Joel Reichenberger: Policy change hurts track

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Joel Reichenberger

Steamboat Pilot & Today sports reporter and photographer Joel Reichenberger can be reached at 871-4253 or jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Joel here.

— Track meets can be long, strung out and, with so much happening in so many places, almost impossible to cover for a newspaper reporter. Still, they’ve long been at the top of my list of things to cover. I love working outside, and I love the controlled chaos and the unexpected great performances.

I love track.

That’s why it hurts so much to see state turn away from what was, simply put, a brilliant qualification system for the state track meet.

Every state uses a different way to qualify athletes for the state meet. In Kansas, the top four athletes from each of four regionals earned the trip, making a field of 16 competitors in each event at state.

I always thought that was a pretty solid method. It made for a thrilling regional meet as every athlete, from the fastest to the slowest, still had a chance to live the dream of competing at state.

I grew to appreciate Colo­rado’s system even more, however. In Colorado, the top three athletes from each region advance. But all athletes who achieve a preset time or distance earn a trip to state.

That second part is a great addition because it allows the state’s best a margin for error. A stumble in the regional meet won’t keep the best athletes out of state.

It’s truly the best of both worlds. Top performers can ensure their trip to state during the season, and everyone else still has a chance on the last day of the regular season.

But that system didn’t prove good enough for the state of Colorado. Two years ago, the 4A and 5A classifications went to a system that sent the owners of the best 18 times or distances to the state meet. The regional meet was for all effective purposes abandoned, including the drama inherent in what for most athletes always had been a do-or-die day.

Now the state’s other two track and field classifications, 2A and 3A, will follow suit after this year.

There are plenty of reasons for Western Slope schools to be upset with this change. That Western Slope athletes have been guaranteed a certain number of spots at state is a way of handicapping the climate disadvantage inherent with living in the mountains.

Now, maybe that isn’t the fault of the Front Range schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have to give up spots for their athletes, in better shape early in the spring season.

There’s no handicap built into the high school’s state skiing championships to help out schools on the plains.

But changing these qualification guidelines doesn’t just take a crutch away from mountain schools. It takes the race out of end of the season races. It pits a competitor against an unseen and always shifting time.

It robs the sport of the thrill of great competition, the athletes a reasonable chance of making their dream with one gutsy performance. It robs one of my favorite high school sports of some of its most compelling drama, and that’s just no fun.

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