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Bass Pro Sets Stage for MVC Championships

Date: 
04/02/2009 - 14:38

MarathonStartASI.jpg April/May 2009/By James Henry Following the lead of individual champion Jeff Shirmer, the Southern Illinois men claimed the team title at the Missouri Valley Conference Championship on Nov. 1, 2008. Wichita State earned the women’s title over runnerup Missouri State, which boasted the individual champion Pasca Cheruiyot, who scorched the field by 55 seconds.
While the runners and their accomplishments usually get the most attention, this year’s MVC Championship hosted by Missouri State University was unique and looks to be just a glimpse into what the future holds for cross country in Springfield.

Hoping to draw the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships to Springfield, Missouri State saw the MVC Championship as an opportunity to show just how capable their running community is. With that in mind, Greg Hipp, Missouri State’s head cross country coach, set out to form a partnership between Missouri State and the now-2-year-old Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Fitness Festival, whose events were set to take place simultaneously. That partnership culminated in one of the most unusual conference cross country championships ever produced.

“Bass Pro helped us create a championship experience really only seen at the biggest running events around the country,” said MSU’s Hipp. “We wanted to give the runners and the fans the experience they deserved.”
While Hipp stresses that the most important part of a championship is about what happens between the start and finish lines, he also makes the point that when it comes to hosting a great championship, there is more to it than that. “Our goal was to capture the attention of our community and create a championship atmosphere rarely seen in cross country,” said Hipp.

“The atmosphere was really done in a first-class manner,” said MVC senior associate commissioner Patty Viverito. “Missouri State, and Greg Hipp in particular, had a vision for what the MVC championship could become, and it reached far beyond what I could have imagined.”

Missouri State gave the crowd big-time sound and play-by-play announcing not usually afforded by cross country events. “The sound system was so good we actually were asked to turn down the volume!” said a smiling Hipp. At “half time” nationally known joggler (running while juggling) Chris Essick performed an exhibition between the races and award ceremony to keep the fans entertained.

However, Hipp contends that the most important part of building a championship atmosphere is getting a great crowd. “That is where connecting with the community became crucial.” One such way Missouri State set out to connect with the people of Springfield was with several youth cross country programs. Aside from those programs serving to promote the MVC Championship, Missouri State and its runners hoped they could do their part to improve their sports standing in southwest Missouri, a region where distance running has not always been a mainstay in the area’s youth sports culture.

Bass Pro Shops gave Missouri State the platform and funding to develop a youth cross country training program through the area Schools, Parks and Reaching Communities program (SPARC). Elementary and middle schools students at 10 schools in the Springfield area participated in a 6-week cross country training program. Missouri State cross country runners, along with SPARC coaches, led the aspiring runners through running, strength, and flexibility training. “Of all that went on with this championship, the youth programs that started may have been the most rewarding,” said Hipp.

Immediately following the MVC Championship races, hundreds of young runners from grades 1 to 8 ran side-by-side with college athletes from Missouri State in different races—1, 2 and 3 kilometers—based on their grade levels. Even a 150-meter kids sprint for kindergarten age and younger runners was held. Bass Pro Shops provided every runner an Under Armour Tech Shirt and a finisher’s dog tag to commemorate their achievement.
“After the races, watching the kids ask the college runners for autographs and seeing them take pictures with them showed that all this sport needs to grow is some good role models that are willing to step up and connect with these kids,” Hipp said.

The fun was not limited to the kids, thanks to 600 volunteers who came together to give 3,400 community runners themselves the opportunity to compete in a wide variety of events from Oct. 25 to Nov. 2 as part of the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Fitness Festival. Included were 25K and 50K trail races at nearby Dogwood Canyon and four road races at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World ranging from 5K up to the marathon.
For Missouri Valley Conference athletes and their families, the competition was not the only part of Missouri State’s championship experience. Just outside the Outdoor Fitness Festival’s running expo, Bass Pro Shops treated Missouri Valley Conference runners to a pre-championship banquet that included appearances by running greats Dick Beardsley, Jeff Galloway and Jason Pyrah, a welcome by Frank Shorter and a keynote address by Bill Rodgers. “The entire weekend felt more special than usual,” said Missouri State’s Jamie Vest who earned all-MVC honors at the championship. “When we have been to other places it always seemed like just another meet, but having Bass Pro and the Springfield community take part really took the race to the next level.”

After the banquet, the college runners were given time to interact with all the distance running greats Bass Pro Shops had assembled, which brought back memories for Shorter. “I really enjoyed being a part of the banquet, with all those runners there, all at the same place, it was truly a special treat, as well as an acknowledgment of where we all started, and that’s cross country.”

