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All systems go (actually, new systems go) for New Prairie's cross country invitational

The New Prairie Invitational has long been one of if not the largest cross country meets om Indiana.

This season, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, it will undoubtedly be the longest.

"The first group can get here at 6:15 (a.m.) and the last group is supposed to leave by 3:15 (p.m.)," Athletic Director Ben Bachmann said. "The 16th race will be at 2:30. It will be a long day, a long day for officials, workers, ticket people, security. It takes a village to make this happen. It's so obviously different from the norm, but this is the one way we could do it. We wanted to keep the race going because it has such a history, such a tradition."

Absent will be the rainbow of team tents and throng of people as races are being spread out. There will be no awards ceremony, as it's been with all local meets, and attendance is being limited to two people per runner. Schools have been encouraged to arrive no sooner than 45 minutes before their schedule race and to leave within two hours, 15 minutes of that start time, i.e., 6:15 before and 9:15 after for the 7 a.m. AAAA race. The four divisions -- there used to be three -- have been capped at 25 teams with no more than 10 runners per team in the JV race.

"It's not one of those things where the divisions were set by IHSAA parameters," Bachmann said. "We just can't exceed X amount of runners (250) in a race. We've got groups coming in waves as opposed to everyone coming in at one time. The idea is to minimize a large gathering of people as much as possible, yet still put on a quality event that the student athletes look forward to competing in. (Schools will) have their tarp. They'll have time to change, warm up and it's go time. There will be no congregating. When you finish, please get back to your group, hop on the bus and get going. We'll send you the results. We're going to try keep the site updated throughout the day."

Results have been a historic thorn in the side of the bigger races there, exemplified by last year's snafu that resulted in a significant change in the standings at last year's semistate. To that end, Bachmann has Todd Henderlong of T&H Timing handling it.

"We had people in-house who opted out," Bachmann said. "We have the system he uses. Todd knows it forward and backward, which is nice."

The meet usually draws just over 100 schools, a number that stands at 93 this time. Schools were also asked not to bring any runners who can't complete the course in 30 minutes, but the field in total will still exceed 1,000.

"For the first time, we'll have a parameter on time," Bachmann said. "We want kids to come out and compete. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to do well. Especially in cross country, there's something to be said about completing the task. We're not trying to take opportunities away, we just need to stay on our schedule as well, keep the meet itself rolling, due to the situation."

The course will be the same and there will be no fan restrictions other than at the finish area. The corral will be extended significantly out to the runners' right to disperse people.

"With the course spread out as much as is, that's the one great thing about the open areas," Bachmann said. "We need to be able to space out runners more, so it will kind of mimic the pavilion on the other side, go up to the fence line, out toward the practice field, the goal posts. We can't have kids pile on top of each other."

Though there is no specific enforcement of the fan limitations, Bachmann has asked coaches to urge their contingents to mind the rules.

"The sheriff's department will be here to enforce things, but there are so many schools, so many people, we won't be able to (police attendance)," he said. "It's almost an honor system. We've got to put some trust in people. We asked the coaches, No. 1, we need your help in the finish line area and, in order to run the meet the way it needs to be run by design, please help us run it under the regulations we've been asked to run it under. There are going to be some people who don't go all, so we're trying to keep that balance. We ask people to wear masks, to social distance, please do the right thing to help everyone stay safe. Whether or not you agree with it, please abide by it. It should be about the kids."

Bachmann credits the New Prairie coaching staffs for putting together the actual format, which was submitted to the La Porte County Health Department.

"We've been gathering information from other meets that have been run," he said. "We sat down, put some ideas together. We talked to (the health department) about the parameters. As soon as we got approval, we put that out to everyone. We've just got to do more explaining than in years past."


Saturday's New Prairie Invitational will go off as originally scheduled, but not without significant adjustments to everything from start times, participation and attendance to awards, as a result of COVID-19. (Photo by Ben Bachmann)


While the breakfast hour start for the AAAA girls race will be tough on night owls, coaches aren't too concerned about it.

"It’s early, but I think it’s all depends on how you approach it," Chesterton's Lindsey Moskalick said. "We already run in the mornings once a week and all summer we ran at 7."

Crown Point boys coach Erik Forehand, whose team will run in the third race, said actual preparations will begin on Thursday.

"A good, solid, eight, nine hours of sleep two nights out and proper hydration two days out and leading into the race, and kids won't notice a difference," he said. "Hot (temperatures) and stress are far more significant. Expect to see some very fast racing this Saturday if you're at New Prairie."

Portage coach Jay White said the time adjustments may be more of an issue for the smaller schools running in the afternoon, though temperatures are expected to be cool.

"I'm sure they aren't happy running so late, but COVID decides a lot of how things go these days," he said. "The last couple weeks, we have run raced at 8 a.m. and the kids were fine with that. If we had had a summer, we would have run in the morning, so I think they are good with that. It won't matter this week, but many years, the early races have nice temps, while, by 10, 12, it heats up."

White, who's also an IHSAA track and cross country official, will hang around to serve in a relief role after his team duties are done.

"It's a great group of officials and Ben is a great guy," he said. "I'm glad to help him out."

The Class AAA boys race will feature a state finals preview as state favorites, Highland's Lucas Guerra and Angola's Izaiah Steury, will face off.

New Prairie is also working on the logistics of live streaming the race finishes on the school's Facebook page.

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