Friday, August 26, 2011

Cross-Country IS a Team Sport!

"I keep hearing about cross-country being a team sport. I thought everyone just went out and raced, and whoever is the fastest is the winner."

In a sense, this is true: everyone does go out and race, and there is a winner. But cross-country really is a team sport, and here's how it works....

Each runner's place is recorded at the finish, and the first five runners for each team comprise the scoring members of that team. The place numbers for those five runners are added up, and the team with the lowest score wins.

Here's an example: Say you have three teams in a meet, East, West, and Central High Schools. Here's how the finish looks...
1. West #1
2. Central #1
3. Central #2
4. East #1
5. East #2
6. Central #3
7. West #2
8. East #3
9. East #4
10. West #3
11. Central #4
12. East #5
13. West #4
14. West #5
15. Central #5
16. East #6
17. Central #6
18. Central #7
19. East #7
20. West #6
21. West #7

The East High runners finish 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 16, and 19. The West High runners finish 1, 7, 10, 13, 14, 20, and 21. The Central High runners finish 2, 3, 6, 11, 15, 17, and 18. In this example, the score for East High is 4+5+8+9+12, which totals to 38 points. Similarly, the score for West High is 45 points, and the score for Central High is 37 points. Voila! Central is the winner, with East High a very close 2nd, and West 3rd.

Notice that each team had seven runners in the race, not just five. That's the usual number of runners, even though the 6th and 7th place runners don't count in the scoring. Those runners are known as "displacers" because finishing where they do pushes runners behind them to higher numbered places, increasing that team's score.

What would have happened if East High's last two guys had come in 15th and 16th instead of 16th and 19th? East's score would have been the same: 4+5+8+9+12=38. But Central's would have been 2+3+6+11+17=39, which means that East High would have won by 1 point instead of Central winning by 1 point. And all because of runners who didn't even "count" in the scoring! This illustrates the unique characteristic of cross-country that all members of the team actually are important.

There are other considerations, too.
  •  What happens if there's a tie in the team score? Usually, you just go to the placing of the #6 runner for each of the teams involved in the tie.
  • How about a situation (usually for junior varsity (JV) or frosh-soph races) where teams have more than seven runners? In this case, the most common approach is to remove the #8 and higher finishers from the results and then re-number the finishers without those runners in the mix. Sometimes, though, the race officials don't want to worry about that, so they will just add up the top five runners' scores without removing the "extra" runners.
  • What if one of the teams running in a meet doesn't have five runners that finish? Similar to the case for the "extra" runners, the runners from that team would be removed from the standings in order to calculate the team scores. This is fairly common in situations where some of the schools participating are small or if cross-country isn't a popular sport at the school. In most big meets, awards for individuals are also available - that way, standout runners who don't have enough teammates aren't penalized.
Another thing to understand about the scoring system is that the time it takes to complete the course is completely irrelevant to the team results. The only thing that matters is finishing ahead of runners from other teams. This is especially important to remember when a runner has a sub-par performance in a race - there is an urge to slow down when you know you're not having a great day, but you have to remember that finishing ahead of one or two or three other runners might make the difference of your team making it onto the podium or not. Runners are always timed, but it's more for curiosity's sake than for anything relevant to the competition.

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