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New look state track and field meet to debut this spring

Frederick Area’s Mason Hinz, left, runs with Wolsey-Wessington’s Moshe Richmond, right, in the 1600 meter relay at last season's Class B South Dakota State Track Meet in Rapid City. This year's state meet will be held over three days at Howard Wood Field in Sioux Falls. Photo by John Davis taken 5/29/2021

The annual State Track and Field meet will have a whole different feel this year.

The meet is switching to a completely new format which will feature three days of competition, all at the same venue.

Normally, the state meet takes place over two days with three different sites on the first day before a combined final day at one location. Last year, because of COVID concerns all three classes were at their own site for both days of competition.

The Track and Field Advisory Committee of the South Dakota High School Activities Association began exploring a different option this year due to a lack of workers to help with events.

“They felt like they could get enough workers if they had it at one site,” said Ipswich coach Todd Thorson, who serves on the advisory committee.

As a result, Class AA, A and B athletes will all compete at Howard Wood Field in Sioux Falls for a state meet that will take place over three days, May 26-28.

There are pros and cons to the new format and many questions surrounding it.

“First of all, I guess I have a lot of unanswered questions just like we all do, just because we haven’t experienced it,” said Roncalli coach Mark Stone, “but that’s not a negative to me.”

While the state meet is still six weeks off, it already has coaches thinking about ways that the switch might impact their own squads. For starters, it is almost certain to benefit distance runners, especially those who attempted to run both the 800-meter and 3,200-meter runs on the opening day about an hour apart.

“We had a lot of really good distance runners that you had to decide, hey do you run a half or do you run the two mile? And a lot of people got burnt trying to do both,” Thorson said. “So it’s spread out for those athletes that are going to do multiple events a little bit better.”

Not only that, but it also will allow for a bit more flexibility when it comes to relay races, giving coaches more options when it comes to the state meet.

“It allows some of your distance guys a little bit more flexibility in what they do. We’re probably going to see a pretty fast medley, because a lot of times you’re having to switch the good half milers out of the medley the second day,” said Central boys’ coach Greg Murley. “Now, you’re probably going to have to switch your quarter mile out to make that work on the final day.”

Murley also believes that some of those premier distance runners will maybe be more inclined to go all out, knowing they will only have one race per day instead of have having to run the 800 and 3,200 in the same day.

That could lead to some blistering times.

Rapid City Stevens standout Simeon Birnbaum has already clocked some impressive performances this spring.

“This year is a great example. You have one of the premier distance runners in the country,” Murley said referring to Birnbaum. “He’s going to get some rest time instead of trying to just (think) hey, I’m going to try winning the mile just to win the mile so I can run the half and run the two mile. You might see him let go a little bit.”

While on the surface, the switch to a three-day event benefits those on the track in particular, Thorson said it also benefits many of the athletes competing in field events as well, especially those who are running back and forth between events.

“Field events is a huge thing that people overlook,” Thorson said. “I’ve had a kid come off the 4X8 and put a pole vault stick in his hand. That’s not safe.”

Naturally, there could be drawbacks to the new setup, perhaps the most noticeable one of additional costs to schools for extra lodging and meals.

Then there is the task of keeping athletes primed and focused for a longer period of time.

“I think the biggest part is, how do you manage the time with the the kids staying focused for three days?” Thorson said. “That’s kind of an unknown.”

Ipswich track coach Todd Thorson, center, encourages one of his athletes Thursday at the Cavalier Relays in the Barnett Center. Photo by John Davis taken 4/14/2022

Not only that, but Murley said there was something to be said for classes being separate for the opening day where coaches could visit and discuss various topics related to the sport.

“I used to really enjoy the first day because you were able to just kind of be around AA coaches,” Murley said.

Another potential consequence is a reduced opportunity for some athletes.

Murley pointed out that with more time allowed for the premier athletes in between events, some may compete in an additional event or two. That might negate spots for other teammates.

“Sometimes you have these racehorses and you get them in two or three events,” Murley said, “now if you go to three or four events, are you taking opportunities away from those kids who are role players for your track team?’

One thing is certain, the new format will allow for fans, coaches and participants to witness everything that happens at the state meet, as opposed to other years where they simply heard about a stellar performance at a different facility on opening day.

“You get to see all three classes both days, because there’s been state records that were done in great events on Friday, but not everybody got to see it because we were at three different facilities,” Thorson said.

For that reason alone, Stone is excited about the propsect of having all of the state’s best athletes competing on the state’s biggest stage for all, not just some, to see.

“I think for track teams, coaches, fans, and everybody, I’m looking forward to seeing how that is where all the classes are together,” Stone said. “I think it will be good for the sport. I think it will be good for kids. It will certainly be good for track fans.”

Britton-Hecla’s Sterling Mertens leaps for the pit in the long jump at the Class B South Dakota State Track Meet in Rapid City last year. Photo by John Davis taken 5/29/2021

Thorson admits there will likely need to be adjustments once officials see how things go for the first time.

While the jury is still out on the change, at the end of the day, Thorson said the main reason the advisory council suggested the new three-day state meet is that it will be beneficial for the athletes.

“We do think about the spectators, we do think about the school’s budgets, we have all those things going on,” Thorson said, “but in the end, it’s for the athlete and it’s going to be better for the athlete, without a doubt, a hundred percent.”

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