From left: Camden Wheeler, Samantha Wallenstrom, John Lester, and Riley Chamberlain are among elite athletes from the North Coast and Sac-Joaquin sections who do not have a path to compete if there is a CIF-State Track and Field Championship meet in June. (File photos by DeAnna Turner and James Leash)
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SAN RAMON -- While almost all of high school sports are back to some degree in California, it understandably does not look the same as it once did due to restrictions put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, now a full year into wreaking havoc on CIF sports in the Golden State.
Although California continues to show progress in combatting the virus and opening up, it's unclear yet how the track and field season will look. Will there be an opportunity for invitationals that involve athletes from schools located beyond adjacent counties? What level of championships will be possible? And will that include a CIF-State Meet, currently scheduled for June 25-26?
For three Northern California sections -- North Coast, Northern, and Sac-Joaquin, overseeing roughly 450 schools -- changes are already on the books.
Earlier this winter, those three CIF sections took a hard look at scheduling of Season 2 sports (traditional spring sports, and some winter sports), and decided against conducting section championships. Section championships serve as the qualifier for any regional and state competition.
Without that qualifying path, state-level track and field athletes in the Northern, North Coast, and Sac-Joaquin sections will not have a road to the CIF-State Meet, if it is to be held.
"It is my understanding that you have to qualify through your section in order to be able to qualify for a state championship," said CIF-State Media Relations Officer Rebecca Brutlag. "So, if your section is not having a section championship, then you cannot qualify for a state championship."
GENESIS OF THE DECISION
The North Coast Section covers a western swath of the state from the Bay Area to the Oregon border governing roughly 175 schools. The Sac-Joaquin Section oversees 189 schools in the greater Sacramento and Stockton regions. The Northern Section oversees 67 schools across a vast region of more than a dozen counties covering roughly 225 miles north to the Oregon border and east to Nevada.
California Department of Public Health guidelines restriction on travel beyond more than just adjacent counties certainly came into play. Each section cited the option for leagues to create schedules that made sense within their regions and maximize the season for all teams and athletes as an overriding factor in their decisions.
Pat Cruickshank, the Commissioner of Athletics in the North Coast Section, explained the challenges.
"When you have a section like ours, where we have 12 different counties and we stretch from the foot of Fremont all the way to the Oregon border, it's going to be really difficult to get everybody on the same page as far as all this COVID-19, the tiers and everything else that is concerned,'' he said during an interview last month.
"... our board, our executive committee, we decided that the best way to roll sports out this year was to give, independently, our leagues the opportunity to kind of place their sports into the timeframe that would work best for their particular county, their particular school, and school districts. So that would mean they could put swimming (first) and wait for water polo to become available to play. They could move some things around so it would work best for each individual school, district, and league rather than have to adhere exactly what the state and/or section had set down.
" ... And by doing that, that meant our leagues were going to have their seasons at different times and so it really made the opportunity to have some type of section championship real difficult. Plus the fact that traveling between counties right now is really difficult. You can't travel any more than just between the county that neighbors you. So were we ever going to get to a point this year where people from Humboldt could come all the way down to Sonoma to play, or people from the East Bay could go up and participate in a game somewhere up there? This is just what worked best and our board was completely behind it."
Sac-Joaquin Section commission Michael S. Garrison, in the announcement release, said: "We sincerely hope that by providing the flexibility of allowing our leagues to work with its member schools in developing season of sport calendars, we are meeting the needs of the organization (which is our member schools) and those of their student-athletes."
Northern Section Commissioner Elizabeth Kyle echoed those remarks in a late January release announcing the decision: " ... the leadership of the Northern Section believes this revised schedule best fits the diverse needs of our member schools. It is our hope that this will allow all our student-athletes the opportunity to participate in the sports they are so passionate about, even in this year of uncertainty and great sacrifice!"
NO ROAD TO STATE
While a majority of the top athletes from the last CIF-State Meet -- held in late May 2019 -- have since graduated, there are still a handful of elite returners who will be impacted by the elimination of the NCS Section Championships for the track and field season. Samantha Wallenstrom, a senior at Marin Catholic, is the defending 800m champion.
St. Helena senior Harper McClain is the reigning Division V champion in cross country and is also the second-fastest returning finisher from the 3,200-meter final at the State Meet.
John Lester, the middle-distance specialist from Amador Valley who burst onto the scene in 2020 as a junior by running 1:48.26 in the 800m and 4:06.97 in the mile, is looking to qualify for this summer's U.S. Olympic Trials in the 800m.
Even though the CIF office has waived the rule -- Bylaws 600-605 -- preventing athletes from being on a club team as well as their high school team this year (excluding football), athletes will not be able to compete for a club team and still qualify for the CIF-State Championships in track and field.
"There is not going to be an avenue for our North Coast Section athletes -- unless the state decides to change some things -- for our athletes to compete at the State Championships this year, if they are State Championships," Cruickshank said. "I know they're still on the books at this point, but don't know what the situation is going to become that time of year, it's just a few months off. That's what our schools wanted to do and they felt that's what best served all of our students."
As the schedule stands -- and it remains fluid as the state slowly opens back up -- teams are limited to dual and tri-league meets. That appears to be the case for most of the state. At least for the moment. Cruickshank said he thinks it is unlikely large-scale invitational meets will happen due to county public health department guidelines.