Initial Concerns Led to Great Partnership
Initially, Hipp worried that having two significant running events scheduled to take place at the same time in Springfield would make the conference championship back-page news. However, he soon realized this was the chance he had been waiting for to pull together the community for the championship he had always envisioned. “It really all started with coach Greg Hipp contacting Bass Pro and expressing his desire to further the sport in Springfield and in the region,” says Carol Hodson, one of the lead coordinators for the Bass Pro Shops F­­­­itness Festival.

“Bass Pro has a sincere interest in improving the running culture in this area,” said Hipp. “As we both began planning we found we had a common interest and that this was going to be a great opportunity to really involve the community and to make all the events even stronger.”
As the event approached more and more pieces fell into place, giving the event higher standing in the community and even national attention. “Bass Pro has had a long relationship with distance great Frank Shorter, but as we got closer to the event more and more of his friends kep-t calling wanting to be involved,” said Hodson.

How the event developed into the unique event that it did may have been a surprise to a few of the coaches and athletes from around the MVC, but it was no surprise to the MVC’s Viverito. “Missouri State has a history of putting on top-notch championships and this one was no different.”
As the event approached, Hipp relished the opportunity to put Missouri State and Springfield’s best foot forward. “Anytime one of the coaches here at Missouri State has the opportunity to host an event we truly take pride in it,” Hipp said. “We’re not out to show up other schools, we just believe that if you’re going do something, then you should do it right.”

Just the Beginning for Springfield
With the Missouri Valley Conference Championship complete, Hipp was quick to point out that “we’re not done yet.” Missouri State is slated to host the NCAA Division I Midwest Cross Country Regional in 2009. The regional will bring as many as 33 Midwest schools to Springfield—all of which will be seeking berths to the NCAA Championships. Missouri State will be seeking something more.

Bringing the 2010 NCAA national meet to Springfield is on the minds of many at MSU.
“I have spoken to people at Indiana State and they have told me how great it is to host the meet, to bring an event of that magnitude to Springfield would be so, so special,” said Bill Rowe, Missouri State’s long-time athletic director.

Mike Scott, USA Track & Field’s executive cross country council chair, said he’s familiar with Springfield and is excited about Missouri State’s potential. “The NCAA has found that championships tend to get lost in major cities. This wouldn’t be case in Springfield. The city is a lot like Terre Haute (the current NCAA national site) in that they would roll out the red carpet for an event like this,” Scott said.

The open arms treatment by Springfield to MSU’s conference championship vision is likely proof that the community is ready to jump on board. “Springfield is a great area for major championships, we’re a family-oriented community and really buy into events that our community players host,” said Bass Pro’s Hodson.
“Without exception, the MVC schools take exceptional pride in hosting events,” Viverito said. “That being said, Missouri State and Springfield have something extra to offer.” That something extra may have the most to do with what other recent NCAA championship sites cannot control. With a population of nearly 200,000 and a metro area of over 400,000, Springfield would be the largest city to host an NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship since Tucson in 1991.

“Springfield is the perfect size city for an event like the NCAA Championship,” said Hipp. “We’re big enough to support the event at a high level but not so big that no one would fail to notice what was going on.” Hipp goes on to say “With our population and central location, we could see some huge crowds at an NCAA championship in Springfield.”

John Citron, Springfield’s sports commissioner, is a former track coach and hurdler at Florida State University and is confident in the city’s ability to handle the travel demands of the NCAA’s teams and fans. “In Springfield we have close to 6,000 hotel rooms. We feel very confident we could accommodate an event as large as nationals. It’s also nice to have an airport 15 minutes away from the course.” Citron also expressed his excitement, saying, “Anytime we can associate with MSU and the NCAA, we are always excited and we’ll be looking forward to the next opportunity.”

With the most recent NCAA cross country sites being in smaller cities such as Terre Haute, IN (Indiana State), Cedar Falls, IA (Northern Iowa), Bloomington, IN (Indiana) and Lawrence, KS (Kansas), Springfield would be the first NCAA host city with a capable airport since Greenville, SC (Furman University). In fact, Greenville, which hosted last in 2001, has been the only host city with an airport that participating teams could fly into in the last 10 years of NCAA cross country championships.

The Course
What may be holding back other capable cities like Springfield from going after the NCAA cross country championships, is the need for an adequate course. Specific requirements are in place for the courses at host sites bidding for the NCAA championship. At the Missouri State University cross country facility, the starting line can accommodate up to 40 teams, has a 610-meter straight before the first turn, is 100% rolled grass, is at least 15 meters wide throughout and has a final straightaway of 300 meters before the finish. All these characteristics meet, and in some cases exceed, the NCAA standards.

