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Bull Run Invitational showcase running out of elite competition

The Baltimore Sun

If tomorrow's Bull Run Invitational cross country meet were like a trendy nightclub, John Roemer would be the guy at the front door deciding who gains entrance to the private room where all the beautiful people party.

Trouble is, for this year's meet, Roemer, the race co-director, is having trouble getting the beautiful people past the velvet rope line and into the boys elite race.

While nine of the 10 teams ranked in The Sun's boys cross country poll this week are expected to participate in the 12th annual race at Hereford, only three, No. 4 Mount Hebron, sixth-ranked Bel Air and No. 7 Loyola, are running in the elite race. Top-ranked Calvert Hall is the only team missing, as the Cardinals have decided to run in a meet in Richmond, Va., where they placed second last year. On the girls side, seven of the top 10 are running in the elite race.

Roemer said he will ask the coaches during a morning meeting tomorrow whether they'd like to continue the elite race - created seven years ago to allow schools of all sizes to run against each other - or whether they'd like to keep racing against schools of similar size.

"I think it [the elite race] will be a fine race," Roemer said. "I won't waver. This idea that some better teams in the area elected to go with their size classifications, well, they're entitled to do that because they didn't elect to get in the elite race in the first place."

The Bull Run has become one of the biggest races on the East Coast cross country calendar each year, attracting schools from four surrounding states and the District of Columbia. Should they choose not to run in the elite race, the teams are divided by enrollment into three classifications: large, medium and small.

This year, more than 100 schools, 2,600 runners, spectators and well-wishers are expected to pack Hereford with cars lined along York Road for miles, as the course, which twists and turns along steep hills and woods, is as much a part of the event as the competition itself.

"A lot of coaches think this is true cross country," Roemer said. "A lot of the cross country die-hards don't envision cross country at its finest to be run on a bunch of soccer fields or hockey fields or flat courses. You've got a couple of ferocious hills, there's woods all around. I think it captures the essence of cross country in a way that a meet around a horse racing track or on playing fields in a suburban neighborhood just can't do."

Roemer, who assists in coaching Hereford's boys and girls teams, said he began to notice a few weeks ago as the entry deadline approached that fewer schools than usual were signing up for the elite race, so he made some calls to coaches to see if he could encourage them to move up.

The coaches, Roemer said, cited a variety of explanations for staying out of the showcase race. One of the oft-stated reasons was that teams wanted to run against schools of similar size.

Another rationale, Roemer said, was that Maryland public school teams wanted to run at a time approximate to when they would run in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship meet Nov. 10, also held at Hereford.

That's an excuse that doesn't hold water with Shawn Loper, Bel Air's boys and girls coach, who entered the Bobcats in the elite race within the past few weeks.

"I don't understand that philosophy," Loper said. "The weather conditions are going to dictate how it actually feels during the race. There's no way they're going to be the same [tomorrow] as they will be at states. We'd be pretty lucky if they were."

Of course, there is always the chance that many of the schools are ducking high-level competition to protect their rankings, a theory Roemer doesn't entirely dismiss.

"I'm not going to be an apologist for some of the guys who might be ducking the competition for whatever reason," Roemer said. "I never had a coach come in and say, 'Oh, I'm looking around. Who's in the elite race? I want to get out this year.' "

For Loper, the decision to enter the elite race was as much about practicality as testing his runners against A-list talent. As many as 50 schools - double the number that would compete at the state meet - will run in the medium classification, which is where Bel Air would have run, meaning there would be hundreds of kids jostling for limited space, with the potential for stumbles and injuries.

"That kind of opened my eyes a little bit," Loper said. "I don't know if they've ever had 50 schools on the line for one race. The start's not bad, but it gets narrow at the top around the tree. I just thought that sounds a little crazy."

As for the elite race's future, Roemer said he and co-director Mike Kalisz, Hereford's athletic director, will evaluate a number of suggestions in the hope they can continue a late-September tradition.

"Mike and I were in agreement that the show must go on, that we wanted to stick with this and have the elite race," Roemer said. "From a meet director's perspective, the elite race is a good idea."


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