Track and field is all about going forward (or up, in a couple events). Sometimes, however, it’s beneficial to look back.
The track season in Arizona is heading into the biggest week of the year, with the state championships beginning Wednesday at Mesa Community College. This season has been one for the record books, as Arizona athletes have established five new state records, tied for the most in any single year since the 1970s. Don’t be surprised if another record or two falls at the state meet.
While the individual athletes in the state are showing great progress in track and field, there has been something missing from the regular season the past few years: An emphasis on team accomplishments.
Yes, teams go all out to win a state championship, that’s a given. But leading into the state meet, there is a distinct lack of team enthusiasm at most meets.
“I like going to meets that mean something to win,” Highland boys track coach Dave Montgomery said. “I always liked the regional thing, ‘cause it was more like a conference championship. But that’s all over with now. Now, it’s all about qualifying.”
Arizona went away from using regional meets to advance to state, instead taking the top 24 athletes in each event based on times or marks set at qualifying meets throughout the season. Overall, the move is a positive one because it assures the best were competing at state each year, but it also resulted in a lack of late-season buildup to the state meet.
That’s why the state should look back, harken the days of regions and have sectional meets leading into the state meet.
The format would be simple: Divide each of Arizona’s four divisions for track into three sectionals. This is already done in sports like cross country and wrestling.
In Division I and Division II, attempts would be made to spread the top teams around, so as not to load up one section. Some Valley teams would have to travel to Tucson, and Tucson teams would have to travel to the Valley. Ideally, a rotation would be devised so schools would not have to travel out of the Valley (or out of Tucson) two years in a row.
In Divisions III and IV, sectionals would be devised with geography in mind, a North, South and Valley sectional in each of those divisions.
In Division I and II, the sectional meets would be over two days, while in Division III and IV, sectionals would be a one-day affair because of distance and travel.
In order to run at state, you have to be entered at sectionals. Each team can have four entries per event at the sectional meet. This means teams will bring their full varsity squad, and the top 5 from each section automatically advances to the state meet.
Sectionals would definitely take on greater meaning with this new format and teams couldn’t leave their best athletes at home. However, to assure that those top performers get one of the 24 spots in each individual event at the state meet, the AIA could establish qualifying standards, similar to the automatic standards it uses now. Athletes who meet these standards but fail to finish in the top five at their sectional meet would still advance to the state meet.
Take this very plausible scenario: Brophy’s Devon Allen, who set new state records in the 110-meter high hurdles and the 300-meter hurdles this season, is competing at his sectional meet, hits a hurdle, falls down in the finals and finishes eighth. With 15 automatic spots being filled from the sectionals, there would be nine spots that would be open for athletes like Allen, who have some misfortune at the sectional meet.
If all of the athletes who met the qualifying standard finish in the top five at sectionals, the rest of the field for the state meet will be filled based on sectional performances, including preliminary times.
One of the reasons Arizona went away from using regional meets for state qualifying was the cost. The AIA was losing money at these regional meets, but that was when each region had 6-8 schools and there were 25 or more regional meets throughout the state. If the state adopts a sectional format like in cross country or wrestling, the sectionals would have 15 to 20 teams and there would only be 12 sectional meets.
“The region meets were a big money loser from the association standpoint,” said AIA tournament director David Hines, who is in charge of the state’s track meets. “Putting on meets is so labor intensive. You have the timing system, operators, officials, awards. It all adds up.”
Chandler athletic director Dave Shapiro said it costs $40,000 to run the Chandler Rotary Invitational, the biggest meet of the regular season in Arizona. With more than 100 teams at the meet and teams paying a $300 entry fee, it generates enough money to cover those costs.
Shapiro estimated it would cost approximately $4,000 to put on a sectional meet. If each school paid $200 — significantly less than the majority of invitationals throughout the year — that would nearly cover the costs. Additional money would be generated from admission fees and perhaps even some business sponsorships.
The hope would be that after an initial two-year trial run, there would be enough money generated from gate receipts and other avenues that teams would not have to pay entry fees for sectionals, or, pay much less for entry fees.
“It’s all about money and time,” said Westwood coach James Smith. “They want the meet to be at a certain cost.”
The value of adding a sectional component to the season wouldn’t strictly be about what it means to the top athletes, their eyes will always be on winning state titles.
But what it means to entire teams.
In the past, there were city and regional meets that teams set out to win late in the year as a build-up to the state meet. Now, not everyone has a city or district meet, and many teams treat those meets as just another chance to qualify. Top schools rest top athletes who have already hit the qualifying standard.
“We swept the (Gilbert) city meet and the kids got into it,” Montgomery said. “If you had a regional or sectional, that would be even bigger. That’s what I like about the city meet. We had kids get medals that hadn’t gotten medals in their life. But there are other schools that just want to rest up and that takes away from the sport.”
Not everyone can have the kind of success at the state meet that the Chandler girls have enjoyed, winning six straight titles. But what teams can have is a chance to win a truly meaningful team title, one that the entire team can share in. A title worthy of putting up a banner at the school.
“We could go back to a true city or sectional meet where we have the meets on the same day, right before state and at least then, the kids can say, ‘I’m the regional champion or the sectional champion,’” Smith said. “If I don’t do anything at state, at least I know I’m the East Valley regional champion.”
It may seem like a step back, but for 90 percent of the state’s schools and athletes, it would be a leap forward.