Tracking the Regionals

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.8, September 2006,

Since the NCAA implemented regional qualifying for Division I track and field in 2003, many coaches have wondered whether it was the right move. Some have lauded the increased emphasis on head-to-head contests and the expanded opportunities for postseason competition. Others have unresolved questions: Are the benefits worth the costs, financially and otherwise? Are athletes burning out because of the extra meet, or are they peaking too soon? Basically, is the new system meeting its original goals?

While those questions linger, one thing appears settled—regionals are here to stay. In February, the Division I Championships Cabinet reviewed a survey that found a solid majority of schools favored regional qualifying. “It’s clear coaches need to accept that regionals are staying,” says Sam Seemes, CEO of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “It’s time for us as a collegiate coaching group to shift our focus from whether regionals are a good idea to ways we can make them the best they can be.”

For many coaches, making regionals better means making the system more equitable from one region to the next. Lack of balance between the four regions has been a constant concern. Rich Ceronie, Head Women’s Coach at Miami University of Ohio and a member of the Division I Track and Field Committee, says he’s heard of events where multiple heats were required at one regional while another didn’t have enough competitors to fill the lanes.

“Whenever you break things down geographically, there’s going to be some inequality,” he says. “A few years ago, only six women showed up in the West region to run the 200 meters. Things like that happen repeatedly, because the pools of athletes differ from region to region.”

Some coaches have suggested adjusting the regional boundaries, but Seemes says that is a flawed solution. “We’re dealing with a moving target,” he says. “Regions change in event strength based on coaches moving from one school to another, athletes graduating, injuries, and other factors. You could redraw the map and still have the same balance problem a year later.”

Furthermore, for each region to have a near equal number of participants, the large size of the West region would make it much more expensive for some schools to send athletes to regionals. Even if the current West and Midwest regions were combined—creating a region that stretched from the Pacific coast to Minnesota and Iowa—it would contain 73 schools, still fewer than the Mideast’s 78 and far fewer than the East’s 115.

Even using the current boundaries, travel costs have been a major concern since the regional format was adopted. A primary goal of regionals was to offer a qualifying environment that put less wealthy programs on equal footing with the big spenders. But Ceronie says the extra level of competition has instead squeezed already tight budgets.

“Regionals have put a new burden on the budgets of most mid-major and small D-I schools,” Ceronie says. “Under the old system, schools were flying their top one or two athletes to the best competitive situations all over the country to chase marks. Now, since qualifying for regionals is somewhat easier, it’s an achievable goal for more athletes, and an even larger pool of people are flying all over the country chasing marks. In a way it’s almost backfired.”

Earlier this year, the NCAA eased the burden on track and field programs that send athletes to national competition, as the Executive Committee voted in April to reimburse per diem and travel expenses for both the indoor and outdoor championships beginning in 2007. But with no similar plan to fund regionals on the horizon, programs are left to cope with the increased costs.

Ultimately, Seemes believes the track and field community will find creative ways to make the best of regionals, including achieving a better balance between regions. His association will be helping the effort.

“There will be a lot of brainstorming and discussion before our convention in December, and we’ll start to throw around some ideas on how the system can be improved,” Seemes says. “Pretty much everybody agrees regionals have some drawbacks, and there are no simple solutions. But we have a lot of smart people in track and field, and it’s time for us to start putting our heads together to figure out how we can make things better for everybody.”