Are there lessons to be drawn and things to be pondered over from this year's edition of NXR-SW? There certainly are, and perhaps we've captured a few of those in this article.
Some of the content of this article is shameless speculation. Some of it is simple factual reporting. I don't think you'll need too much help discerning the difference as we go.
NXN extended their at-large bids yesterday, and the Southwest region was included among this year's bids. Here is a listing of the schools to which the at-large bids went out:
Pine Creek (CO)
New Trier (IL)
East Aurora (NY)
St. Xavier (OH)
Westchester Henderson (PA)
A big congratulations to the Pine Creek girls, who, in something of a twist, will send a contingent of six to Nike Cross Nationals. Xavier College Prep, Los Alamos, and Herriman missed getting at-large bids but, unless I miss my guess, each came under the microscope of serious consideration.
For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I did a little digging to find recent enrollment counts for each of the top 12 boys and top 12 girls teams at NXR-SW. I became interested in this question myself upon noting that Ogden is a 3A school in Utah. I've been to Ogden, and it didn't seem to me like a 3A kind of town, so curiosity eventually got the best of me. It turns out, Utah's 3A is a lot different size of schools than Colorado's or New Mexico's 3A (states I'm more familiar with). It also appears that Ogden is headed back to 4A in Utah after a very short stay in 3A. And Herriman appears destined for 5A in the next Utah cycle.
Be careful, however, of reading too much into bald enrollment count numbers. Enrollment counts do not tell you if a school is public, private, or charter. So I've included those designations for each school listed. More importantly, enrollment counts tell you little, if anything, about enrollment policies. Is enrollment closed, open to all students living in the district, open to all students living in the state, or some other model? I know something of those policies for many schools in Colorado, but next to nothing of those policies outside of Colorado. And I'm not going to wander any further into that lagoon.
So, with one final disclaimer that the enrollment count numbers I have for Utah are 10 - 12 counts (you would need to multiply by at least 1.33 to get a 9 - 12 count), here goes on a list of at least relatively recent school enrollment numbers:
1. American Fork, public, 2133 (10 - 12)
2. Davis, public, 2366 (10 - 12)
3. Los Alamos, public, 1124
4. Herriman, public, 2169 (10 - 12)
5. Sue Cleveland, public, 2160
6. Mountain Vista, public, 2070
7. Mountain View (UT), public, 1321 (10 - 12)
8. Fairview, public, 2104
9. Bonneville, public, 1332 (10 - 12)
10. Ogden, public, 1293 (10 - 12)
11. Rio Rico, public, 1123
12. Cheyenne Mountain, public, 1400
1. Davis, public, 2366 (10 - 12)
2. Fort Collins, public, 1750
3. Pine Creek, public, 1475
4. Xavier College Prep, private (girls only), 1195
5. Park City, public, 1075 (10 - 12)
6. Ogden, public, 1293 (10 - 12)
7. Monarch, public, 1570
8. The Classical Academy, charter, 596
9. American Fork, public, 2133 (10 - 12)
10. Mountain Crest, public, 1684 (10 - 12)
11. Los Alamos, public, 1124
12. Orem, public, 1146 (10 - 12)
Am I suggesting that performance at NXR-SW is a function of school size? At some level it is, and we're all aware that it is. We don't have to deny what is transparently true. You don't see any schools with enrollments of 400 or fewer on the list, and there's probably a reason for that. Had Albuquerque Academy had a top-12 team this fall, you would have one other school on the list with an enrollment well under 1000.
But, preparation trumps body count every time. In talking to American Fork coach Timo Mostert on Friday evening before the big event, I asked him about his American Fork team's training volume between the Utah state meet and NXR-SW. He indicated that volume hovered around 65 miles per week for three of the four intervening weeks. Suddenly, I had a much clearer picture of American Fork's success.
Honestly, I believe consistency at that kind of volume (and, of course, it's not just the volume) has far more to do with American Fork's success than their enrollment count does. Enrollment alone doesn't come close to explaining their recent run of success.
Next, let's turn our attention to race time temperatures at the 2012 NXR-SW meet and those amazingly fast times turned in. Those times have been the subject of some national chatter and speculation over the last week. Charges of "short course" have been bandied about in some circles.
Overcast conditions retained the cool of the morning air much longer into the day than usual on the date of the NXR-SW meet. Extrapolating from nearby weather data, the temperature for the boys championship race was probably in the low 60s, whereas the temperature for the girls championship race was likely in the high 60s. No direct sunlight beat down on the runners in either race. While these temperatures are not extreme for Arizona at this time of year, they definitely did hover well on the cool side of normal.
