It wasn't so much the rain and the dramatically cooler temperatures that made the second day of the WIAA State Track Meet in La Crosse on June 6 a near fiasco.
But they didn't help.
No, what made the day not so much a travesty, but an opportunity missed was the adjustment the WIAA and the state track coaches association made to the Saturday finals schedule. The pushing back of the start time of those last races, including several of the time-consuming 3,200-meter variety, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the face of ever poorer weather made what was supposed to be a celebration into almost a forced march.
"I'd like to shoot the guy who suggested that," said one area coach who wished to remained anonymous of the new time schedule..
Other coaches complained of not getting their athletes home until well after midnight on Saturday. That was because the final team awards were not made until close to 8 p.m. The truely ironic part of it all was that just before the final races started at 7:15 p.m. or so, a WIAA official, high and dry in the nicely-appointed brand-new Veterans Memorial Sports Complex Pressbox, announced that the meet was only four minutes behind its unofficial schedule. All this was also after an 11-hour first day (under albeit sunny and bright conditions) that drained and enervated event the most most die-hard fan.
Under the old start time, the meet used to end around 4-4:30 p.m. Coaches, fans and athletes could get out, get a leisurely meal, mull over the day's fantastic highlights and still get home before nine or 10 o'clock. Now, those who live across state are lucky to get a quick hit at a fast-food joint before making the three-to-four ride home in the wee hours of the morning.
What this all leads to, is that maybe its time for the WIAA and the coaches association to start seriously thinking about adding a third half-day to the schedule on Thursday (the meet normally runs Friday and Saturday).
Yes, it would further strap an already costly event (the whole track tournament series ran a $196,000 deficit in 2008) but maybe by running some of the long duration field events on that first day, the WIAA and La Crosse could find some compensations. The second day as a whole could be shortened and the log jam of finals and awards could be cleared a bit on the third day. It would make for a smoother, more enjoyable meet for athletes, officials, coaches and fans. Not to mention that the WIAA and La Crosse would benefit from an additional day of ticket sales, concessions, hotel stays, restaurant business, etc.
Regardless of the weather.
In discussing things with WIAA Communications Director Todd Clark and UW-La Crosse Site Coordinator Larry Terry, the adjustment to the finals day start time was made largely due to the reconfiguration of the new stadium's jumps set-up.. In the rebuilding of Memorial Stadium, it was decided to put the jumps on the infield near the football field and right next to the track. This is all well and good, but a compromise was made for safety and that led to the untenable schedule adjustment.
The set up was felt to be unsafe to have both jumpers and runners competing at the same time. The coaches of the jumpers would be too close to the track and the possibility of poles and crossbars falling into the track while a race was being run was felt to be a risk that should not be run.
Homestead boys coach Dan Benson, a former state champion jumper and now a jumps coach himself, found the whole situation difficult to comprehend.
"As a coach I do not have to be there (on the track)," he said. "There's no need for that at all. Put us outside the track (in the far side bleachers) or better, build some small bleachers near the pits. There were also pits inside of those we used (right next to the track) which would have worked too (and put everyone out of harms way if a running event was held)."
Benson, who also had an issue the day before with the long jump being contested into a strong headwind, said of the whole situation "Didn't make for good track" and would take things up with his district rep.
Clark said that the WIAA went "back and forth" with the coaches association about the start time and about how the jumps were going to be run. He said the people traffic by the long jump and pole vault pits in the area did not lend itself to using the furthest pit (the one most easily used while a running event was going on).
"It's just too tight," he said "There are too many people who need to see. We talked to many people (in the track community) and it was decided that it would be better to shift the meet and get some of the events in (the jumps and other field events) before the start of the races."
But that doesn't fully explain away the entire inflexibility of the day's schedule. WIAA and La Crosse officials knew what the weather forecast was going to be like on Saturday. They could have adjusted things back to the old start time (10:30 a.m.) and gotten some races in before the start of the really bad weather.
