Red Jackets Are Ready But Starting Guns Remain Silent

In this contributed image, from left, Gregg Hara, Al Dandridge and Gary MacDonald are longtime track and field and cross country officials who say their distinctive red jackets are ready whenever athletes are allowed to return to competition. 

- - -

SAN DIEGO -- This is the day Al Dandridge, Gary MacDonald and Gregg Hara have looked forward to since -- well, the same day a year ago.

As cross country starters, no meet is bigger than the San Diego Section Championships, which normally would be scheduled today leading to the CIF-State Meet a week later in Fresno. 


Instead, this trio -- with more than 130 combined years as cross country and track and field officials -- will be doing whatever they've been doing since early March when the Coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the track season before it really had a chance to get going and eventually pushed the 2020 cross country season into 2021.

Hara, an official for 48 years, said he is very optimistic there will be a cross country season starting in January. The other two are more guarded.

"My red jacket is sitting four feet away from me," said Hara of the bright red blazer that distinguishes the officials from anyone else at a meet.

"I'm going to get it pressed and I expect to wear it on Jan. 2, which right now is the first meet. I've thought about this for months and if things go the way they usually do, the first two meets will be the East County (Lakeside and Santee), which would be great because it's warmer. 

"I'm proactive and really looking forward to it."

Asked his feeling about missing all but one meet of the 2020 track season and the normal fall cross country season, Hara replied with a one-word answer, "unfulfilling."

"The suddenness of what happened, having the season cancelled right after the Mt. Carmel Field and Distance Invitational, was like going from day to night. I knew track was done by mid-April but it's human nature to hold onto hope -- I fall into that category.

"I'm well aware of potential problems associated with COVID-19.  All it takes is one person who is asymptomatic to infect you."

Hara, 74, said he has devoted most of his down time to being a caregiver.

Dandridge, with approximately 62 years as an official, said he believes the Coronavirus will cost the sport officials who have decided to move on to other things. He said he will work this year but won't commit beyond that. 

"We'll definitely lose some officials," said Dandridge, 82, "and I might be one.  Maybe it's time for the younger guys to take over."

Still, Dandridge, who has increased his time working with a food distribution program and his church said his red jacket is ready to use along with his well-polished black shoes and red and white shirts plus his officials' baseball cap.

"I miss all the kids," said Dandridge. "They're always anxious to tell you something they did and at this time of year, to let you know what college they'll be attending.

"It's also very, very hard not to be able to be with the other starters. You work with those guys for hours at invitationals and I haven't seen some of them since last year 

"It is not a financial hardship not working. It's just being around the others, the kids and the coaches, that makes it fun." 

MacDonald, the youngster of the trio having just turned 70, chuckled when asked how he has spent his free time. 

"I've worked on my golf game," said MacDonald, who started officiating some 20 years ago following three decades of coaching at Morse High. "I'm playing better, too. I got my garden in on time for the first time in five years. I've got a whole bunch of tomatoes.  The peppers are doing OK but the butternut squash and zucchini isn't."

Although, he too, knows right where his gear is, MacDonald said he's concerned cross country will lose this season and maybe even track for the second year.

"I'm just not sure what will happen," he said, sadly. "With an increase locally in cases, it's not a good sign. It will be really bad if we lose two track seasons. Think of what they kids will miss."

Things like competing, friendships, colleges having to recruit based on an athlete's freshman season, and on and on.

"What I miss most is what I missed most after I left coaching -- meet days. Watching the kids perform. I miss the relationships with the coaches. What we do we do because we all love cross country and track.

"We did take a survey and only two of the 38 officials said they weren't sure they'd return. I think our risk (health-wise) is quite limited, really. 

"My starting gun is still in the bag where I put it (in March). I'll get it out and clean it. My hats are always in the car and although my red jacket has been in the closet since March, I know right where it is. I just hope I'll be able to use it soon."