(09-Mar) -- A year ago this Thursday America's top collegiate track and field teams had gathered in Albuquerque for the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships hosted by the University of New Mexico. There had only been a handful of COVID-19 cases in the United States so far, but the warning signs were there that the first pandemic of the 21st century was about to sweep America. Things unraveled quickly in Albuquerque.
PHOTO: The women's lead pack at the 2019 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"Everything is set-up and ready to go the next day for the first day of competition," recalled University of Arkansas head women's coach Lance Harter on a video conference with reporters yesterday. "I checked-in around noon and the coach at New Mexico, Joe Franklin, came over and said, 'Don't be surprised that this may not happen.'"
Just a few hours later, the NCAA called off the meet and instructed all of the teams to return home as quickly as possible. The indoor season was over and no individual or team champions would be crowned.
"At 3:30 (I got) an e-mail: Get out of your hotel and get out of town," Harter said.
Harter's Razorbacks, who were the defending team champions from both the 2019 indoor and cross country championships, went back to Fayetteville and saw their competitive prospects rapidly disappear. It was crushing.
"We were still grasping that we lost the indoor championship, but we would still have outdoor," Harter remembered. "By the time we landed in Fayetteville we had lost outdoors as well. Then our grasp of 2020 track and field was, is there a possibility that we would have the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games? And when those got postponed, then it was like all hope had been lost."
As the best collegiate track and field athletes gather this week in Fayetteville for the 2021 NCAA Indoor Championships, the coaches of the nation's top programs have mixed feelings about the championships. On the one hand, they are grateful that they are taking place at all, and can be held safely with COVID precautions and no spectators. But they are also upset that the NCAA postponed the 2020 Cross Country Championships to Monday, March 15, just two days after the indoor championships conclude, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. How were they supposed to get their teams ready for two championships scheduled so close together?
"It's unfortunate that you have to divide and split," said University of Oregon head coach Robert Johnson. "We said from the very beginning that if you can show me a way where you can do both of those in the same year and be successful I'd be interested in listening to that. Because of course, it's night and day different. The two sports are definitely different using the distance piece of indoor track for cross country as well. How you can go from running those types of miles, logging those types of miles, and all of a sudden running short intervals to get your speed and get your wheels? That's just an interesting mix on how you go about it. I would be very interested to see those who do both."
Faced with a difficult choice the four coaches on yesterday's video conference --which also included Arkansas's head men's coach Chris Bucknam and Texas head coach Edrick Floreal-- said they had no choice but to prioritize indoor track over cross country. They said that they would put their full efforts into the indoor meet, and in the case of Bucknam and Harter would decide on Saturday whether to take their Razorback teams to Stillwater. It's not what they wanted to do.
"Well, we're just focused on Fayetteville right now," said Bucknam who chose his words carefully. He added: "It seems like somebody was forcing us to make decisions to pick one or the other, and I'm disappointed with that."
"Well I know for our situation it forced us to make some decisions," Harter said. He continued: "This is the traditional time of year for indoor track, and we're sticking with that as our priority."
The situation is particularly difficult for the Razorback women. Harter's team dominated the SEC Cross Country Championships last October, scoring just 41 points and beating second place Alabama by a comfortable 16 points. His best student-athletes --Lauren Gregory, Logan Morris, Abby Gray, Taylor Ewart, and Krissy Gear-- all finished in the top-11. Gregory, Morris, Gray, and Gear are all entered in the indoor championships. It would be very difficult for them to rebound and run again on the tough Stillwater course next Monday. Harter is frustrated that he has to choose.
"I don't think that anyone stepped forward and told us why they sandwiched them so close together when we have plenty of time," he lamented. "It could have been much more of a true championship at cross country nationals if we had just given more space between the two championships."
That's an ironic development since it was cross country that kept Harter's distance athletes going after the shutdown of the outdoor season in 2020.
"The one thing we were able to latch on to, both men and women, our athletic director and our commissioner said that we would have cross country," Harter explained. "If at all possible that we would conduct cross country in the fall in its traditional season. I think when they gave us that ray of hope the kids latched on to it, the coaches obviously latched on to it, and we were able to get through the majority of the summer in anticipation of that we would have a cross country season, though it might be different than in years past."
Both Floreal and Johnson ruled out the cross country championships for their teams early, although Oregon has one individual qualifier, Jackson Mestler. They didn't see the point of trying to do both championships, a particularly painful decision for Johnson because Oregon has such a proud cross country tradition. The Ducks have won ten team titles (six for the men and four for the women), and their student-athletes have won a total of eight individual titles, by some of the best runners in NCAA history: Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, Galen Rupp and Edward Cheserek.
"We definitely made the decision in the early part of February that we were not going to do both," said Coach Johnson. "We were only going to do one. I didn't care which one we chose to do, whichever one way allowed us to be more successful. So, if we were more successful in cross country, we would have put our eggs in that basket. If we were more successful in track we would put our eggs in that basket. After some time in February... we made the decision to be all-in in indoor track."
Texas ran their traditional fall cross country season, taking third in Big 12 Championships on the men's side and second on the women's. Floreal shut down his cross country program after those championships and had no intention of sending anyone to the cross country meet in March.
"We made a decision a while ago that we were not going to do that," Floreal explained. "That didn't seem to make much sense for us. After our conference championship I shut my cross country runners down and got them ready for the traditional indoor season." He added: "Basically, we feel that we just have a better indoor team."
One coach who decided that cross country should be the priority was Brigham Young's Ed Eyestone. His men's team dominated the 2019 championships, handily beating Northern Arizona 109 to 163. He only has one distance athlete entered in the indoor meet on the men's side, miler Lucas Bons, despite having the three fastest men in the 5000m this collegiate indoor season: Conner Mantz (13:28.00), Casey Clinger (13:28.79) and Brandon Garnica (13:29.16). They finished 1-2-3 at the University of Washington Invitational on February 12.
"We are all in for cross," Eyestone told Race Results Weekly via text message. He added: "But we thought we'd do one flex on the indoor track."
The NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships open on Thursday at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and run through Saturday. Live results will be posted here. The schedule for the middle and long distance events is as follows (all times Central). The men's program will be held in the afternoon while the women's program will be in the evening in order to reduce the number of student-athletes in the arena at the same time:
Prelims, Friday, 7:55 p.m.
Final, Saturday, 6:40 p.m.
Prelims, Friday, 7:00 p.m.
Final, Saturday, 6:00 p.m.
Saturday, 7:00 p.m.
Friday, 8:05 p.m.
Friday, 8:45 p.m.
Prelims, Friday, 2:55 p.m.
Final, Saturday, 2:40 p.m.
Prelims, Friday, 2:00 p.m.
Final, Saturday, 2:00 p.m.
Saturday, 3:00 p.m.
Friday, 3:05 p.m.
Friday, 3:45 p.m.