Because it just got worse as the day wore on with light to steady rain more suited to a fall cross country meet. Not helping matters was the bottleneck at the awards stand that occurs every second day at the state meet. It is generally agreed that it makes for a better podium photo if the athletes are in their singlets and not in the warmer (and presumably dryer) sweats. But by mid-afternoon of that second day, events are sometimes backed up four or five deep, making for a crowded and hastily run awards presentation with shivering, anxious athletes sitting on cold aluminum benches, getting wetter and tighter and wondering if they're ever going to get their award.
Or if they're ever going to get dry.
Under good conditions, this set-up is a hassle, but under a steady rain and 50-degree temperatures with wind, it made for a health hazard on June 6. Espeically for the multi-event athletes, the sprinters and jumpers, who thrive in the warm and the dry and despise the cold.and wet. They need to be warming up for the next event not left standing around adjusting their I-Pods.
Brookfield Central sophomore sprinter Chidera Obasih summed up the consensus of most of the athletes when she said that she's looking forward to the day she could go to college down south, where she would always be warm. One can't blame her for that thought.
And there were other issues. The discus events, especially the Division I boys, did meet the operating definition of fiasco according to Benson, who had two competitors taking part.
"It got completely ridiculous," he said. "The first flight there was drizzle. Annoying, but workable. The second flight, it was a steady rain, making things very difficult. For the third flight, it got really heavy, making it downright dangerous."
No one got hurt, but the competitiveness of the event was greatly diminished.. The first flight, full of the lowest qualifiers, wound up with the best conditions, and earned three of the six medals, which no one in their right mind would think to happen. The top flight, filled with the best qualifiers, but who competed under the worst of the conditions, got just two.medals.
"At what point do you hold off," Benson asked. "Someone could have slipped and hurt themselves. At some point, someone (the event judge probably) has to say something like "Fellas, hold on, we'll wait for a half-hour and see if it gets better.' It just wasn't safe. That's my whole premise."
And Benson said this despite the fact that his number two qualifier, Teiko Amuzu, was heading to the medal stand with a fifth place finish.
"God bless 'em," he said of Amuzu, "but wow, did we have to do it that way?"
Maybe not. The pole vault, due to its inherent danger was taken indoors to Mitchell Hall on Saturday. The WIAA has done this in the past with great effect. But another group of athletes nearly undone by the lousy and long conditions were the high jumpers. The division 2 boys event was won at a pedestrian 6-3 because of the slippery conditions. Even well meaning officials with industrial blowers could not make the situation condusive to high-level jumping (the class record, which was probably not going to be threatened under the best of conditions, is 6-11 but still, these athletes deserved better).
And in talking to two division I girls placewinners from the Wauwatosa area, even abundant thoughts of warm and tropical breezes was of little comfort to them.
Terry said that the high jump could be moved indoors too if needed along with the pole vaullt, there's that much room, but he noted that it is generally agreed that this is considered an outdoor championship and that the kids could adapt to the conditions.
One group that has had to adapt over and over again through the 20-year history of the state meet in La Crosse, is the fans.
They too, could also benefit from a three-day schedule.. They welcomed the newer, far more spacious seating in the new main grandstand, which made everyone much more comfortable (the whole project cost $16 million). But they too endured the 11-hour first day under a beating sun (which warranted many cautions from WIAA officials) and hunkered down for the long, difficult Saturday under the gray, wet skies.
I think a lot of the 17,492 who piled in over the course of the event, would happily pay for a third day, if it meant the competition for their kids was better, the schedule not so cramped, and the end of the day closer to something approximating the dinner hour (it was close to 9 p.m. on Friday night). New revenue streams have to be created to help defray the cost, because of all the spring sports, this event is the most popular in terms of attendance, but fans alone can't make up the difference even with the magnificent bluffs to look at in the background.
La Crosse, the WIAA and the coaches association have worked to make this meet a great event over the years, but there are still things that need to be done to make it more competitive for the athletes and make it more enjoyable and viewer friendly to the fan.
In short, make it a state meet worthy of the name.