On Sunday, Northville High School became the first team in Michigan state history to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals.
On Monday, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) ruled that the Mustangs - who placed just fourth at the Division I State Championship - are not allowed to attend the national meet.
According to the MHSAA handbook, prep participation in all-star games and national championships will result in ineligibility from interscholastic athletics for a maximum period of one year.
The MHSAA defines a national championship as "any athletic event, regardless of title, which attempts to draw to it or its qualifying rounds only the top place winner or winners from more than one state high school association championship meet."
NXN requires teams to enter under club names, not school names, to avoid breaking state high school association rules. However, even though the seven runners ran under "NXC Running Club" and not "Northville High School," their shared school is still an issue.
According to MHSAA Assistant Director Cody Inglis, "the key part of the rules is that teams, and even club teams, are not to be made up by members of the same school. Teams comprised of student-athletes from the same high school can't compete as a team."
There is an exception to the rule in regards to cross country and track and field that dictates individuals may compete in races as long as they are unattached.
"Individuals we allow because they do not represent their school," Inglis said. "As long as all MHSAA rules are followed. We know that Michigan has a long history of competitive excellence at the next level at Nike and Foot Locker and various other meets."
Northville High School has competed at the NXN region meet since 2013 under the supervision of a team parent. Head coach Nancy Smith does not coach the program after the state meet and declined to comment for this story.
Mindy Herrmann is the mother of senior Emma Herrmann, a top five runner at the state meet and NXN Midwest. She is one of the team parent supervisors during the post-season.
Herrmann says that in 2013, the team received written permission from the MHSAA to compete as a club at NXN Midwest.
"We've participated for the past three years," she said. "The biggest thing, we feel, is for them to have allowed the girls two years ago in writing to compete in the Nike Regional meet and there having been no material change to the rules since then. Knowing that [NXN Midwest] is a qualifying meet, it's just a very mixed, inappropriate message to send to a team competing."
"I was not aware of that," Inglis said of the written agreement.
Inglis began his tenure as MHSAA Assistant Director in January of 2014, after a 15-year career as athletic director and assistant principal at several high schools in the state of Michigan.
Herrmann and other team parents are in communication with Inglis to seek a waiver for the meet. Inglis said there is no timeline for approval/rejection at this time.
The girls of Northville took to social media to protest the ruling.
"It has been extremely upsetting for my teammates and I after earning this prestigious opportunity to be told we are not allowed to go," said team leader Lexa Barrott, who is in her senior year.
Professional running club Hansons Brooks had this to say:
Ritzenhein then responded:
"They're very upset,"Herrmann said. "They're hopeful but they're very, very disappointed. The MHSAA has no issue with any individual going, Grant Fisher, Audrey Belf - they've gone as individuals and they earned their spot, but so, too, did this club team. It has absolutely nothing to do with their high school.
"This is the goal. This is the dream of every high school runner to do this and it's just unfortunate."
Mindy Herrmann located the email from former MHSAA Assistant Director Mark Uyl granting permission for the Northville girls to participate in the November 2013 NXN Midwest Regional. The full email is included in the tweet below:
NXC Running Club Coach Craig Harris sent the following email to the MHSAA Executive Committee this morning:
To the MHSAA Executive Committee:As I have stated in several emails in the last 72 hours, the NXC Running Club feels strongly that the facts are on our side in relation to the NXN running event. The facts are very simple:1. In 2013, PRIOR to running in the Nike event, written approval was obtained (see attached doc) from the MHSAA (Assistant Director Mark Uyl), explicitly stating the following facts:a. Students that are members of running clubs could compete in the Nike XC event as an individual or part of a club team and:b. Students could do so without losing high school eligibility2. By providing approval to compete in the Nike XC event, you have explicitly given approval for the national meet as well.The MHSAA made the right call back in 2013 allowing running clubs to compete in the qualifying event. By giving written approval back in 2013 and not revoking that approval, and with no rule or eligibility changes since to the Nike Meet, the MHSAA has allowed all of the Michigan running clubs to rely upon that written permission. As Mr. Inglis pointed out yesterday in an email to me, there were plenty of Michigan running club teams operating with the understanding of your written approval just this past weekend in Terre Haute, IN. The time to reverse yourself, if that is your intent, in not AFTER a Michigan team comprised of young ladies has qualified for the Nike Cross National meet.By providing written approval in 2013 to compete at the Nike Midwest QUALIFIER, the MHSAA has, rightfully so, deemed that this event does not constitute a national high school team championship, and as such we are not violating rule 12(B) (Pg. 50) which states that a student may not compete in an all-star event or "any event which purports to be a national high school championship, or the qualification thereto." We are confident that you would not have approved anything back in 2013 that violated your OWN rules. Certainly, if you felt you had violated your own rules by granting this permission, you would have alerted everyone to your error, which you did not. The MHSAA made the right call back in 2013 allowing running clubs to compete in the qualifying event, and I am confident will make the correct call now and not hold the threat of loss of eligibility over the girls if they attend the national event.We have provided you with the facts and they are indisputable. Please provide Mr. Masi, the Northville HS AD your OK today (that they are not violating MHSAA rules by attending the national event) so that he can sign off on our paperwork so these girls representing the NXC Running Club, can also represent the great state of Michigan at this wonderful event celebrating these athletes. You have already made the determination back in 2013 that the "Nike XC event" did not violate your own rules with your approval to compete. You can approve this request in good conscious, without a lawsuit, and most importantly, it is the right thing to do based on the facts.Craig HarrisNXC Running Club Coach
As of now, there is still no timeline on a hearing or response from the MHSAA. Nike has also not indicated a deadline for Northville to accept or decline the NXN berth.
Former Michigan prep star Erin Finn chimed in via social media with an open letter to the MHSAA:
Finn was a two-time Foot Locker Nationals competitor and was runner-up in 2011. She will race this weekend for the University of Michigan at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts released a blog on Friday morning entitled "Respecting Rules," which further explained the state association's opposition to national championship events. [Full text here].
The blog states that the MHSAA is opposed to national high school athletic championships because "such events have very often exploited students and benefitted commercial sponsors most."
Roberts goes on to detail six conditions that must be met for a student to participate in a national championship event without losing eligibility. The key condition as applicable to the Northville/NXC Running Club situation is part "d," that states:
"If a team event, teams are not to be made up of students from a single MHSAA member school."
The blog elaborates on this point as follows:
"The intent of part 'd' is to help assure that the participating teams from Michigan really and truly are NOT school teams, and to assure that no school team is masquerading as a non-school team but really extending the season beyond the limits agreed to by all school districts, this undermining the fairness that other schools expect."
Team parent Mindy Herrmann responded with this notice: