Time for State Associations to Evolve with Today's High School Elites

Editorial piece below based on the decision of the Iowa state association to declare state 800 meter record holder Kaley Ciluffo ineligible from competition due to competing in too many meets over the past year with collegiate competition, which ultimately led to her high school (Pleasant Valley) having to give up their state track championship team trophy from this past spring. Is it time for state associations to evolve with the times in which their top athletes have even greater goals and ambitions beyond their state borders or state championship meets?

Iowa's state association for high school girls athletics recently ruled that their state's all-time fastest in the 800 meter run in Pleasant Valley rising senior Kaley Ciluffo had broken their association's rules in regards to high school athletes competing in more than 3 meets against college competition. The IGHSAU handed down stiff punishment to Ciluffo and her Pleasant Valley High School track & field squad. Ciluffo was deemed ineligible for this past seasion including the state championship meet for violating the state association's college competition rules, so her performances and points were vacated from the Iowa state track meet results and thus her team now has been forced to give up their school's first state championship trophy in 23 years.

This is nothing new from Iowa's state association as World Junior team member Stephanie Jenks was in violation of this same rule and will not be eligible to compete for her Linn-Mar High School team this upcoming cross country season, despite being arguably one of the best distance runners that her state has ever produced.

As the national governing body NFHS finally came to its senses of getting rid of a rule that was unfairly punishing athletes that was not affecting the outcomes of competition in the jewelry rule this summer, can state governing bodies let go of their own narrow-minded and old school-thinking quirky rules such as Iowa's policy on prohibiting their most exceptional athletes from competing against better competition in collegiate meets or jumping into meets unattached which might feature pro and college runners to help pull them along to faster times.

It is not easy to run fast if you have to time trial every race that you compete in and certainly does not help prepare and develop top tier high school track talent for the level of competition and racing experience required in order to be successful at the next levels of college or pro ranks in the sport by simply beating up on the local in-state competition every week. High school girls are running faster than ever before and it is because they are traveling out of their state seeking elite high school competitions and the very best such as Mary Cain, Alexa Efraimson, and Elise Cranny have gone all the way to the pro level to find comparable talent to their ability levels.

There were probably a good number of people that paid a decently priced admission fee (which the Iowa state association likely profited from) to come specifically to watch once in a generation distance runners from state of Iowa in a girls 800 meter showdown of Stephanie Jenks and Kaley Ciluffo race against each other head-to-head. Those athletes would not have drawn as much interest or a crowd for the sport to the meet if they weren't spending so much of their own money, time, and travel making themselves faster and more accomplished runners through seeking competitions around the country against elite high school, college, and pro meets.

Despite being stuck in the middle of the country in Iowa, both Jenks and Ciluffo traveled several times to top meets on the East and West Coast this outdoor season. The result was magnificent and incredible PR's for both, which have rarely been seen before from the state of Iowa. Ciluffo just missed making the World Junior team in the 800 despite running a 2:07.08 Iowa state record time for third place at the US Junior Nationals in Eugene, Oregon. Jenks went to meets in New York City (NY), Greensboro (NC), Seattle (WA), and Eugene (OR) to come away from all those flights with outdoor season best times of a 2:09 800, 4:42 mile, 10:06 2 mile, and 16:37 5K. All of those PR's by Jenks were run outside of the state of Iowa.

The rules are the rules and Ciluffo, her coaches, her athletic director, and her parents should have been aware of them and worked inside those parameters if they did not want to run the risk of Ciluffo losing her eligiblity and having the team's state championship trophy being taken away from them. If they knowingly knew the rules and still violated them, then the result is what it is.

However, the lesson from this whole story on Ciluffo (which you can continue reading the full local story below with quotes from coaches, parents, and state association) is that we live in a very different time of high school athletics and everyone that is part of these sports in some way needs to evolve as well, especially the state associations and governing bodies for these high school sports. Today's high school track & field athletes are evolving into faster and stronger athletes than ever before with a greater drive and bigger goals to become elite nationally beyond their state borders. The state associations need to evolve with these new times as well to accommodate these top tier athletes who have greater national aspirations produced within their state rather than to shun them from participation on their high school teams and competing in their pinnacle showcase event at the state championship.

A big reason why this growth, shift and change has happened with today's high school athletes, but the state associations seem to be behind the times, is there is way more media attention and general awareness of what the competition and others are doing nationally. The internet has played a large role in that mindset change as prior to the boom of websites and social media with their expansive reach beyond state borders to become the sport's main source of media coverage and information, only local newspapers existed prior and their limited local coverage area was the knowledge extent of other competition. That greater interest and awareness of trying to become one of the best nationally is pushing top athletes to want to see how they can matchup and compete against the best in out-of-state or elite events.

Sometimes even elite high school competitions are not enough, so the elite high school athletes need to jump into races with college and pro competition for them to maximize their level of performance. Do we want to suffer at the high school state level with a depletion of talent like the NCAA system suffers with many top collegiate athletes leaving early to sign pro contracts? Handling situations like Ciluffo in the way that the Iowa state association did will only push our top high school track athletes to skip the high school system all together or leave it early to go other more accomodating routes including going to college early, turning pro, training with a club coach/team or racing unattached. Certain that high school track fans in Iowa would love (and pay) to see exceptional athletes like Ciluffo dazzle the crowd with record breaking performances at their state meet rather than those high school stars joining them as spectators in the stands watching the rest compete because of old school rules.

It is time for the state associations to evolve with the times. If they do, their sports will grow in their state and become more popular with more interesting stories and elite athletes to follow, which will generate more interest (as well as revenue) for their events that hopefully they will use to re-invest more back into the sports and the state's athletes for continued growth and support. Follow the lead of the NFHS with getting rid of the jewelry rule. That was a good start of realizing that we are not in the 1980s anymore. Now is a great opportunity for state associations to grow and become better like the elite high school athletes of their state's sports who are already thinking beyond their state borders or discovering new ways and methods to become successful.

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