NORTH METRO ATLANTA — The Georgia High School Association has drawn cheers and jeers from its recent rules changes to cross-country and track and field running events.
The track and field rules updates, which have received high praise, are highlighted by the introduction of the 4x800 meter relay in 2020-21 and the phasing in of the 4x200 meter relay by 2022. Each school will also be permitted to enter more athletes in each of the 14 individual events at area or region qualifying track meets, and individual runners can compete in double the number of events.
Class 7A cross-country coaches are disappointed the GHSA chose to replace area competition, which has been used since the creation of the classification, with regions. The move was pushed by the GHSA and not its cross-country committee.
Class 7A coaches against this move argued that more schools from the classification will earn spots at the state cross-country meet. The state’s largest classification will include 45 schools in the upcoming season, and 32 will earn a spot in the state meet. That’s 25 percent more than in 2019.
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Previously, schools earning a berth in the state meet were determined by four areas, a combination of two regions, in 7A. In 2019, the state cross-country meet had 24 schools compete for boys and girls competition.
Andy Carr, a cross-country and track and field coach at Milton High School, said he found it “kind of ridiculous” that over 70 percent of 7A programs will earn a spot in the state meet.
“For me, personally, that makes it too easy to make it to the state meet,” Carr said. “It is not that much of an accomplishment when you have a region [with] five teams and four go to the state meet.”
There are eight Class 7A regions in Georgia. Three of them consist of five schools, and one, Region 1 in South Georgia, consists of four schools. Under the new rules, schools in Region 1 are automatically given a berth to the state meet. Of regions with five schools, four will earn a spot in the state meet.
“No matter how fast or slow they are, they can just dress five people, run them and go to state,” Carr said.
Bill Marra, who has coached cross-country and track and field for the last seven years at Milton, said having runners from 32 schools will make for a cramped state championship course in Carrolton.
“The Carrolton course is wide open for the first 200 yards, but often times it gets really congested after that,” Marra said. “When you have very competitive runners all trying to get a good start, it can make things very difficult.”
Carr said Milton’s No. 2 runner fell at the start of the 2018 state meet, which likely kept the Eagles off the podium that year based on that runner’s average times.
Based on number of schools, Class 2A was the largest in Georgia last season, and its state cross-country meet had 29 teams compete with over 180 runners on the 5-kilometer course. Class 6A had 30 teams earn a spot in the state meet with 209 total runners in the boys race and 214 in the girls event.
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The changes also prompt eight sectional meets instead of four, which places an added burden on schools to either host meets or find and pay for an outside venue that can accommodate such races.
Earlier this year, a Hillgrove cross-country coach began polling 7A coaches on their preferences for area or region competition when the GHSA first presented the potential rule change. Carr said all but one school replied to the survey. All who did respond favored retaining area competition.
Though displeased with the rule change, Carr said he can understand why the GHSA would want uniformity across the state. Only Class 7A and Class-A competed in areas, all others are divided into regions.
While the cross-country regulations were met with groans, the track and field community is pleased with the rules changes to its sport.
“The biggest change that I am excited for is the changing the athlete limit per team from two to three,” said Tim Feilen, Roswell High School head track coach. “(These) kids work so hard all season, and it has been unfortunate in the past to have kids not be able to participate in an event because they are the third best in that event on their team, even though they are better (than) some of the other competition from other teams in the region.”
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Adding the 4x800 race this upcoming year and the 4x200 in 2022 is a “fantastic” way to allow more athletes to participate in meets, Feilen said. He added that the 4x200 is very exciting race to watch and one in which runners love to participate.
Marra said adding the events is a “huge plus for distance running in Georgia.” He said it will allow more distance runners, including those who compete on their school’s cross-country team, to race in track and field events, which had limited spots for the 1600- and 3200-meter races.
The additional races, and the ability for athletes to compete in more events, will be a boon for standout athletes. Carr said athletes like 2018 Milton grad Sam Bowers, who racked up four individual state titles in cross-country and track and field, can showcase themselves further with the ability to participate in more events.
The decision to limit each school to one relay team with eight runners, up from six, gives coaches and athletes more flexibility in fielding relay teams, Carr said.