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Controlling the chaos of track

Well-run track meet requires immense planning, organization

Kaneland girls track coach Doug Ecker officiates the boys long jump during Saturday’s Peterson Prep Track Meet at Kaneland High School in Maple Park.
Kaneland girls track coach Doug Ecker officiates the boys long jump during Saturday’s Peterson Prep Track Meet at Kaneland High School in Maple Park.

Successful track and field meets signify a marriage between several entities, so Burlington Central boys coach Mike Schmidt logically offers this comparison:

“Almost like a wedding, you know,” Schmidt said. “You probably assume a little something is going to go wrong, but you certainly don’t want anything major to go wrong.”

Many passive elements must pass muster before athletes test themselves and dazzle crowds. That data entry plus phone calls plus emailing equals seamless running, jumping, hurdling and throwing isn’t a precise equation, although it’s close.

“If you’ve done your job properly as a host school, it should look like it’s very easy to run a meet, if you know what I mean,” Schmidt said. “But boy if there aren’t just hours and hours and hours of meticulous planning that go on to make sure that everything you’re doing runs smoothly.”

Kaneland boys coach Eric Baron arrived at his home track around 5:30 a.m. Saturday for the Knights’ Peterson Prep Invitational, which did not officially begin until field events started at 10 a.m. The meet ended around 3 p.m.

The stadium gradually emptied, just not the agenda.

As Baron grinned through the fatigue, he worked just as tirelessly to stress that he wasn’t the only one putting in long hours. For one, meet manager Ralph Drendel – Kaneland’s interim athletic director and former longtime boys track coach – would have given a pedometer a run for its life Saturday.

Even those with seemingly more stationary responsibilities have their hands full juggling multiple duties in the press box, which routinely doubles as command central.

Sometimes results are delayed or flipped, depending on the technology of a school’s Fully Automatic Timing (FAT) system. Sometimes athletes grab the wrong trophies from the tables at midfield.

Consider those the chipped heels of track meets, not the torn dresses. All of it is correctable.

“The more you do it, the better you get at it, “Baron said, “but you still have to know you can’t control everything.”

Having a pulse on an upbeat mindset never hurts.

“Everybody’s excited for the next event. Everybody’s excited,” first-year Kaneland athletic assistant and press box worker Debbie Theis said. “There’s not a lot of negatives.”

The Peterson program listed 40 meet officials, including compensated workers and coaches from other schools assigned to officiate relay exchange zones and field event areas.

Announcer Alison Digan, a graduating senior at Aurora University, was fulfilling her final duty as an unpaid intern in the Kaneland athletic department. The awards distributors were volunteers from the girls program, which will host the girls Kane County Meet on Friday.

Lower-level or noncompeting athletes assisted where they were needed, raking jump pits, placing and removing hurdles or pulling tape measures. It’s a rite of passage upperclassmen credit for their confidence in later years.

“Everyone’s all together,” said Batavia senior Clayton Siemsen, recalling the program’s annual Les Hodge Invitational each April. “The track team. It’s great.”

At Kaneland, former athletes Nick Messina and Brad Kigyos returned to campus to operate the Knights’ new FAT system from St. Paul, Minn. -based Eagle Eye Timing. Baron said the package, which includes software and cameras that are set up at the finish line, cost $7,800.

Over the equipment’s expected lifespan, that still figures to be more cost effective than contracting through such companies as PT Timing or AdkinsTrak, or even paying one worker apiece to hand-time each of the track’s eight lanes through the course of a season, Baron said.

Hand timing remains a fixture for some schools at smaller midweek meets. Marmion, which hosts four Tuesday duals this season, largely relies on parent volunteers to help operate meets so coaches can monitor athletes.

“Track parents step up and they read the rules,” Cadets coach Dan Thorpe said. “They run each event, and I’m so very blessed that parents are willing to hustle out of work and get there.”

Non-competing athletes, naturally, lend a hand, too.

“I’m always breaking in new people,” Thorpe said.

Mother Nature still thwarts technology from time to time, namely when high winds compromise the hurdles events and prompt switching the running direction.

Unless a school is equipped with multiple cameras, which is rare, hand-timing determines the winners.

St. Charles East girls coach Tim Wolf, a former track official, now has encountered trouble scenarios from both angles, augmenting his experience as a former Aurora Central Catholic athlete.

“It’s been a good transition for me, coaching. I really enjoy it,” Wolf said. “I will admit, I do miss officiation, but this has been very enlightening for me.”

Baron, a former St. Charles High standout, recalls the advent of FAT timing near the end of his collegiate career at Eastern Illinois in the early 1990s.

“It’s pretty fascinating how far the technology’s come,” he said. “Who knows where it will be in even 10 years?”

To be sure, that question is the base for one of many variables in the equation that produces a successful track and field meet.

That doesn’t mean concerns at the grassroots level disappear.

Central, which welcomed the boys Kane County meet for the first time last spring as well as a girls sectional, resurfaced its track to enhance its hosting chops. BC hosts a boys sectional next month.

“You need to make sure that you have a facility that people want to come to and that you’re proud of and is maintained well,” Schmidt said.

Once that’s in place, bring on the bells and whistles. Just don’t forget the paperwork, too.



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