Over the last two weeks, I wrote fairly detailed preview articles for Arizona's Divisions 1, 2, 3, and 4. I squeezed the rankings and did gymnastics with them to get them to yield all the information I could possibly hope for from them.
But, at the end of the day, cross country is about more than rankings, much more. In this article, my aim is to lay bare several factors that, ultimately, keep rankings in their place. And, honestly, if rankings told the whole story, most of use would lose interest in cross country (and a lot of other things!) very quickly.
The first factor to override rankings is perhaps the most fundamental factor of all in high school cross country--coaching.
The single most telling reason why schools like Flagstaff, Hopi, Desert Vista, and Highland (plus a few more, but it's difficult to know where to draw the line) are excellent cross country teams year after year after year is top-tier coaching. Yes, some of these schools do regularly reap the benefits of transfers, but the pipeline of transfers would dry up in a hurry if the coaching fell off by a notch or two.
When you have a great coaching staff, or sometimes just a single great coach, at a school, it doesn't matter nearly as much who graduated last spring. A great coach gets over the losses to graduation and finds and develops talent to replace what was lost. In fact, most coaches would list that item at or near the top of the list of what they do--every year. Some do it unbelievably well. No doubt you could name a few right now.
Great coaches cause their programs to leapfrog other programs that are ahead of them according to what the rankings from last year tell us.
Another important thing great coaches do is they ride out the low points of a season with their team. They resist the urge to make unhelpful criticisms and own their own responsibilities. When the time for the state meet rolls around, all this gets withdrawn from the bank of team good will. Some coaches give their teams more to withdraw than others. The best ones do it over and over with each new year.
Closely related to coaching is tradition. Great coaches build tradition. Mediocre coaches chip away at tradition. And, most schools with a solid cross country tradition put a little extra effort into finding another coach who will build tradition when one has left. Tradition impacts the choices administration makes almost as much as it impacts the choices students make. Eventually, tradition can be lost, but a nice collection of state cross country trophies in the case at school is a quiet little recruiter in the student body.
The Single-Minded Athlete
Few things have the power to turn a program for the better like the athlete who spends his or her off-season testing the limits, destroying them, and finding new ones.
Whatever else did or did not happen with these two between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, there's no way either made the progressions they did without putting in a lot of hours on trail and pavement. And, along the way, there can be no doubt they inspired and pushed their own teammates by their examples.
Ambition can be either a positive or a negative thing. I use it here in the positive sense.
Most frequently, ambition--as it pertains to a cross country team--involves one team growing weary of losing to another team and redoubling their efforts until they can beat the heretofore unbeatable team. This is exactly why most teams don't stay on top very long. The longer you remain on top, the hungrier you make the opposition. Eventually, another team is going to come around and knock you off your pedestal. It took a long time for that team to find Hopi, but that's just a testament to how fundamentally sound the Hopi program was for so many years. The general rule is that, after three or four years, other folks have had enough of you being on top and eventually there comes along a team that can do something about it.
None of these four items show up on rankings and virtual meets from the last cross country season. And, it is these things that render the rankings and virtual meets forever somewhat suspect. The best prognosticators take these factors into account when they make projections for the season ahead.
By the way, the fact that rankings and virtual meets are suspect lends an air of uncertainty to the outcomes in cross country without which, frankly, cross country would not be very interesting. If everyone knows in August how things will play out in November, why bother?