Effects from the coronavirus pandemic have spilled over from spring’s sports cancellations into schedule delays, format changes and more for fall and winter sports.
Although the Big Sky voted to postpone its fall sports — cross country, football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball — to the spring, and the NCAA eventually followed by pushing fall championships to the spring, Paul Pilkington looked around the country and saw Weber State was at a disadvantage.
Some power conferences and other leagues were still staging cross country meets this fall. In a usual season format, this would only be an irritant for those who weren’t running. But this upcoming cross country season will not feature its usual regional championships that set up the NCAA finals. Instead, a committee will weigh all performances and select the teams and individuals to race at nationals.
“We got on a (video) call with all the coaches, and we have one of the best cross country conferences in the country and have three or four teams who could qualify for the championships ... we felt like it was a disadvantage if we couldn’t race this fall,” Pilkington said, because his WSU runners wouldn’t be able to prove themselves through clear qualifying times at a regional meet.
A proposal from the coaches was approved by Big Sky athletic directors and then school presidents so now, each team in the conference can compete in up to two meets this fall.
“We’re looking for teams to beat that will give us a better chance to get to the NCAA championships,” Pilkington said. “The more opportunities we have to go beat other teams, or have individuals place very high in large meets, that just gives us a greater chance of being selected. So we have to go run against the best competition to have a chance to do that.”
Both Pilkington and men’s head coach Corbin Talley said the Wildcats are looking at an Oct. 17 meet, either at Oklahoma State or Texas A&M, and then a second meet in the first or second week of November.
So despite a canceled outdoor track season in the spring, losing access to facilities and coaches for a time in the summer, isolating in small groups for months on end, then a vote to push cross country to the spring of 2021, some of WSU’s distance runners will now be able to hit the cross country course a couple times before winter break.
“We’re excited to be running again and racing again. It’s good to be back together and feel like all the hard work is moving us in a direction instead of being at a stand-still,” Talley said.
Pilkington recently had a chance to thank President Brad Mortensen for voting to allow them to run this fall.
“He said it’s going to be good for everybody to see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that we have people competing and that we can do things safely,” Pilkington recounted.
Those in the running world have held concerns about how delays and postponements will make cross country, indoor track and outdoor track seasons mash together.
Pilkington says the Wildcats should be able to meet expectations to be competitive in both cross country and indoor track. Distance runners will focus on cross country and split up and run in at least one indoor meet each, compete for the Big Sky cross country championships then, a week later, come together to run at the indoor Big Sky championships.
“We have a very good women’s indoor team, so we’re going to focus quite a bit on cross country with the distance runners. But they can handle doing both, we just won’t overrace them,” he said.
The two fall cross country meets won’t interfere with indoor season, which normally starts in December but won’t pick up until January this season, Talley said.
Both coaches spoke highly of their teams, which hope to build on a 2019 cross country season in which the Wildcats were voted 32nd in the national coaches poll — the first spot after the 31 teams that qualified for the NCAA national meet.
On the women’s side, Pilkington says Summer Harper, who was an NCAA qualifier as a freshman, is back after missing last season to have a child and is “running fantastic.” She joins seniors Abby Lawrence and Billy Hatch, the latter a transfer from Dixie State, to form a “really good 1-2-3,” Pilkington said.
The men return junior All-American Christian Allen, who set a school record with a 14th-place individual finish at the 2019 cross country nationals, and junior Taylor Dillon, who was 59th at nationals.
And, heading into indoor track, senior pole vaulter Trey Devereaux, who qualified for the NCAA indoor nationals meet that was canceled while in progress last winter, returns with accomplished senior women Emily Morgan-King, Paige Van Meeteren and Lexie Thompson, among others that should make the Wildcats competitive.