On Monday, the Minnesota State High School League Board of Directors voted in favor of expanding MSHSL Cross Country to three divisions. Beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, Class AAA, the new large school division, will be added. The 64 largest schools (by enrollment) will move into that class, with Class AA housing the next 96 biggest schools, and Class A containing all other teams.
Though this expansion comes as a surprise to many, it's a change that has been in the works for years.
"I know three classes is something that cross country has researched and discussed for a long time," Chris Goebel, Mora head coach and Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association president said. "There are a lot of coaches that believed it would never happen because of past proposals and discussions with the MSHSL. Recently, the MSHSL changed their bylaws to make it more of a possibility."
The MSHSL official handbook states that, "the Board of Directors may request input from the member schools to assist in determining the classification and format of any League-sponsored tournament, but the Board of Directors shall have sole discretion for determining the classification of schools and the tournament format(s)."
Furthermore, "Recommendations regarding multiple classes in any League-sponsored activity may be forwarded to the Board of Directors by: a), Five member schools' designated representatives; b) Any member of the Board of Directors; c) The Minnesota State High School Coaches Association; or d) The advisory committee for that activity."
Ultimately, this meant that the addition of Class AAA fell solely to the Board of Directors vote.
The main argument for proponents of the proposal was that the creation of a third class would result in a more competitive environment for more teams, particularly those on the smaller end of Class AA.
"Adding a third class increases the number of teams and runners that get to experience a State Meet. The way the classes are divided will continue to provide competitive section and state meets in all three classes. I think that was an important goal of the CC advisory board," Goebel continued.
The immediate negative effect is dilution of talent. Historically strong teams such as Willmar will remain in Class AA, missing the 64 team threshold for the largest division. Those schools will lose the chance to race against the very best. However, top Class A schools, including powerhouse Perham, will get the opportunity to toe the line with better competition. While it's true that Class AAA will be missing some strength at the top, Class AA will provide greater competition for schools like the aforementioned Perham, making for new exciting matchups. At the same time, smaller schools currently in Class AA will have a chance to be significantly more competitive.
Others were hesitant with the logistics of a third class, given that eight new section meets and two more races at State will be run. "The concerns some have are the state meet location, with parking and the number of people attending the state meet," Goebel noted. "We will work with the MSHSL to come up with a schedule that can help alleviate some of those issues."
As of now, track and field remains at two classes. There currently is a proposal to expand track and field to three classifications, and considering the success of the cross country proposal, it appears likely to pass as well. The vote is expected to occur in the fall.
There are still two more academic years to go until the three class system is implemented. When it becomes official, the expectation is that cross country will become a fairer (and thus more enjoyable) competition across the board.
"Cross Country going to three classes is really best for the sport. No matter how classes are divided, there will be a differential in enrollments," Goebel said. "However, schools with enrollments of 545 [struggle to] compete with the largest schools in the state. I think overall it will be a positive change that will hopefully continue to grow the sport in Minnesota."