Cross country meets usually pit runner against runner or school against school. Now, there may be a new opponent: the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
The AIA has informed the cross country world that it is a violation to allow seniors to compete in junior varsity races.
AIA officials said the rule isn’t new, but it was brought to the governing board’s attention at its mid-September meeting that many schools were either disregarding the rule or holding “open” races to circumvent it.
Cross country coaches are hopping mad that the rule will be enforced.
“I thought as an issue it was on the back-burner,” Phoenix Mountain Pointe boys coach Kris Alexander said. “I don’t know why it’s an issue at all.”
AIA assistant executive director Chuck Schmidt said the rule exists for all sports and schools except Class 1A.
He said it prevents seniors from competing against underclassmen in order to ensure equity and safety.
But coaches feel cross country cannot be compared to other sports such as football, basketball or soccer.
“The reason for the rule is to prevent large seniors from injuring small sophomores in contact sports such as football,” Scottsdale Saguaro coach John Prather said. “A varsity cross country team is only seven members, so while it’s considered a ‘no-cut sport,’ large teams exist by having lots of kids on JV.”
Scottsdale Horizon senior Marshall Siekmann joined the cross country team for the first time this season. He has competed in track for three years and wanted to enjoy another few months running with friends.
Siekmann said he knew before the season started he would not be among the top seven runners (the varsity).
“But if I knew I couldn’t compete in meets I wouldn’t have gone out,” he said.
Players in other sports have the chance to log a few minutes of action at the end of games. But in cross country, if athletes don’t have a chance to start a race they obviously can’t enter it later.
AIA officials contend that seniors still have plenty of opportunities to compete — against their teammates in hopes of making the varsity.
Chandler Hamilton boys coach Shawn Varner worries that the rule will not only discourage senior participation, it will drive out underclassmen who don’t feel they’ll ever crack the top seven.
“Most JV-open races are not scored, and I think nonvarsity seniors should definitely be able to participate in these races,” he said.
Schmidt said if coaches are not happy with the rule they are empowered to change it.
But that won’t help the present.
“The AIA apparently has no real understanding of our sport,” Chandler Basha coach Jim Wehrman said. “We aren’t eliminating underclassmen runners when we allow seniors to run. We are still letting the underclassmen participate, too.
“Every runner participates, even the slower ones.”
“The senior I have who isn’t up to varsity standards is a great kid who works hard,” Wehrman said. “He fits in well and provides encouragement.”
Isn’t that, coaches asked, what high school sports are supposed to be?