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Cross country adjusts to COVID-19 constraints

What will cross country look like this season?

Local eyes will be on Crown Point and Lemon Lake on Saturday as the school hosts its invitational, the first meet of the season, complete with a new set of rules dictated by COVID-19 pandemic safety guidelines.

"I guess we're the guinea pigs," new C.P. boys coach Erik Forehand said. "It's a year where everybody wants an answer and you can't really give one. People were asking, when are you sending something out? I'm glad we ended up waiting. We'd put one or two things out and we'd see how things change. It's a lot like the return to school plans. It's different based on who is hosting. It's like school administration writing a new plan every single day. They're no stalling, waiting. They're making progress, trying to figure out the best way. We're just doing the best we can at keeping everyone safe and healthy competitive."

In some cases, the actual race themselves will be contested differently as larger invitationals don't figure to send runners out all at once. With about 10 teams in each of its divisions (meaning no more than 70 runners), C.P. won't have to break up its races. It had some teams drop out but also picked up a few, notably Highland with 2019 state runner-up Lucas Guerra and Illiana Christian.

"We'll run it as normally as we possibly can," Forehand said. "I'm sure larger invitationals like New Prairie will either be cancelled or will be run entirely with a wave start. I could totally see a situation where each of the ones go out, then after a couple minutes, the two and threes, or say Crown Point starts its race, then Lake Central starts its race. They have a large enough starting line, they could probably do a handful of teams at once."

New Prairie Athletic Director Ben Bachmann recently said that no decision has been made on the status of their massive meet. nor on the logistics of it should it be held. Some of that, at least, was based on not having guidelines from the La Porte County Health Department.

"We'll see if and how we can proceed with an event that size," Bachmann said. "There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. It'll be difficult. I hope it's possible we can run it in some fashion, but the landscape will dictate that."

Among the changes that will become standard at meets this season are the wearing of masks by runners except for warm-ups and the races. They will do run-outs with their teams at their camps, if camps are allowed, before reporting to the starting line with masks on, which they can lower as the officials raises the pistol.

"They'll be expected to be at the line within a couple minutes of the starter call," Forehand said. "If the boys race is at 10:45, we don't want them congregating at 10:40. That's our biggest biggest concern as coaches, ADs -- kids congregating before and after a race at the start line and finish line. With our timing system, we don't have chips, so the chute is less than idea. Once they finish, we want them to keep moving, don't stop. I hope they don't fall over, especially if it's 95 degrees. We're asking that only coaches be at the finish line. That way, if a kid goes down, they can respond and get them up and moving."

At Hebron, which hosts an invite Aug. 22, there will be no 'B' race with each school limited to bringing 10 runners. There will be no camps and the finish chute will be inverted, A.D. John Steinhilber said, small at the beginning and larger at the line, in order to facilitate moving kids through the area. Teams will be required to have a designee there. It will be the same at La Porte's Jack Bransford Invite that day.

"We may limit the number of athletes to race but we are really trying to make sure the JV athletes get a chance," LP coach Corbin Slater said. "Luckily, we have a very wide open park (at Kesling) with a lot of room for runners, and the meet is pretty small, too. This year's theme will be flexibility. A lot of the plans are still up in the air and very fluid. We are taking as many precautions as we can while still hopeful to get kids running."

The meet has never had an awards ceremony, which will become part of the season's norm elsewhere. Hosts will compile ribbons and trophies to give to coaches afterward to distribute themselves.

Other than the finish, La Porte won't have to police spectators, given its spacious venue. Hebron will not allow fans on the course, restricting viewing to a paved area.

"They can still see the whole race," Steinhilber said.

Crown Point will rope off areas to restrict access to the course for those not running or coaching.

"The lower area gets all congested and parents like to stand at the finish line," Forehand said. "It's a county park, so we can't tell them not to come."

That won't be the case at Lake Central on Aug. 29.

"With the confines of the course, the way it's set up, the only place they can stand is the small soccer field," L.C. Athletics Director Chris Enyeart said. "There's usually 240 runners, so you're looking at a couple, 200 people. We could paint little boxes, specific areas on the course where they could stand six feet apart, but it's just not worth it. I hate to host a meet where it's only the runners, we just can't safely let anybody in. We have to try to eliminate gathering areas."

Lowell girls coach Scott Coil said they are also considering options for the Bob Thomas Invitational.

"Bringing in loads of people for anything is a concern," Coil said on the team's Twitter account. "It would really depend on the course and how much room you have. I’d hope we would be able to make it work with fans, but I'm not sure as of right now. We have already talked about divisions to keep races small."

Forehand said people have joked with him about his timing in becoming a head coach as he succeeds Keith Iddings.

"It's all I know," he said of running. "I can't help but think when kids get back in school, it's somehow going to impact things. To what extent, I don't know. I tell the boys, we've got Lemon Lake this weekend, we're going to get a meet in unless something comes out of left field. Even next weekend, we're not in school yet. We just have to think of each race as if it's our last."

High school cross country races will begin Saturday in Indiana and locally with the Crown Point Invitational at Lemon Lake. Meets will look different in a number of ways this season due to safety constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jim Peters)

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