There are nearly a dozen athletes in the NCS and SJS who reached the finals at the 2019 State Meet in the classes of 2021 and 2022.
From the North Coast Section:
- Samantha Wallenstrom, a senior at Marin Catholic headed to Duke, is the defending 800m champion.
- Harper McClain, a senior at St. Helena headed to Oregon, is the reigning Division V champion in cross country and is also the second-fastest returning finisher in the 3,200-meter run from the 2019 Track Championships.
- John Lester, the middle-distance specialist from Amador Valley headed to Stanford, who burst onto the scene in 2020 as a junior by running 1:48.26 in the 800m and 4:06.97 in the mile, is looking to qualify for this summer's U.S. Olympic Trials in the 800m. Lester placed seventh in the 800m final in 2019 as a sophomore.
- Julia Alexander, a junior at St. Mary's College High, was a triple jump finalist as a freshman.
From the Sac-Joaquin Section:
- Jadyn Marshall, a junior at Stockton St. Mary's, was a qualifier in both hurdles and a finalist in the 300-meter hurdles as a freshman. He is also one of the state's top football recruits.
- Camden Wheeler, a senior at Monterey Trail headed to Oregon, placed fifth in the 400m and was a member of the winning 4x100m relay team as a sophomore.
- Reyna Johnson, a senior at St. Francis headed to UC Irvine, placed fifth in the 100-meter hurdles as a sophomore.
- Tierra Davis, a senior at Stagg, placed seventh in the 100-meter hurdles as a sophomore.
- Riley Chamberlain, a junior at Del Oro, placed third in the 3,200-meters as a freshman
- Madison Kackley, a senior at Gregori headed to UC Davis, placed 11th in the 3,200 meters, as a sophomore.
- Sydney Johnson, a senior at Whitney headed to UCLA, placed fifth in the long jump as a sophomore.
McClain said she has decided to forgo her senior season at St. Helena and is running unattached before heading off to college. She plans to run a maximum of five meets in the track season.
"If I go to the other option, there are less opportunities," McClain said. "Wanting to achieve the goals I want to would be a lot harder."
And in order to face some top-level competition, McClain had to leave the state. She competed in the 3,200m at the Sundown Track Series #2 in Mesa, Arizona in late February, and plans to race there again for the third installment of the series on March 27.
Maria Carrillo coach Greg Fogg, whose cross country and track and field teams have been among the most successful in the NCS in the past decade, said he understands and respects the committee's choice to cancel championship events from a safety viewpoint but wishes some more time was given before a final decision was made.
"For track and field, I'm disappointed that NCS made that decision so early," Fogg said. "I would have like to see them hold out and wait and see ... give us the option to that if things developed and given that we could accommodate a safe environment for the kids, to allow some kind of elite-level competition for some of these kids. Especially the upperclassmen seniors because for them to finish their senior year with just four dual meets is not very satisfying.
"I do appreciate how complicated it is, and I do appreciate that right now we're trying to accommodate max participation -- and I believe that's very important to get all the student-athletes back out and active, with the primary concern of their overall health and safety and not exposing them to COVID as much as possible ...
"I appreciate the NCS's position, I do agree overall with that stance to encourage as much participation with the broader population across all sports as much as possible. And it is complicated, NCS has many counties and logistically it creates a tremendous challenge. The other side of that, I would like to see some allowance for some of our more -- a venue, if you will, available for more of our elite athletes to seek competitions, if the environment is safe and will allow for that. And it seems like we have cut that off. So I don't think there's a scenario where we could have any kind of regional track and field championship. And if the COVID environment is compatible to it, I would like to see that as an available option."
Fogg suggested a hypothetical regional championship event where only the top 12 marks would qualify for each event.
Marin Catholic track and field coach Wayne Patton said he agrees with Fogg that he understands the decision from a health and safety perspective, but wishes the section would have waited to see if the situation improved before canceling championship events.
"I'm with him on that," Patton said. "When they made the announcement so far back that NCS and all postseason was canceled, I was like, 'Man,' ... With how rapidly things have changed in this state and the country in the last 30 days in a good way, it's kinda crazy they couldn't have just been a little more patient."
Patton said that Wallenstrom will compete in both cross country and track and field for Marin Catholic. The plan right now is for her to fulfill her school obligation while also trying to run a qualifying time in the 800m for New Balance Outdoor Nationals in the summer. Since there is currently no alternative path to making the State Meet, New Balance is now the attainable goal. If Wallenstrom is unable to run a qualifying time in a Marin County Athletic League meet, she and Patton would consider finding an invitational -- out of state if need be -- and compete unattached.
While the majority of the elite athletes returning from the 2019 State Meet have already secured their college plans, there are so many more who have not and now face an uphill battle to do so with limited racing options. These are the athletes who will have the toughest challenge ahead of them.
And this is who Fogg is the most worried for, the ones who have a lot riding on this season in order to impress coaches at the next level.
Running unattached may be the best option for those looking to make a final impression or just to get in a fast field, but again, it looks unlikely at the moment that any kind of elite invitationals will take place in the state this spring.
As Fogg noted though, "You can't have your cake and eat it, too."
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Logan Stanley is a freelance writer and regular contributor to MileSplit.
MileSplitCA editor Jeffrey Parenti contributed to this report.