INDOOR TRACK: How Section V plans to have a season

Bob Chavez
Canandaigua Daily Messenger

Just minutes into a conversation about how indoor track in Section V is going to try to have a season this winter, Marion coach Bob Goodell politely excuses himself to take a different phone call.

When the conversation resumes 10 minutes later, the answers he was prepared to give on the initial phone call had changed radically. That’s because one of the two sites in position to host meets this season had just informed Goodell that their facility was no longer in the picture.

And if that isn’t an example of what the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has done, then what is?

“Yeah, Houghton College was ready to let us have at least a couple of meets there because they didn’t have any students on campus,” said Goodell.

Eastridge's Da'Kari Brown, second from right, wins the Section V Indoor Track Class B 55 meter dash over teammates Tahjmere Elliott, left, Carlton Turner and Brockport's Jarrett Champion, right, at RIT in February

But the college in Allegany County changed course and is opting to keep the campus free of visitors before students return for the spring semester. And with SUNY Brockport, RIT and Hobart and William Smith Colleges already declining to host meets this winter, it leaves Section V indoor track with one option: Pinnacle Athletic Campus in Victor.

“The colleges are trying to keep the student body safe and I understand that,” said Goodell, who also is coordinator of the new Wayne-Finger Lakes League. 

Dave Hennessey, coordinator of the Rochester Winter Track League, also understands and says it’s just one more challenge on a long list.

“They just did it later than the other colleges did,” he said. “They have to do what they think is best, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

So Goodell and other track officials are moving forward with plans for an indoor track season, although those plans will always be in the proverbial state of fluidity. As it is, the season had already adjusted to a different look with the formation of the Wayne-Finger Lakes League that pulled many outlying schools from the Rochester Winter Track League. Marcus Whitman is included within the new league.

It wasn’t a contentious split. The growing sport over the years has attracted so many athletes that evening meets in recent seasons often ended after midnight. So even before pandemic protocols, the impetus of forming a new league was to have fewer teams at meets, which would help manage the flow and provide more opportunities for more athletes.

But now, the pandemic is involved.

How will track be done at Pinnacle?

First, some rules. 

► No spectators.

► After teams sign off on their health waivers upon arrival, they will enter and head upstairs to designated team areas that are spaced 13 to 15 feet apart.

► Teams can bring a maximum of 50 athletes and enter no more than three boys and three girls per event. Athletes can compete in a maximum of two events for RWTL, three in W-FL.

► No spikes. Violations can result in being suspended for the remainder of the season.

► Athletes must remain in the team box when not competing downstairs.

It sounds like a lot, but that’s just the beginning of the limitations. And while it may look disappointing, Hennessey doesn’t see it that way.

“If cross country is an example, or any of the fall sports, the kids were so happy with something that was semi-normal,” he said. “The kids are suffering a lot. They’re looking for something where they can go to practice and have a meet.”

Webster Thomas' Joe Meyers placed second in the boys long jump with a distance of 19-08.50 feet during a regular season meet held at SUNY Brockport on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.

And while the plan is just that, the traditional indoor layout and execution will certainly be different. The biggest challenge at Pinnacle is the track, a three-lane surface that measures 350 meters with sharp turns, compared to the six-lane track (200 meters) at RIT’s Gordon Field House. So not all running events will be on the track.

The plans vary between the W-FL and RWTL leagues because of the number of people at each meet. The Rochester teams will have their distance races on the track and the sprints and hurdles on the turf. But if the distance races are done, some sprints and hurdles could be moved to the track.

The W-FL meets may be able to have more running events on the track because they’ll have fewer people competing. But Goodell said he is planning for at least some of the shorter running events to be on the turf.

And with limited space, the number of athletes in each heat will be too. No more than four athletes will compete in each sprint and hurdles heat, while the middle- and long-distance races will have between three and eight runners, depending on the race.

