coach Carol Marshall said a virtual state swim meet would be better than nothing, but certain regions could have advantages depending on the quality of the pool they’re swimming in.

Sherando swimming coach Joe Knight said “there’s a dark cloud” hanging over swimming with the uncertainty of not having a state venue and the reduction in state qualifiers.

Swimmers are going to need to be at their best once the region meet rolls around. And with only six meets to work with under the VHSL plan released last week, Knight said there might not be as many opportunities for swimmers to compete at faster pools to prepare for the postseason. For example, the local home pools of Jim Barnett Park and Signal Knob Recreation usually don’t produce times as fast as you’ll see at the pools in Manassas Park, Warrenton or Shepherd University.

One of the benefits of qualifying for the state meet based on time during the regular season is it allows swimmers to experiment to see what their best events might be in the postseason competitions leading up the state meet. Swimmers can also possibly swim in events they might not ordinarily do in order to help their teams score points if they know they’ve already secured state spots. But without being able to qualify on time, swimmers will have to swim where they’re most comfortable in a region meet.

“The very talented swimmers that we have in this area, like [James Wood’s] Kim Warnagiris, or my swimmers Chelsey Jones and Emma De Jong, those girls in a normal year are capable of qualifying in four or five individual events,” Knight said. “Then they have the opportunity to pick-and-choose what they want to do [in the postseason]. [This plan] kind of shackles the athletes in some respect.”

If things don’t change, athletes will just have to work a little harder if they want to advance to state competition this year.

“All we can is put our noses to the grindstone and get better,” McCarty said. “We’ll try and do the best we can. We’ve still got other opportunities to get [to the state meet] individually even if we can’t make it as a team. We’ll wait and see what shakes out and hopefully it will work out for the best for all the athletes.”

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