On Wednesday, the Missouri State High School Athletic Association announced that the state track and field meet will be staying in Jefferson City at Jefferson City High School, but that, effective in 2019, the state cross country meet will be moving to Columbia and a brand new course at Gans Creek Recreation Area. While the general consensus on twitter is that MSHSAA got this one backwards and that the state track meet should be the one moving instead of cross country, the biggest story here is the state cross country venue moving.
Gans Creek Recreation Area is a new park directly across from Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School right off of Highway 63. "At first glance it appears to be relatively flat," said Rock Bridge Coach Neal Blackburn. "I think [the] vision is going to be headed in [the] direction with the idea of Mizzou making bids for regional meets along with Columbia College as well as being able to host the state CC meet which seems to have already been achieved." Father Tolton Coach Jared Wilmes had this to add: "We have run around the area, front area of Gans is fairly flat. The back portion of the park has a large hill that drops off to Gans Creek. I have not seen the proposed course layout, so I all I can comment on is the overall terrain." We look forward to learning more about this course in the coming days and weeks.
From an aerial view, though, it does in fact look relatively flat. This bodes well for advocates for a flatter state meet and we will now discuss the merits of this point further.
(Update 12/1) Here is a rendering of the master plan for the park as it remains under construction:
Every year, we arrive at the state cross country meet and every year, a number of questions are asked leading up to it. Namely, will any boys ever run under 15:20? How many boys will be under 17:00? Will any girls break 18:00? How many girls will run under 19:00? What about 20:00? The Missouri state meet is an extremely slow state meet for the circumstances. The end of the season is where every coach plans for their athletes' peak performances, but in Missouri, those performances must be considered relevant to the course. Some years, 17:00 are considered All-State in the Class 4 boys race. Some years, the top 25 girls are not all under 20:00 in Class 4 girls. What are the repercussions of this? How does this affect the athletes involved in such races? Why have we not remedied this yet?
Just across the Mississippi River is the state of Illinois. Illinois is famous for its blazing fast courses and their state course is no exception. Detweiller Park consistently produces some of the fastest times in the country at their state meet on the same weekend as Missouri's. Whereas Missouri must struggle up Firehouse Hill to maybe see 15 boys go under 16:00 in all four classes, Illinois's boys races sees upwards of 100 boys at 15:24 or better (16:00 5K equivalent) for 3 Miles. There were 88 boys in the 3A race alone who ran 15:24 or better this year and it was a relatively muddy year in 2017. On the girls side, 190 girls were under 19:15 (20:00 5K equivalent) in the 3A race with 111 under 18:19 (19:00 5K equivalent) and 75 under 18:00. (Note: Illinois has 3 classes). This season in Missouri, 8 boys broke 16:00 and while 8 girls broke 19:00 and 50 broke 20:00. In one race in Illinois, 190 were under 20:00 whereas only 50 were under 20:00 in Missouri across all 4 races. Here are some more figures about the comparisons between Missouri and Illinois over that last four years (IL 3 mile times have been converted to equivalent 5K times):
1-5 Spreads Among Class 4 MO and 3A IL Top 4 Teams
|Blue Springs||16:14.15||Downers Grove N.||15:18|
|West Plains||16:16.77||Neuqua Valley||15:33|
|Parkway West||16:24.57||Wheaton-Warr. S.||15:34|
|Park Hill South||19:44.88||Naperville N.||17:49|
|Rock Bridge||16:20.42||Downers Grove N.||15:22|
|Blue Springs||16:24.97||Lyons Township||15:31|
|Park Hill South||19:43.83||Downers Grove S.||18:34|
|West Plains||16:51.16||Neuqua Valley||15:35|
|Nerinx Hall||19:55.04||New Trier||18:18|
|Rock Bridge||16:44.38||Lyons Township||15:37|
|West Plains||16:47.98||Neuqua Valley||15:34|
|Nerinx Hall||19:19.38||Naperville N.||17:56|
|Rock Bridge||19:49.36||Hinsdale C.||18:10|
Winners in MO vs Winners in IL
25th Place Finishers in MO vs 25th Place Finishers in IL
As you can see, Illinois is vastly superior to Missouri at the state meet. Is it that Illinois is really that much better than Missouri? Not necessarily. Though Illinois does qualify significantly more athletes and teams to the postseason national meets, there are not 140 girls better than Missouri's 50 best. The comparison is difficult, though, in that Illinois both runs 0.1 shorter than Missouri and consistently runs flat and fast courses while Missouri likes to put together barn burners across the state. From Sioux Passage to Big Driver to Lake Jacomo to Cole County Fairgrounds to Oak Hills, the list of tough courses that host major invitationals goes on much longer in Missouri than Illinois. Even the Forest Park Cross Country Festival has a more difficult course now (because they were moved from the flatter course, but the fact remains). Nevertheless, the comparison at the state meet becomes that much more difficult when Oak Hills and Detweiller Park are the two venues in question. We have seen it over the last few years in Missouri and were made witness once again this year. The removal of early uphills has not made this state course significantly easier but, in fact, may have made it more difficult in that it becomes deceptively fast. For example, this year we saw a 9:37 first 2 miles from Class 4 champion Victor Mugeche. He then proceeded to jelly-leg across the line with a 5:19 final mile to run 15:29 -- still one of the ten fastest times in state meet history. In Illinois, 4:49 pace was ran by 41 boys for all 3 miles. On the girls side, Class 4 state champion Victoria Findley ran a 5:20 first mile but then proceeded to run 5:55 and 6:18 to finish out her race. Imagine, if you will, Austin Hindman running that same effort that got him 15:22 on a flatter, faster course.
When you have a first two miles that runs exceptionally fast, but introduce a massive heartbreaker of a hill in the 3rd mile, you tend to see things like what happened this year - namely, the fall of Kelie Henderson with 0.1 to go, Connor Kingsland's impressive display of sportsmanship, Parkway West senior Emily Dickson's difficult finish, and the dozens of others who took close to a minute or more to get from the 3 Mile to the finish. You hear the horror stories from athletes who were near shoo-ins for a state medal, but instead collapsed with 800 to go - the athletes who worked so hard for weeks, months, and years, but fell short of their goals because of a massive hill in the 3rd mile. Say what you will about "showing up and racing on the day" or "everyone has to run the same course" or "hills make it 'cross country'," but the general consensus with athletes who have such stories to tell is that they would rather see what they could do when they are in their best shape than run a 1:00 off their personal best and become discouraged from continuing on into the postseason races.
With flatter and faster course, you see the times that turn the heads of college coaches to Missouri and make the state much more competitive on a national scale. You see the times that may encourage more athletes to take their talents to Nike Cross and Foot Locker Regional meets. You see the times that we saw at Camdenton and Vienna and Missouri Southern this season. You may just see a spike in interest in the sport in Missouri as a result. All these things are subjective, of course, and dependent on just how fast this course will be. It is also dependent on weather cooperation and talent present in general, but those are uncontrollable circumstances. The main takeaway from this move to a flatter course is that it may introduce you to the first sub-15:00 time that this state has seen in a very long time or may produce a number of sub-17:30 girls. Imagine watching Mugeche roll through 2 miles in 9:37 and then being able to run another sub-5:00 mile and potentially break 15:10. Imagine Findley being able to hold onto that 5:20 pace (or 5:30) and run under 17:20. Imagine what that would do for the sport in Missouri. Well, in 2019, we may just get a taste of what that would mean for Missouri at Gans Creek Recreation Area.
How do you feel about it? Sound off in our Discussion Board and vote here in our twitter poll!