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Automated timing brings South Dakota track and field up to speed

Apr. 9—MITCHELL — Life is all about timing. Track and field is the same way.

This season, some major changes are underway that change the way the South Dakota track and field timing is kept and how it feeds into the state meet qualification process in Class A and Class B levels.

For the first time, meets must be run with fully automatic timing in order for those times to count to the state meet under South Dakota High School Activities Association rules. Athletes will qualify for all events by having times or marks that among the top-24 in the state in their class. That rule has been in effect for a few years but the final step was finalizing the automated timing policy, assuring continuity across the state in times.

With the move to the top-24 qualifying fully in effect, a long-held tradition of May will come to an end with no more region track meets. Previously, athletes could qualify for the state meet with a top-two finish in their region but with the top-24 list, the meets had become mostly ceremonial in Class A and Class B.

An electronic camera that times races without manual interference, the automated timing system has been an item in many track meets in the past, but is in higher demand now that Class A and Class B both require them in order for meets to count.

Between finding a hosting date that's open for multiple schools to attend, and securing a track official, stapling in a schedule is tricky enough — without worrying about tracking down a timing system. Thus, the simplest way for a hosting school to assure it has one for its meet is to own its own. That's why Mitchell purchased one three years ago.

"With all those variables, everything having to line up, it becomes really challenging at times," Mitchell athletic director Cory Aadland said. " ... So I wanted to invest in the timing system and so I took one of those variables out now."

Platte-Geddes also owns its own automated timing system. The school's athletic foundation bought it about four years ago for roughly $12,000, according to the school's athletic director, Frank Cutler.

But most schools do not have one, because, as Menno athletic director Jacque Liebl plainly said in an email, "They are quite expensive."

That leaves the following options: Rent it from a third party, most frequently Dakota Timing, or rent or borrow from a neighboring school.

Mitchell used to rent from Dakota Timing, which, owned by Erik Van Laecken, runs all the state's major meets, including the Howard Wood Dakota Relays. However, according to Aadland, Van Laecken and his team only have "about three" systems available, and they're always in high demand.

Which leads schools to look for other options. For the Menno Relays this week, Liebl said her school will rent a system from Bridgewater-Emery, which will also provide personnel to run it.

Both Mitchell and Platte are willing to lend their equipment, but there's a catch: There's a "fairly steep learning curve" to learning the system, according to Aadland, which means schools have to choose a date where the person who knows how to use it is also available.

A former parent of an athlete and Platte resident, Linda Whalen, has become the volunteer point person for operating the equipment for the Black Panthers. She was trained on how to use it from Van Laecken, and has taken it to meets in Chamberlain and Parkston, among other places.

"Other schools have reached out and we're sure willing to let them use the stuff as long as Linda comes with it, because she's the one that knows how to run it and set it up and be ready for those track meets," Cutler said.

Aadland operates Mitchell's system, and has taken it to other meets, including Huron's meet on April 5.

"I let some other school use our equipment, I feel like I'd be running it anyway," Aadland said. " ... When you're hosting one meet a year, with all these things that you have to (learn), to only do it once, I can't imagine doing that."

Until each school owns their own timing system, there will always be logistical hoops to jump through. On Tuesday, for instance, there were nearly a dozen high school track meets in the state, according to the state's track and field database. But Cutler believes there are enough systems circulating the state that it makes adjusting to the rule change doable.

"It makes it even for everybody that you got to have the automatic timing system," Cutler said. "And so I think that's a good move, and I think there's getting to be enough schools that have the timing system. And the track coaches wanted the top-24, and it probably gives you the top athletes and times for your state meet. And so I think they're both good things.