Run, Write, Repeat: The Problem With The Polls

Every week the 'Coaches Association' releases the high school individual and team rankings for class A and class AA. A weekly poll of coaches (although I do not know who participates in the poll) throughout the state yields a one-through-twelve ranking of the 'top' teams and individuals, which are then published by the likes of Milesplit, Raceberry Jam, and Down the Backstretch.

Rankings are part of running and are present in all levels of the sport from high school in-state rankings to NCAA D1 rankings. They offer us a picture of who is in the best form to compete for the top spots at that particular moment in time.

I think I should make clear that I think being recognized for your hard work and success by being included on a rankings list such as these is pretty cool. I remember the first time I made the single A rankings, and I imagine that every young athlete who sees their name in the paper or online experiences this same sense of excitement. After winning the Milaca Mega meet last September I was very proud to see that the next Monday when the rankings were released, my name was at the top of Class A. Even though all that this meant was that my name was on the top of a list created by an anonymous vote by a small portion of coaches across the state (most of whom I've never met), I found it incredibly gratifying to see some of the improvements I had made being recognized.

Apart from the personal satisfaction of entering the top twelve runners in the state, another benefit of the rankings is that they oftentimes introduce unheard of runners to the public and other coaches (both high school and college). No one can deny that cross country coaches usually have much more sensitive fingers on the pulse of the sport than the vast majority of those who follow the sport. This can be significantly beneficial in bringing recognition to small schools who have untold stellar athletic programs, as well as putting individuals' names on the map. College coaches can see who the top runners are and this can be helpful to athletes looking to be recruited.

In spite of all of the benefits that rankings can offer, over the past few weeks I have found myself questioning the validity of the rankings. Coverage of Minnesota high school running is admittedly scarce, and we have few options other than to put our faith in rankings that are compiled by an unknown source to us.

To get into the specifics of my concerns let's look at last week's rankings for class A boys teams:

(As of 9/18/2017)

1.     Perham
2.     Mankato Loyola/Cleveland
3.     Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop
4.     Greenway-Nashuak-Keewatin
5.     Lac Qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd
6.     Jordan
7.     Mora
8.     Minnehaha
9.     Annandale
10.   Saint James
11.   West Central Area
12.   RAACHE

On the team side of things, I have noticed that teams with historically stellar running programs such as Perham and Minnehaha Academy seem to have a locked spot in the rankings despite their actual performances during the season. In a simulated meet using this year's personal bests from each team's' runners (acknowledging that certain times may have been run on courses of various difficulties) Minnehaha would finish last; Perham would be third. Class A schools with a history for producing top caliber teams appear to receive recognition over schools from the 'nether regions' of the state.

Teams like G-F-W and Mora, who were excellent last year and absolutely have significant potential this year, have failed to merit their positions in the rankings at this point in the season. This is perhaps due to coping with the loss of the Schwinghamer brothers and Alec Sanbeck at Mora, and senior Samuel Stresemann at GFW. I absolutely do not mean to disrespect either of these programs, but rather recognize the schools that have performed at the highest level this season.

Let add into our simulated meet the teams from East Grand Forks and Ada-Borup/Norman County West.

1. Greenway
2. Mankato Loyola
3. Perham
4. Saint James
5. East Grand Forks
6. Rochester Area Home
7. Lac Qui Parle Valley
8. Ada-Borup
9. Jordan
10. Annandale
11. West Central Area
12.  Mora
13. G-F-W
14.  Minnehaha

The best example of this year's 'dark horse' teams are the boys from Ada-Borup high School and East Grand Forks High School. East Grand Forks places their 2-5 runners within a minute of their number one, Cole Nowacki. Ada-Borup has a similar small spread of their top five, led by Christian Sterton. These two northwestern Minnesota schools are absolutely deserving of a place among the top 12 teams, however they are still virtually unnoticed so far this year. This could be because of their geographic location, however if an informed ranking is going to be produced it makes little sense to disregard programs like Ada-Borup and East Grand Forks simply because the people producing the rankings have failed to look beyond schools that have historically produced strong teams.

In general, the coaches rankings are not hugely significant. While the concept behind them is cool, races are run for a reason and at the end of the day, the results show who is at the top. However it is important to consider individuals and teams that perform admirably and receive little recognition. I can also attest to the feeling of achievement you get when your performances are recognized and I believe that every individual/team from any part of the state should be equally considered. For the time being I would advise you to put little stock in the rankings, and continue to perform the best that you can.

* I focused on boys Class A here because it is what I know best, however there are undoubtedly girls A and boys/girls AA teams/individuals who could be used in this argument

** With the Roy Griak and Milaca Mega Meet this weekend, we will see some unranked individuals and teams stake their claims for a spot in the rankings against the teams that currently occupy the top 12 spots

Happy Running!

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