On the surface, the 2017 Utah state high school track-and-field championships at BYU this weekend is all about great individual performances.
Sprinters, distance runners, relay teams, throwers and jumpers all seek to be at their very best and it won’t be surprising to see state records be set.
But when it comes to team success, don’t underestimate the strategy that also comes into play.
By rule, an athlete can compete in a maximum of four events during the meet, so coaches have the task of trying to shuffle their various athletes — and counter what opposing coaches will do — to maximize their team point total.
“As a coach, you have to look and say, ‘Where do I run a kid?’” Orem head coach Andy Jacobs said Thursday. “You can’t have an athlete run in six events. You’ve got to sacrifice somewhere. There is just no way around it.”
Jacobs knows something about getting all the pieces in just the right places and then having the boys and girls excel when they get their opportunities.
The Tiger boys team won the state title in both 2015 and 2016, while the Orem girls squad improved on its 2015 second-place finish to get the team championship in 2016.
Jacobs remembered the 2016 sweep as something special.
“I’ve had a lot of great moments in my career as a track coach but that was definitely right near the top,” Jacobs said. “It is so hard to win state. Last year I projected our girls to hopefully make the Top 5, but they stepped up the entire day and won it.”
The Tigers hope to once again be in the mix to earn the crown in both the 4A boys and girls competitions, but Jacobs knows there are a number of strong teams vying for the top honors.
“Springville is probably the team to beat on the boys side, while Provo and Box Elder will be very good on the girls side,” Jacobs said. “But it takes a perfect meet to win.”
He said the strength for the Tigers is their depth, as both the boys and girls teams had at least 14 athletes qualify for state.
That means Jacobs has a little bit of flexibility as he decides where to have his athletes compete.
“We don’t have to pull athletes from other events in order to score points,” he said. “We had some kids who just missed making it in their individual events but that means they can be fresh for the relays.”
He added that the emphasis for the boys and girls is to not worry about where they will be placed.
“We tell the kids that when they start a race, they just do the best that they can do,” Jacobs said. “What else they will be doing is for the coaches to worry about.”
Another key factor for team success is the finishers who don’t necessarily get the glory of winning but can still score points for their team.
“If you look at a sixth-place finish, some might just say that gets you three points,” Jacobs said. “But it could be a six-point turnaround if you get those three points and a team who was projected to score them doesn’t.
“Those back-end points are critical. We have a bunch of kids who are projected to come in ninth, so if they score even one point, that will be a bump for us.”
No matter what ends up happening during the competition, Jacobs said he loves seeing the kids get this opportunity to shine.
“I think about the distance kids who are training year-round,” he said. “There’s not a break for runners. Many of the other athletes are coming from other sports. There is a ton of work that goes on to get to this point.”
He pointed to the high jump as an example of where the effort to be just a little bit better can pay big dividends.
If multiple jumpers tie for a certain spot, then the tiebreaker is who made it over the bar on their earliest attempts.
“That can make you go up or down five spots,” Jacobs said. “They have months of work trying to get one more inch or even to get over the bar on their first jump.”
He said the key for all of the athletes is being in the moment.
“State is about taking it one event at a time and being the best you can be in the event you have in front of you,” Jacobs said.
The first day of the state track and field championships will feature finals in the 1,600-meter race and in a variety of field events, as well as preliminary events in most of the track events.
It is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. at the BYU track and field complex.
The full schedule of events can be found at UHSAA.org.