FCIAC cross country races have a different look this fall

The FCIAC schedule for the 2020 cross country season is condensed within the one month of October and the format of conducting races will involve spacing the runners out and limiting the number of runners at the respective meets.

That is how the FCIAC has set up the regular season to enable high school cross country runners to have their season along with implementing the best format available with the goal of ensuring the best chance for safety and health.

In general, conference coaches and their runners are enthused about having a season and are guardedly optimistic that everything is established to have a successful and safe season during these “new normal” COVID-19 times.

“Considering what has occurred in other sports, I’m extremely happy,” Wilton girls cross country coach Jeff Gee said. “Perhaps the format could be better, but it was worked out with caution in mind and that’s just the price we have to pay to assure some level of safety.

“While adolescents are not a highly-impacted group for COVID, the precautions taken are reasonable and prudent,” Gee continued. “The energy and enthusiasm shown so far by the athletes has been so great that I would support all these efforts made by the league to keep them running and competing.”

Gee is the conference’s girls cross country chairperson, Danbury coach Rob Murray is the chairperson of boys cross country, and they are both longtime veteran coaches of their respective program who have collected so many FCIAC and state team championships and have already been inducted into the FCIAC Hall of Fame.

Gee, Murray, their fellow coaches and FCIAC commissioner Dave Schulz worked together to establish the safety measures and formats for the days of the dual meets.

“Overall, with what football has to deal with (having no season this fall), what we dealt with in every spring sport, there is positivity here with mental health and emotional health to have some sort of competitive goals to pursue what we’re doing,” Murray said. “We are thankful we are able to have some season for the student-athletes.”

Suffice it to say, there are been several adjustments and format changes necessary to have a season adhering to proper state health department guidelines.

“The main thing we did was make all of the meets dual meets and we limited runners to 24 runners per team,” Schulz said. “Following those guidelines, we’re hoping everybody stays safe and still gets to run.”

During the previous recent years in the regular season, the format consisted of tri-meets or quadrangular meets with three or four teams and sometimes as many as five teams showing up at one venue for varsity and junior varsity meets.

“Meets are within regions and will also be dual meets only,” Schulz said. “Each school may bring up to 24 runners per gender to the meet and there will only be one race per gender, which will cut down on the amount of time which the athletes will be waiting around and also cut down on the number of runners who usually run in a race, which can be over 100 in some cases.”

Wilton boys coach Jim Gerweck has been a race director so many races the last handful of decades in the area. He put together the New Canaan Summer Series at Waveny Park so he gained experience in setting up races in these current conditions. Murray pointed out that Gerweck was a huge help and had great input into things such as starting line setups.

Murray said he’ll set up his starting lines on his home course so that runners will be at least six feet away from the closest runner, and Murray anticipates most other starting lines in the conference will be very similar based on Gerweck’s guidance.

The fastest six runners on each team will be spread out six feet away from each other, just as an opposing team will do the same, so there will be 12 runners from both schools at the front of the starting line. Then the next six runners from each school will be six feet behind the front row of runners, and so on and so forth.

Murray also pointed out that 24 runners per team maximum was most practical because the state guidelines allowed for 50 runners maximum at some races this summer, so the total of 48 runners from two schools works within that guideline.

Gee was a cross country runner at Rippowam High School in Stamford in the 1960s when “Rip” had so many great cross country and track teams with coach John Kuczo, who later became the FCIAC commissioner, so the Gee does find a certain charm to the dual meets.

“That these meets are in the dual meet format – that is, competing against only one other team – harkens back to the kind of meets in the early-80s and before,” Gee said. “From a competitive standpoint, it simplifies the mission for the runners: Focus on the runners from only one team – keeping it simple, direct and easy to score for the coaches and the runners during the race.”

The conference will also provide junior varsity races on the three Saturdays of Oct. 10, Oct. 17 and Oct. 24 at Allen Meadows in Wilton, where teams will be assigned to run alone as a team to be timed on the course. The course was set up with a separate start and finish and the schools will stay separated throughout the race.

The varsity schedule was designed to minimize travel, which is why they set up regions for the dual meets.

Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Stamford, Westhill and Wright Tech will run in the region which is in the most southwest part of the county. Danbury, Brien McMahon, Norwalk, Staples, Ridgefield and Wilton are the region in the center.

And for this year, Fairfield Prep’s boys will run against the FCIAC schools of Fairfield Ludlowe, Fairfield Warde, St. Joseph and Trumbull.

Murray feels most bad for the runners who are seniors who will not get to run in championship meets and also for the strong veteran teams that had established foundations to be serious contenders to win team conference and state championships, citing Staples and Ridgefield as two of those boys teams.

“It’s definitely different, for sure,” Murray said. “From our standpoint, we can’t do things we normally have. One our philosophies is challenging our kids before FCIAC and state championship seasons. We try to attend these larger cross country invitationals, either in state or out of state. This year we’re not able to do that.

“We’re just trying to find different ways for kids to find different successes.”

Gee’s Wilton team hosted Ridgefield last Thursday, Oct. 1, Murray’s Hatters were host to Staples on Oct. 2, and though both of their teams lost to excellent teams, Gee and Murray both said the running of the meets went very well and gave them encouragement regarding the following meets for all teams in the conference.

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