By Mike Tyrrell
Bob Geiger has coached boys and girls high school cross-country every fall since 1991. He has witnessed exceptional seasons, intense races for state championships and shy, naive freshmen grow into mature, commanding seniors. However, he has never, he said, witnessed anything like the 2020 season.
“It was something else,” said Geiger, who coaches the boys team at Whitney Young High School. “Because of the devastation of COVID, there was that fear, and it was very stressful and rightfully so. I hope we never go through it again.”
Despite cross-country being one of the only Illinois high school sports to play last fall, there was nothing normal about the season. There were adjustments to practices and meets, virus scares and unprecedented difficulties as coaches attempted to navigate a full competitive campaign for their runners in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“This year, I had to do more than coaching,” Geiger said. “This was the year I didn’t take any chances. How would we space these kids out every day? Teenagers are social beings, and at practice all they wanted to do was hang out with each other. They didn’t understand, they had this attitude of invulnerability. It was difficult to orchestrate.”
Stefanie Dobrin, the head boys and girls cross-country coach at Lincoln Park High School, also dealt with complications in the fall. Unlike for Geiger, it was Dobrin’s first season as a head coach, experiencing events she could never have imagined.
“We had a few kids with some virus scares, so we told them to stay home,” Dobrin said. “That was frightening. There was also a lot of COVID-related paperwork and forms to fill out each day. The problem was a lot of kids just showed up [without completing the forms], and I had to send a few of them home. The runners were so used to previous years of coming to practice and being fine, so it was a change having to do these things.”
According to Dobrin, because Lincoln Park had virtual classes during the fall, it was logistically difficult for all runners to arrive to the school on time for practices to begin, hindering preparation for the meets.
“Lincoln Park got done at 4:15 p.m., and I told the kids to come at 4:30, so we could start at 5,” Dobrin said. “We had to do daily temperature checks and forms, which took usually a half an hour with 50 kids. The kids that lived far away did not get to practice until 5:15. They stopped coming as a result, which kind of sucked.”
The pandemic has made it more difficult for young athletes to participate in sports. According to data from The Aspen Institute Project Play State of Play 2020, the national average of hours per week spent on sports by youths ages 6-18 decreased over the last year. For cross-country, prior to the pandemic, the national weekly average was 9.4 hours, while during the pandemic, it dropped to 5.5 hours.
This downward trend in participation was evident this fall, which caused more issues for coaches.
Dan Whipple, the boys cross-country coach at Oswego High School, had his roster reduced by the pandemic. According to Whipple, the team had only two freshmen sign up this season, compared with eight or nine normally. For him, getting more kids to run during these uncertain times has become a major challenge with no clear solution.
“I think it is tricky,” Whipple said. “We must continue to ensure to the kids involved, it is something worthy to participate in and is safe. You also need a group of families who trusts what you do. With the freshmen, it was a disconnect. In the future, we need to help junior-high parents understand our plan and what is happening.”
Nevertheless, despite the uncertain season, all three coaches say they will look back on it in a positive way.
“I am so proud just reflecting on our entire team,” Whipple said. “They never got negative, they just got excited about the moments. They took advantage of every opportunity, not knowing what was going to happen. Everybody was in it together, and that was awesome.”
Completing the season for the upperclassmen was the main success of Dobrin’s program.
“It was good seeing the seniors do well and be comfortable and confident,” Dobrin said. “They did really well and qualified for sectionals as a team. It was just a lot of work.”
For Geiger, the meaning of this season went deeper.
“To able to run during a pandemic and to overcome all the adversity, that is something I can hang my hat on,” Geiger said. “Yeah, I love to win, but I love to see boys turn into good men.”
Mike Tyrrell is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeTyrrell_.