Well it's nearly that time of year again.
With section meets right around the corner we have numerous teams and individuals preparing themselves to earn a spot to compete at State. Sections is the culmination of a season worth of hard work for hundreds of student athletes and now is the time when we begin to hear the annual conversations about how unfair the section assignments are, and how changes need to be made. Do these people have a legitimate claim to be unhappy about the State selection process? Is the backlash against the MSHSL merited? The short answer here is, on the whole, yes. In cross country, track, Nordic skiing, and just about every sport qualifying for State is not an opportunity that is equally given to everybody.
The most commonly discussed topic pertaining to this issue is Section 6AA, also known as the "Section of Death". Wayzata, Edina, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Minneapolis Washburn, Eden Prairie, Robbinsdale Armstrong, and the list goes on of all the massive schools with very good programs who are in this section. Consider the following - the boys team from Minnetonka, a Lake Conference school who has historically maintained a very strong running program, has not qualified for State since 1992. Last year Minnetonka had a 16:35 average time of their top five runners at Sections, an excellent average for a Minnesota high school. If they had run a 16:35-16:40 average split at State they could have placed as high as third as a team, but they were not afforded this opportunity since they finished third to powerhouses Wayzata and Edina at sections. The girls from Wayzata failed to qualify as a team last year as well despite being ranked as a top five team throughout the season.
Section 6AA in particular has been this way for so long that the top teams have more or less accepted that they are stuck together. At times they treat their section race as their own State Meet because they know that come Nike Cross and Footlocker Regionals they will have a fair shot at qualifying for Nationals (like the Edina boys in 2015, despite having not qualified for State). Sections like 6AA (which is admittedly an extreme example, though a highly relevant one), Section 5A, Section 3AA, or (on the other extreme) Section 7AA have repeatedly been questioned and lamented by frustrated athletes, coaches, and parents. The only response given by the MSHSL is that sections and section assignments are a celebration of the geographic diversity of the state, and the caliber of the schools' programs in each section ought not have any bearing on how they are assigned.
Although this statement appears somewhat logical, and this is 'only high school athletics,' after all, the result is a system that makes no effort to correct a known flaw which excludes teams or individuals who have demonstrated themselves to be one of the state's most elite. A State Championship should certainly be a celebration of all of the talent around the state, but it also has to actually be a "championship," meaning that it has to bring together the best of the best and produce a winner. The top teams, and sometimes individuals, are often left out because of the flawed logic about how section assignment should happen.
Another section that demonstrates how 'geographic assignment' does not create an equal or fair chance for qualifying for State is section 4 in Nordic skiing. Numerous distance runners cycle through Nordic skiing as a way to cross train and take some strain off the joints over the winter. Since it is a slightly smaller sport there are no separate classes in Nordic skiing (so tiny schools like Mounds Park Academy compete directly against huge schools like Stillwater) and section 4 has had an unbelievable amount of competition on the team front for qualifying for State because it, like Section 6AA, is the skiing equivalent of the Section of Death. For those who aren't familiar, Forest Lake and Stillwater are historically the best programs in the state and produce the top teams. They are joined in section 4 by Mounds View, Roseville, White Bear Lake, Irondale, Como, Mahtomedi, and my tiny school in comparison, Mounds Park Academy. It is seemingly impossible for teams to compete with Stillwater and Forest Lake, and I cannot remember a recent year where they didn't take the team qualification spots for State.
This is undoubtedly one of the biggest issue in Nordic, but it has seemingly been swept aside by miscellaneous new rule changes such as how tall poles can be and what kind of waxes can be used.
There are a few more examples of sections that border on unfair, and yet when section rotation comes around every few years, and the same conversations are had over and over, the same majority always votes against a change in the way assignments are made. This is not only a team issue however. The Section-by-location method also can affect individual qualification, particularly in track. The most relevant example of this is Patrick Roos at sections this past spring.