CHARLESTON — A barren, bright-blue track.
Silence, instead of an ever-growing roar as athletes near the finish line.
This was the scene at Eastern Illinois’ O’Brien Stadium in May 2020. A far cry from the usual pomp and circumstance associated with the IHSA state track and field meet.
“Coming off that sectional team win last week, as I stood back, I realized a year ago we had none of that,” St. Joseph-Ogden girls’ coach Kelly Steffen said. “It really put it all in perspective.”
Steffen’s Spartans and numerous other girls from across the state once again will converge upon Charleston this week as the IHSA resumes operation of state track and field. The boys will hit town the following week.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in no state series being contested for 2020 spring sports.
Just because the disease is better understood and the pandemic is better under control in Illinois, however, doesn’t mean state track and field will look exactly as it has in the past.
On the topic of those typically crowded grandstands, IHSA spokesperson Matt Troha told The News-Gazette that “we plan to offer 60 percent capacity for girls’ state track (Thursday) and then 100 percent on Friday and Saturday” in accordance with Illinois Department of Public Health guidance.
This falls in line with the IDPH’s intended Friday move to Phase 5 of its COVID-19 safety plan, which doesn’t put a limit on gathering sizes.
“I’d have a hard time believing Friday’s going to feel like a typical Saturday at Charleston for the finals, when you get the house packed,” Unity girls’ coach Tony Reetz said. “If you were to ask any coaches — and I would assume the athletes would feel the same way — we’re just happy we get this experience.”
All three IHSA classes are being given their own day in the spotlight to contest finals-only action. Class 1A athletes will vie for hardware Thursday afternoon, Class 2A competitors will take their turn Friday afternoon and Class 3A participants will round out things on Saturday afternoon. The boys will operate on the same schedule next week.
“Everybody is just excited that we’re able to conduct a state final meet this year,” said Kraig Garber, the IHSA’s girls’ track and field administrator. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback in regard to people’s excitement about being able to do this. And there have been some coaches I know wish we could do things as close to normal as possible.”
Meet timelines were released Tuesday afternoon, giving Steffen’s crew and others in Class 1A roughly 48 hours to fully understand how the IHSA intends to run the state event.
“We’ve been kind of talking about just meet strategy throughout the entire year,” said Steffen, whose program boasts two team state championships, a runner-up finish and three third-place efforts. “Just making sure everyone knows how to stay close to camp, use each other to warm up, make sure to check in. We’ve been talking through it verbally, so I think their minds are going to be set at ease.”
Athletes will be placed in flights by sectional seed times and distances, as they would in a typical state meet. But everyone will battle for state championships then and there, instead of going through preliminaries to qualify for finals.
Field events — high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, shot put and discus — all will begin at noon each day. There will be two flights in each, save for Class 2A and 3A high jump. Horizontal jumpers and throwers will be given four attempts at their craft versus the traditional six afforded across two days. High jump and pole vault will operate as usual.
Running events will begin at 2 p.m. each day and are scheduled to conclude between 5:25 and 6:02 p.m. Each race will include between two and four heats, except for Friday’s wheelchair races.
The top nine times and distances, regardless of heat, will receive a state medal. There won’t be podium presentations on the infield, with athletes instead allowed to pick up their medals after competing or at the meet’s conclusion in a previously specified area.
“These types of changes aren’t necessarily ideal,” Garber said, “but it’s what we had to do with the time we’ve been given ... in order to make sure we get through (each day) successfully.”
Reetz feels each athlete will react differently to this change in format.
“You’re having to keep an eye on all the different heats, which you’re typically doing on the first day anyway, but now it’s kind of for keeps,” Reetz said. “In some of the track events, it’s maybe an advantage, where maybe in the field events there’s a little more pressure to hit a big mark early.”
Steffen boasts multiple athletes who advanced to state both in a field event and at least one relay, which could lead to an interesting scheduling dynamic.
“(Two hours for field events) seems like a lot of time, but when you have 36 pole vaulters — and I would say in this day and age a lot of pole vaulters contribute to running events — it starts getting overlapped,” Steffen said. “We’re going to have to ... make some quick decisions or coach the girls through where you might have to leave an event to run a relay.”
Reetz said his athletes handled the lack of preliminary activities by treating their sectional events in the same fashion.
“This was your way to punch your ticket to the finals,” Reetz said. “It’s almost like there’s one less step in the process.”
Steffen’s girls actually brought up the absence of podium announcements with Steffen before she could address the matter during a pre-state practice.
“You’ve got to make sure you give credit where credit’s due. What that means is celebrating after the meet is over, “Steffen said, “(We’re) definitely not taking that lightly and rushing through those moments.”