It's entirely possible that this year's conditions may have worked in favor of the schools visiting from higher elevations in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. For schools from these locations, these temperatures were favorable (more like the conditions they had been training in for the weeks leading up to NXR-SW) relative to previous years, and the times produced seem to support that conclusion. While I can't speak for teams from the Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Tucson areas, perhaps the chill of the morning had something of an adverse effect on their performances relative to previous years.
Am I speaking of a psychological impact or a physiological impact? Possibly both, and probably at differing levels for different teams.
Speaking for a moment for my own team, we found the conditions on the Saturday morning of NXR-SW very comfortable, and easily the most comfortable for running of any of the six years we've come down for the event. I don't know how to distinguish the psychological contribution from the physiological, but I feel comfortable in allowing that both were in play.
I run the complete course every year, and I did not notice any differences in course configuration that should have accounted for the large number of exceptional times (sub-18s for girls, sub-16s for boys) posted on November 17. I'm satisfied that the course was substantially the same length as it was either of the last two years.
Of the three aforementioned states (Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado), Utah and Colorado seemed to get the most "bounce" from the weather conditions, assuming that is the primary explanation of the exceptional times turned in. New Mexico schools, on the other hand, did not seem to fare as well. That, too, clamors for an explanation. It could be that the explanation here lies at least partially in the proximity of New Mexico's state meet (November 10) and the Nike regional meet (November 17).
Speaking as a coach who gave his team the Monday off after state entirely and didn't try to do any sort of quality workout until Wednesday, and even then was dealing with multiple runners experiencing residual soreness from the state meet, it's easy for me to believe it would have been pretty difficult to turn around from one culminating meet to another in the space of seven days. New Mexico's state-sanctioned season is already the longest cross country season in the region, and fatigue levels--both physical and pyschological--had to have been reasonably high coming out of the state meet.
None of the New Mexico girls teams looked sharp. Both the Los Alamos and Cleveland boys seemed to be missing something of the edge they had the week prior, and it was even worse for the other boys teams out of New Mexico.
To their credit, I haven't detected any New Mexico or Arizona schools asking for sympathy. And the ideas discussed above aren't especially intended to elicit sympathy. The ideas are thrown out onto the table simply for discussion purposes and in the hope that we might learn something useful from them. If not now, then perhaps somewhere down the road.
One set of schools not requiring much of anything in the way of sympathy is the set from Utah. The Utah performances last Saturday were, for the most part, simply stellar. The Utah schools, and especially those who have come down to NXR-SW repeatedly, seem to have mastered the art of staying sharp over the month layoff between their state meet and Nike Southwest. Each year, they seem to get a little better at it. It's probably no coincidence that, of the top-finishing schools at the Utah state meet, the two whose performances at NXR-SW were least indicative of their state performances (Bonneville boys and Mountain Crest girls) were two teams that, I believe, came down to NXR-SW for the first time this year.
With 1800 participants in the high school races this year, we're also beginning to see the impacts of a very large crowd on the event. Thus far the venue seems able to handle the event, but I harbor some concerns about continued growth forcing the championship races later into the day.
Every time I've asked about moving the championship races earlier in the day, I've been told that it won't be done. Since these are the featured events, they must follow, not precede, the open races. But, what if field size next year requires three open boys races and three open girls races? Whatever small advantage may have tilted the direction of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico this year would tilt swiftly, and more dramatically, in the direction of Arizona and Las Vegas schools if we start contesting the championship races in full sunlight with temperatures in the 80s in the Arizona afternoon.
It also magnifies the difficulties of coaching at this event if you start out with athletes in the first open race and end up with athletes in the last championship race of the day. Coaching at NXR-SW is not like driving 30 minutes down the road to coach at an invitational. Everything is a bit more complicated when you're living out of hotel rooms and rental cars.
One possible relief valve would be to move the citizens race until after the championship race. The amount of time currently being taken to process and review results of the championship races before awards would easily allow for the citizens race to be run. Perhaps, however, there are other logistical nightmares preventing this that I haven't thought of.
I also wonder if Friday night is available for open races if the demand for the open races continues to rise. I think I speak for a lot of out-of-state coaches--and perhaps some from Arizona as well--that I have a fairly high interest in not seeing the championship races move any later in the day than they currently are.
Any thoughts or ideas you have on these questions, or questions of your own, are welcome in the Comments section of this article.