Small School Advantages
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
In the California Interscholastic Federation, there are four divisions in track and field, and five in cross country. Division I contains the largest schools, and Division V are the schools with under 500 students. In track, the divisions mean absolutely nothing in my opinion, as State Finals are a showdown between all athletes, all divisions. In other words, Division IV athletes are going to be racing against Division I athletes for a shot at the state championship. There are not four different state meets, but you have to qualify out of your section's master’s meet in order to be able to compete against the best of the best in State Finals.
In cross country, on the other hand, there are State Finals for each of the five divisions. Therefore, you won’t get a matchup between, for example, Flintridge Prep and Newbury Park in Fresno the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They may have raced each other during the regular season in invitationals, but they are finished racing each other at that point as far as California Interscholastic Federation races are concerned. However, they could end up facing one another in Nike Cross Nationals, or individuals from the two teams may face one another in the Footlocker West Regionals and National Finals.
So what do high school divisions mean for your elite distance runner? Absolutely nothing, really. Regardless of division, your athlete will get a shot at the big dogs in track and field. If he/she is at a school where the weekly competition in league meets is light and your ahtlete can save big efforts for big races, focusing on peaking around the section’s Master’s race, chances are even greater that he/she will make it to State Finals to face the best runners in California. In cross country, even if he/she is racing in Division V, your athlete can make NXN as an individual. Just ask Harper McClain. It’s possible to make NXN as a team, as well, but as small schools usually don’t have student bodies containing seven or so elite runners, that is not the most likely scenario. It would take the stars aligning in a special way for a Division V school to make it to NXN as a team.
Still, the small school route is, in my opinion, the best route for an individual to make NXN, regardless of what past statistics may show. Imagine not having to run hard to win your league and section, and then being able to work on a peaking plan that has you dropping the hammer at State Finals and NXN the following week. It is ideal, to say the least. If you are a Division V runner who falls short, then Footlocker West is the following weekend, so you can unleash the beast there. One of my athletes, Mia Barnett, did just that this year, winning Footlocker West with a 17:02 5k time and having the honor of running Footlocker Nationals the following weekend. She was able to run threshold pace through CIF-SS prelims and finals and still come away victorious, and peaked at the right time to kill it at Mt. SAC. In a future blog, I want to talk about how California and the West Region are at a disadvantage when it comes to the current CIF schedule and what that does to our athletes wanting to compete in Footlocker Nationals, but that is too far off topic to do here.
For either NXN or Footlocker, I wholeheartedly believe it is a better idea to run for a small school than a large school if the goal is to peak at the right time to nail one of those races. The league competition is going to be weaker, so an athlete can focus on hitting a few key meets all-out, spreading them out enough to have a good training cycle, running threshold maybe right up to State Finals, and then dropping the hammer. On the track side, an athlete can breeze through league and CIF prelims, as Mia Barnett did last season. She ran a 13:14 to win league, an 11:01 to place first at CIF-SS prelims, and a 10:33 to win CIF-SS finals in the 3200m, all of those times much slower than her PR of 10:22. Why were the times so slow? Because they could be! I wasn’t going to have her run any faster than she needed to, because we were saving her big effort for the 1600m state finals. She won her league finals in the 1600m with a time of 5:40, ran prelims side-by-side with her best friend, Audrey Suarez (It is significant to note that Audrey also runs for a small school), running a 5:01, and then dropped the hammer to win the CIF-SS Finals with a 4:47. Her body now primed, she was able to simply qualify in Masters and State prelims running 4:50’s, and then dropped the hammer again in State Finals, running a PR of 4:46.12 to take the fourth place medal.
So what does running for a small school mean? Quite simply, it means that the athlete can avoid over-racing and peak when he/she wants to. If you are at the right small school, one with facilities or access to them, a good coach who either knows what to do with an elite athlete or who isn’t petty, and will let your elite athlete train with a private coach two or three times per week, a positive running culture, and the support of the administration, then you can expect your athlete to thrive in the small school setting. If any of these ingredients are missing, however, stay away! Small schools like Desert Christian, St. Margarets, and Flintridge Prep seem to consistently have the pieces in place to support an excellent distance running program, and there are others out there. Do your research, consider your budget, and if there is a good small school cross country program near you, I'd highly encourage you to consider it.
Are there advantages of running for large schools? Most definitely. Having come from a large school, I am well aware of the things I had available to me that small schools for the most part lack. In my next blog, I will discuss the advantages of running for a large school.