“I like a European-style course with loops, and Missouri State gives that to us,” said Rodgers, the 1976 Bronze medalist at the IAAF World Cross Country Championship. “It really makes for a fair race to all styles of runners. You got your flats and you’ve got your hills, it takes strategy.”

With the ambition of hosting major meets—and possibly a national championship one day—Hipp kept these requirements in mind as he selected the land to design his course.

Four years ago while at a July 4th festival—on land otherwise known as the Springfield Underground because it’s on the surface of a 2-million-square-foot underground industrial development—Hipp first realized the potential. “Walking around at the festival, I immediately thought to myself that this land was made for cross country.” Fortunately the Greismeyer family, owner of the Springfield Underground, was supportive of Hipp’s plans and soon development on Missouri State’s new course was underway.

Hipp didn’t go at the task of designing the course on his own. With the help of several coaches and alumni, Hipp sought out the advice of friend Mike Scott, whom Hipp says, between NCAA, USA and world championships has as much experience as anyone picking out a championship course.

On his initial review of the course, USATF’s Scott felt confident in the land. “As far as the plot of land is concerned, it is very similar to that of Terre Haute,” said Scott. “Speaking of the course, it lends itself very well to a championship-style event.” In designing the course, Hipp and Scott took into account the NCAA course requirements and how to accomplish different racing distances, as well as spectator site lines and viewing areas.

“That’s one of the nice things about the Missouri State course—you can literally stand in one spot and see 80% of the race,” said Scott.

Rodgers agreed, saying, “The course is a beautiful piece of land. It’s so spectator friendly. The course really gives the sport back to the fan.”

Hipp and Scott also spoke of the logistics of everything from “starting lines to airlines.” Thinking well into the future, the two also discussed the details of where to put a video display and ensured the course’s design could accommodate the demands of a TV crew.
“Indiana State has changed how cross country meets are held,” said Hipp. “Our goal all along has been to learn from all the things they do well. If we do that, and then throw in a city like Springfield, we think we’re offering a great product.”

Some Critical of MSU
For all the positive energy that’s going toward Missouri State’s efforts to host an NCAA championship, there have been some critics who say Springfield should not get to host. Missouri State University doesn’t have a men’s cross country or track & field program. Due to financial and Title IX concerns, MSU’s administration cut their men’s program after the spring of 2006.

Bill Rowe, Missouri State’s long-time athletic director, admits, “I understand how the move can be perceived.” However, he went on to say, “It’s my hope that we’re not judged based on that decision,” one he calls the toughest he’s had to make in 47 years at MSU.

The program cuts have led to some in the online community to question Missouri State’s commitment to the sport, but Hipp contends hosting the event is a way for MSU to better the sport. “Through the entire process I’ve only gotten positive feedback from the NCAA,” Hipp said. “Having the NCAA Championship in Springfield will give us the platform to improve the sport at our university and in our community.”

Bringing the NCAA meet to Springfield, Rowe said, isn’t related to their former men’s program; however, Rowe does see potential benefit for the lost program as a result.
“If the meet brings [cross country] heightened attention and brings in some benevolent resources to support the program we will certainly take a look at that situation,” Rowe said.
Despite the one noticeable shortfall Missouri State seems to have the support of many.
Scott says he has all the confidence in the world in Hipp and is intrigued at the potential in Springfield. “Greg, despite his youth, is very experienced at hosting big-time events. He has been involved in running and planning major meets since the day I met him,” said Scott.

The idea of changing venues is shared by Louie Quintana, Arizona State University’s cross country coach and the West region coaches’ representative to the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “I really enjoy what Indiana State does, but if a school can bring together a similar setting I think all the athletes involved would be open to a change,” Quintana said. “As a former NCAA athlete myself I loved when nationals was at different venues.”

If the NCAA is willing to make a change, NCAA athletes and coaches will not have to wait much longer to find out. The NCAA track & field committee, which determines championship sites for cross country, is expected to determine Missouri State’s fate at its 2009 summer meetings. Until then Hipp say’s he and his staff will keep working. “If the NCAA wants to make a change we will be ready and waiting in 2010.”

If Missouri State gets the call it looks like they will not be in it alone in their preparation. “Bass Pro was truly honored to be a part of the MVC championship and we hope to work with Missouri State again,” Hodson said.

Scott says he is confident in Springfield’s potential. “Terre Haute has done very well and Springfield has the same pieces that make Indiana great. Can Springfield do better? I think it will be interesting to find out.”

For more information on the Bass Pro Fitness festival or the 2009 NCAA Midwest cross country regional hosted by Missouri State, you can go to www.basspro.com/fitness and www.missouristate09.com, respectively.




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