That the Francis Scott Key boys didn't win the Class 1A state cross country championships was unfortunate.
The possibility that meet officials were a bit overzealous in enforcing the rules is open to debate.
But the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and meet officials have suffered some unfair cheap shots in recent weeks. Much has been written, but precious little has included comments from the officials involved.
There were mistakes on both sides.
Intentional or not, two Key runners did run on the wrong side of a cone marking a turn. And, as some state officials have pointed out, Keyrunners did not take part in the prerace course walk, which may havecontributed to confusion at the final turn.
On the other hand, the state committee made mistakes, too.
John Grim, the coach at Linganore High and the state's rules interpreter, said the course was poorly marked at the starting line and at the turn where several runnerswere judged to have run on the wrong side of the cone. And crowd control was a problem in the early races, said both Grim and Bob Dean, chairman of the state cross country committee and coach at Dulaney High.
But Jim Clarius, Key's top runner and the eventual race winner,made the turn with no trouble, as did many other runners in that first race of the day, Dean said. The next race, the boys Class 4A race,was run with the same markings and crowd control and came off without a hitch.
Part of the problem may have been that the state meet had been held at Hereford High in Baltimore County for many years. Thecourse had remained the same for several years, and was used during regular-season meets at the school, including the prestigious Hereford Invitational.
This year's state course was similar to the one used at Western Maryland for college and high school meets during the season, but there were some subtle route changes.
Mike Whitmore, the site director and an assistant cross country and track coach at Western Maryland, said he encouraged runners familiar with the regular-season course to go on the prerace walk at the state meet because of those changes.
One of the changes was at the final turn, where runners had to swing out a bit farther than on the regular course.
Keycoach Jim Bullock said his runners did not walk the course because they were told the only changes were at the start and finish lines.
And, there's nothing in the rules about a course walk being required. The rules do state, though, that a course should be clearly marked,with lines on the course and flags or directional signs marking the turns.
Arrows were painted on the ground, though an old line from a college race might have caused confusion on that final turn. And cones, not arrows or flags, were used to mark corners.
Bullock argues, and rightfully so, that the course markings were inadequate.
But Sparks and others argue that allowing protests after championships have been awarded or games decided would open the door to too many protests.
Bullock said last week that not taking the course walk wasa mistake, and one for which he accepts responsibility. But a properly marked course would have made the course walk needless, he said.
He argues, again with some justification, that coaches were told before the race that this was a new state meet course and it would be alearning experience. As part of that learning process, he said, why not err on the side of leniency, especially since everyone agreed Keyrunners did not gain unfair advantage from running a few inches on the wrong side of the cones?
Key could have avoided problems by walking the course beforehand, said Dean and Grim.
It was a no-win situation. The committee and MPSSAA have caught more than their share of grief, and the Eagles didn't get the state championship they had the talent to earn.
"It's a very unfortunate situation," Grimm said."I think it could have been avoided."
Better planning and common sense on everyone's part could have assured that.