As for field events at Pinnacle, the high jump and shot put may be the only doable events. According to the RWTL handbook, high jump pits for the boys and girls will be set up and school teams will jump together. The teams will need to “supply a blanket, a small mat or a small tarp to put over the main cover,” according to the handbook.

Shot putters will retrieve their own shot after throws and if teammates share a shot, it must be disinfected between throws.

There are discussions to host pole vault meets at separate facilities, and other talks will put additional throwing events in yet another venue. The long jump and triple jump present their own challenges as well and right now, Section V is not optimistic. These jumps, along with the weight throw, simply may not be contested this season.

Rush-Henrietta's Phoenix Palmer wins the boys pole vault with a height of 12-00.00 feet during a regular season meet held at SUNY Brockport on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.

Finally, relay races are up for discussion too and if they’re run, athletes may wear gloves.

It’s a lot to unpack, but it’s the hand that’s been dealt and Section V plans to play it.

“It’s definitely a year where we have to think outside the box,” said Hennessey. 

Keeping it safe for everyone

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association already canceled state championships for all winter sports, and Section V has no plans for its own championships.

“We just can’t find a place where we can host everything,” said Hennessey.

So now, the focus in Section V is simply find a way to have a meet and if nothing else, give kids something to anticipate. Goodell is confident the plan going forward is one that will work while keeping safety a priority. The state Health Department is limiting capacity in buildings to 50% and the capacity at Pinnacle is 7,000, he said.

So for a typical W-FL meet, the plan is to have no more than nine schools at a single meet. For Monroe County, it’s no more than 11. And with 25-30 athletes per team, the meets will be well within that state limit.

That, of course, raises a scheduling question. With just one facility for all the Section V teams, how will this work? Blocks is your answer, and lots of them.

The season is set to start on Friday, Jan. 15 with Blocks A and B of the W-FL League from 5 to 7:15 p.m. Blocks C and D will compete from 7:45 to 10 p.m. On Saturday, an RWTL block will compete from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and a second block will have a meet from 2:30 to 5 p.m. Modified teams will compete from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday. Marcus Whitman is included in Block B.

That makes for a busy weekend, but Goodell and Hennessey believe having athletes masked in team boxes while not competing will play a big role in keeping everyone safe.

“They know the deal,” Hennessey said of the students and masks. “It’s not a big issue for them … They understand this is what we have to do if we want to compete.”

New league means more opportunity

Goodell said the new WF-L league was born of necessity because of the growth of the sport. Goodell, who started coaching in 1999, said there were 33 teams then. Today, there are 86.

So in recent years, it wasn’t uncommon to have meets that started at 7 p.m. last well beyond midnight. This year, there is a 10 p.m. curfew for meets and no new events will start after 9:45 p.m. regardless of the meet’s status.

The WF-L will have 18 founding schools from Ontario, Wayne and Seneca counties -- including Marcus Whitman -- along with six associate members from Monroe County. That leaves 33 teams in the Rochester league and Goodell said the new venture has blessings from both sides.

“We’ve worked very well together,” he said. “We put this together to make sure every kid has an opportunity.”

Opportunity is why high school sports exist, said Hennessey, which is why he and other coaches and track officials are working so hard to make sure this season happens. And the encouragement they’re getting starts at the top.

“Dr. Zayas (of NYSPHSAA) has stressed how important it is to have even just a few meets and some practices so there is something normal in their lives,” said Hennessey. “He said you can’t really measure that, and he’s right.”

Hennessey said he had close to 90 kids for cross country in the fall, including some football and soccer players. This winter, the indoor track team includes at least one basketball player.

And if the regulations in place appear drastic, it could be worse. Hennessey said Section VI canceled its indoor track season altogether and several sections in the state are doing winter track outdoors.

“If we get a few meets in, that’ll be great,” said Hennessey. “If we get the whole season, it’ll be a miracle … I had kids in cross country actually come up and thank me for having a practice. They were just so excited to be able to do that sort of thing.”