Track and field landscape change may not stop at altered schedule, Dayton for 2024 | Opinion

Mar. 26—Most aspects to track and field in the spring are like clockwork.

The same invitationals are staged on the same weekends.

League meets will transpire when they always do.

At least one or two weekends will fall beyond salvage thanks to Mother Nature.

We'll laugh as we go from winter gear one Saturday to shorts and sandals the next.

The state meet will revolve around the same Friday and Saturday schedule it has since before this current group of student-athletes were born.

Well ... not this year at least.

There will be no road to Columbus in 2024, as the state track and field meet is moved for a year from Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus to its previous home, Dayton's Welcome Stadium. The 'O' will be undergoing a track replacement through the summer, so that hub of culmination activity will be quiet for once.

A temporary road to Dayton turns back the clock a bit, but that's our reality.

Going to Dayton and a three-day format is a lot to digest, of course. But in a way, perhaps we're being prepared by these shocks to the system for more on the horizon.

As much as we're used to being creatures of habit in track and field, it is worth pondering how much change we have witnessed in recent years.

We've had a canceled season. We've had a pandemic-riddled season.

We've had two forced changes of venue for state.

We had construction at Austintown-Fitch last year briefly shifting sight lines for Divisions I and II regional competition in a way never before seen.

We've been warned of a transition to electronic starts beginning this spring.

We've shifted from finding results on Baumspage year after year to MileSplit.

And now, there's another biggie — not just Dayton for a year. But a three-day format for state.

It does make you think, because even as taxing as a three-day state schedule will be on the Ohio high school track and field community, it does have benefits.

D-III state track and field, although The News-Herald coverage area is fortunate from year to year to have a handful of qualifiers at best, is the epitome of what our sport is all about.

We've talked at length in the past about D-III student-athletes aspiring, regardless of what corner of the state from which they emanate, facility obstacles and more.

For example, it was awesome last year when Fairport had more than one state track and field qualifier in a single season (Dimari Payne in high jump and Zane Malkamaki in pole vault) for the first time since 1975. And Payne got on the podium in fifth. Without an on-campus track and field facility, Payne practiced high jump in the gym, with a mat pulled down from the wall. If that's not finding a unique way to improvise and succeed in D-III, then nothing is.

Fairport's Dimari Payne fifth in high jump on Division III state track and field Day 1

I'm reminded of something Payne told me when I asked about the broader lesson of his journey.

"I know everybody says it, but you can do anything really," Payne said. "Jumping in the gym and coming to state, I'm not sure there's too many other people that have just gyms here. Anything is possibly really. That's what I would say."

D-III running finals in a "normal" year are staged first thing Saturday morning. This year, due to the altered schedule in Dayton, those will be contested Friday night.

It's not to imply D-III is an afterthought, obviously. But it is good for the sport that student-athletes from its smallest schools get a primetime competition slot when that is never the case, albeit for one year.

There are many reasons for it, but it always saddens me to see D-III student-athletes exit the podium after success, up to and including state championships, glance out as contemporaries speak to their local media and they have no one looking to speak with them.

In general, providing an improved spotlight for timing with D-III may aid the general cause.

It's not just D-III, of course. And it's not just a three-day format one time only.

Much of this will need to be addressed separately in this space down the road, because it's a complicated topic. But with the news this winter about divisional expansion for competitive balance sports beyond football starting this fall, there is a conversation about how track and field falls into such a dynamic.

In its announcement about the changes, the Ohio High School Athletic Association noted out in the open the dialogue between itself and track and field power brokers about what could be done with its divisional format.

We've known three divisions for so long. But at minimum there is a conversation worth having about expansion due to the discrepancy between the largest and smallest D-I programs by enrollment.

And suffice it to say, if you go to more divisions in track and field, it means we won't be able to have a state meet in its efficient two-day schedule to which we're all accustomed.

It's already a nearly 11-hour day on that Friday and Saturday. So it's seemingly unrealistic to expand time windows into the evening and be done with it.

All of this is to say while a new format in a new venue might only be intended for one year only in state track and field, this might not be the end of drastic change in the years ahead.

We have to talk about divisions. We have to talk about the inevitable effect football being afforded an earlier offseason window will have on spring sports.

It won't be as simple as going back to Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in 2025 and waxing poetic with selfies to show for it by the Owens statue in the southwest corner.

Most aspects to track and field season are like clockwork.

But that clock looks like it has some notable recalibration coming sooner rather than later.