An example of how it is not so simple: IHSA changes its rule about non-scholastic track meets

Jack Keelan, in the white Saint Ignatius singlet, with competitiors at the Arcadia Invite on Saturday night, April 7, including Leland Later, Michael Clevenger, and Tyler Yunk.

Top Illinois high school athletes traveled to Arcadia High School in California to race in an elite field last spring. Jack Keelan, in the white Saint Ignatius singlet, takes a photo with competitors at the Arcadia Invite on Saturday night, April 7, including Leland Later from New Trier, Michael Clevenger from Decatur MacArthur, Garrett Lee and Tyler Yunk from Belvidere North, and Will Brewster and Luke Zygmunt from Grayslake.

Before Christmas vacation invitations went out to high school athletes for the Brooks PR Invitational, scheduled at the University of Washington in Seattle for Sunday, February 24.  Our senior Jack Keelan, who ran 8:55 for 3200-meters last year and won the Illinois 3A cross country championship in November, heard that two of his NXN Midwest teammates, Sam Wharton from Tippecanoe, Ohio, and Alex Riba from O’Fallon High School, had received special candy bar invitations in the mail, Willy Wonka-style.  Keelan felt a little bit left out.  Inquiries to the meet organizers suggested that he would get an invitation in a second round.  His email invitation came this week.  The candy bar invite was sent to the school, and we are still trying to track it down.

The invitation—with all expenses paid to run in an elite field—poses some difficulties for us.  We have already scheduled a special trip for our team to run in Washington, DC, at the Jesuit Indoor Invitational at Georgetown Prep on Friday night, February 22.  Keelan, obviously, is a big part of our team.

But initially there was no conflict because according to the rules as I understood them, the Brooks PR Invitational was not a meet that would get approval from the IHSA under its “non-scholastic meets” policy, Policy 15 under IHSA rules.  Interpretations of that policy have gone through several revisions in recent years.   The basic rule is that if athletes want to run meets as individuals outside of their team schedules, they must submit an application for approval to the IHSA.   Several years ago the IHSA would only approve meets that were organized and run by the national governing body for track and field—USA Track and Field.  For a few years this included several meets like the New Balance Indoor Nationals conducted by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation Inc. in New York.  But closer scrutiny from the IHSA suggested that these meets were not run by USATF; they were only sanctioned by the national organization.  So for a year or two the IHSA had a much stricter rule, with a list of approved meets that was very small.

This rule has been a point of contention for elite high school track athletes in Illinois.  Most prominently, Carl Sandburg High School’s Lukas Verzbicas, two-time state champion in cross country, never ran in the IHSA track championships at least in part because he gave up his eligibility by participating in those non-approved national meets.

But last year the IHSA directors made a bigger change in the rule, beginning this school year.  Here’s the Dyestat Illinois announcement about that change:

Yesterday at the annual Illiniois Track and Cross Country Association coaches’ clinic held at Oak Park-River Forest High School,  IHSA assistant director Ron McGraw explained the liberalization of the rule.  I haven’t been able to find this written down anywhere on the IHSA web site, but McGraw told coaches at an open forum that now Illinois athletes can run all the meets in question in recent years–the New Balance Indoor Nationals (previously the NIKE Indoor Nationals) conducted by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation Inc. in New York, the Millrose Games, New York, the Reebok Indoor Games, Boston, the newer Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle. A form signed by the school principal must still be submitted to the IHSA ahead of time, but schools do not have to submit proof of this USATF approval, as in the past. It was even unclear to me whether USATF sanction was required.  It will be up to coaches and athletes to decide how these meets fit into the plans of the athletes training plans and their participation in team activities.

In other words, under this new interpretation of the rule, Lukas Verzbicas would have been eligible to run in the IHSA state track meet two years ago.

It will also mean that Jack Keelan and his coach will have conversations in order to make some decisions about his training and competition schedule in February.

The issues are really pretty complex.  In terms of competition and training, mid-February is an early date for a national class competition according to our training schedule.  February is usually a low-key month.  Last year Keelan did not run his first serious indoor race until mid-March.  In early April he was ready to run his 8:55 at the Arcadia High School Invitational in California.

There is also the problem of team commitment.  The meet at Georgetown Prep in February will not be as glamorous as the Brooks PR Invitational.  But it is a special event for our team, and we will run against the top Jesuit high schools on the East Coast—Georgetown Prep and Gonzaga from the DC-area, Regis, Xavier, and Fordham Prep from New York.  We are going to the meet to try and win the meet.  Keelan knows his teammates—and his coaches–want him there.

On the other hand, Keelan has earned the invitation to Seattle.

For some coaches, the decision would be easy.  As a member of the team, Keelan should compete with the team.  But there would be others, however, who would say that in terms of developing a national class athlete, the trip to Seattle could be an important step.

Keelan and I will talk this week.  It occurs to me that one approach might be to ask the question, what would Missy Franklin do?  Franklin, an Olympic gold medalist last summer, is swimming for her high school team at Regis Jesuit High School in Colorado.   On the other hand, it is not a fair question.  Franklin has been to the Olympics; she has taken the steps to become a world-class athlete, and she has had that experience.  Keelan is still trying to navigate that road to become an elite athlete; for Keelan, events like the Brooks PR meet are tests for him on that road.

This seems like a perfect post for this blog.  Running is not so simple.


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One response to “An example of how it is not so simple: IHSA changes its rule about non-scholastic track meets

  1. Ed, thanks for posting this. I can never get my mind around this rule. I have to say that I think Illinois Track Coaches ought to visit Philadelphia and see how they organize indoors. It is much better organized and indoors is run and administered by the Track Coaches Association and has nothing to do with the PIAA (Pennsylvania’s version of IHSA). Coming from a small school our biggest problem has always been access to meets. My co-ed roster can vary anywhere from 10-30 kids based on the years interest in indoors. The indoor meets are dominated by the bigger schools who have access to facility. If I only have 10 kids, a bigger school is not interested in inviting us because they want a full team that can fill all the events. The Philadelphia system accomodates differences in size rosters/ schools with different meets and gives equitable access to facility. Anyway, good luck with that decision. Sounds like it might be tough but only because both options sound great. That Maryland facility is really nice.

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