Racing against time

The state association takes steps to ensure that regional championships don't become a late, late show.

Indoor Track

November 30, 2005|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

The tears that wet Greg Marshall's cheeks last February weren't of joy or achievement, but rather anguish and disappointment.

Ten months ago, Marshall, then a junior, and three other members of the 1,600-meter relay team from the Arundel indoor track and field program, were forced to miss competing in their event at the Class 4A-3A East regional championships. Because the meet didn't end until after 1 a.m., the Wildcats' coach decided that his team could not wait any longer.

"I cried," Marshall recalled. "It was an opportunity for me, and I was heartbroken because we didn't get a chance to run."

State athletic officials are making sure that Marshall nor any other indoor track athletes ever have to endure the same experience.

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the body that governs athletics among the state's public high schools, has adopted two measures designed to end regional championships at an appropriate time.

The first forbids two regional meets from being run at the same time at a single venue. The Class 4A-3A East regional championships were being run in conjunction with the Class 2A-1A East regional at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover, and that, among other factors, contributed to the late ending time.

The second - and more controversial - measure limits schools to entering a maximum of two athletes in a single event at the regional meets.

Both policies are designed to speed up the regional championships and get the athletes home at a reasonable time. As Oakland Mills girls coach and state indoor track committee member Sam Singleton said, "If the meet starts at 4, we want everyone out of there by no later than 8:30."

While the first measure has been accepted by many coaches, it is the second that has split them on opposing sides.

Coaches who endorse the MPSSAA's decision - like South River's Carrie Hatfield - argue that it will accelerate the usual plodding pace of the regional meets by weeding out the less competitive athletes and cutting down on the number of heats for each event and get the students home earlier.

"With students involved, you can't have them out until 1 a.m. on a school night," said Hatfield, whose team was at the late-running meet in question. "Then at the state level, it's the best of the best that should be there."

Those who are critical of the move - like Woodlawn's Mark Pryor - contend that it snatches an opportunity from the athletes the coaches, officials and MPSSAA are supposed to serve, and penalizes programs with depth at certain events.

"Reducing the number of entries for a region meet means that you will have less participation at the state meet, which means that you deprive kids the chance and teams an opportunity to compete for a state title," Pryor said. "What other sport does this?"

The measure's germination took root after the late end to the Class 4A-3A and 2A-1A East regional championships on Feb. 16. The meets started a couple hours after their original start time of 4 p.m. because another regional championship had to be completed after a power outage forced a postponement.

Typically, region directors have the option of continuing meets that extend past their end times or postponing the meets for another day. But because the state championships were set to begin five days later and the possibility of finding space and time at the complex was remote, the meets continued.

A month later, the state indoor track committee met and hammered out its plans. The proposals were submitted to the Board of Controls and promptly approved at the board's April meeting.

MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks said he was vehement that another episode like the one last February would not occur again.

"We had kids going home after 1:15 in the morning, and for those on the Eastern Shore, they didn't get home until dawn," he said, adding that the paucity of sites for indoor track meets - only the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex, the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore and Hagerstown Community College will be used to host regional championships this winter - played a role in the decision. "We had to take a strong stance in never putting our students in that position again."

Added Joe Sargent, who chairs the state indoor track committee and is also the athletic director at Milford Mill: "We're here for education. Athletics is secondary. [The athletes] are students first."

Digital Harbor coach Lutalo Bakari said he understands the MPSSAA's position. "Kids were getting back to school late and then they had to find a way home," he said. "That's putting them in harm's way."

But Western coach Jerry Molyneaux, a member of the state indoor track committee who opposed the proposal, said it will force him and his peers to be more creative with their athletes.

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