Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Officials should change day, location of Cosmopolitan Invitational

Like most track and field enthusiasts in this area, Lynn Stewart loves the Cosmopolitan Invitational. The former Northside coach and current meet referee has been coming to this event for years, and he relishes the uniqueness of it.

"It's the one chance of the year to test yourself against everybody in the valley," Stewart said.

He paused, then corrected himself.

"Well, most everybody in the valley," he said. "Depending on who shows up."

Therein lies the growing issue for this three-day meet, which wrapped up its 46th running Saturday at Salem High School: Who shows and who doesn't? An event that over the years has drawn some of the top athletes ever to lace 'em up in Timesland -- Lee Suggs, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Catherine White, Julie Sandy and many others -- suddenly finds itself struggling to maintain the can't-miss appeal it has held for nearly half a century.

Saturday's entry list told the story. Typically a who's who of Timesland's best, the sheet was missing many of the names who normally would be here. Annie LeHardy and Haley Cutright of Hidden Valley. Travis Hudson and Zach Snell of Christiansburg. Blacksburg's finest, such as Hannah Brown, George Carter, Kendall Wiles and Sarah Dorrell.

Those standouts were an hour up the road at the VMI High School Track and Field Invitational instead.

It begs the question: Does this meet still have the prestige it once did?

"I'd like to think so," said Cosmo director Randy Lower, who's been in charge of the meet since the early 1990s. "But obviously, you take a look at those three schools that you're talking about, from their standpoint, I guess not. I mean, they usually come here. The twins [record-setting distance runners Kathleen and Joanna Stevens of Blacksburg], they came every year.

"I can understand the Penn Relays or the Nike events, that kind of thing. If you're invited to that, baby, you need to go. ... For VMI, I don't know what the attraction is."

Blacksburg coach James DeMarco, who has a talented team of nearly 100 athletes, said his decision to send his elite runners to Lexington had less to do with what the Cosmo doesn't offer than what the VMI meet does. Namely, variety. Driving an extra hour gets the Bruins access to Group AAA competition as well as some previously unknown Group AA squads they'll face in the state meet, allowing for scouting opportunities that could pay off when it matters most.

DeMarco brought about 50 athletes to VMI while sending roughly 30 of his younger participants to Salem.

"The Cosmo is a great meet," DeMarco said by phone from Lexington. "The top-level kids get a little extra juiced up here [at VMI]. And for the younger kids, going to the Cosmo is a big deal. That gets them all fired up, and that's what I want to see. I want them excited, nervous, scared out of their minds and running really fast. That's what both tracks offer."

The Cosmo's best option, then, could be to shift to a date that doesn't conflict with VMI (or SATs, another field-dwindler). A move to William Fleming's new track would provide more flexibility with the Cosmo scheduling. But Lower -- while noting that Fleming is a "fabulous" possibility in terms of facilities such as restrooms, concessions and parking -- says there remain some logistical issues with the layout of the track that would make it difficult to accommodate a meet of this size.

Besides, avoiding a VMI conflict doesn't solve everything.

"It's impossible to schedule to where it's the only game in town," Lower said, "That's just never going to happen."

Please don't misunderstand. The Cosmo remains a charming, worthwhile, competitive event. On a beautiful spring Saturday, the stands were close to full, and two outstanding students were awarded $3,000 scholarships -- something other meets don't do. Kids still ran. Kids still competed. Kids still won medals.

But when those athletes crossed the finish line, there were plenty of familiar faces missing. Sadly, "everybody in the valley" just isn't here to celebrate any more.

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