10 Questions for a Sectional Host

Tony Holler Coaching Blogs 9 Comments

Last Thursday I hosted the Plainfield North Sectional.

I’ve hosted eight IHSA Sectionals in the past twenty years.  I am not an expert, just a track coach with opinions.  Since I am closer to the end of my career than I am the beginning, I feel the need to share my ideas.  You can forward this article your Sectional manager next year.  He can read it or delete it.

My ideas are just my ideas.  I don’t pretend to know it all, I just know what I like.  Feel free to add your own ideas to the comment section at the end of the article. Maybe Sectionals all over the state will be improved by sharing what we know and what we like.


1. Should you host?

This is an important question.  Don’t be offended, but I don’t think you should host unless you have an 8-lane track.  The exception to this is probably West Aurora who has everything else, including a terrific meet manager in Courtney Lamb.  I love the “stadium” feel of West Aurora.  Can you believe West Aurora took 14 to the finals of the 200?

(On a side note, 8-team conference meets should never be hosted on a 7-lane track.)

In addition, you need two runways for the jumps and the ability to jump either direction.  No one should jump against the wind.

Your track needs to be in good shape.  Our track is showing asphalt.  We chose to host our meet at Plainfield Central.

If you do not work well with your A.D., don’t host.  If you have a discombobulated staff, don’t host.  If you curse the success of other teams, don’t host.


2. FAT?

Hire an FAT company.  I know many schools love to run their own FAT system, but you better be great at it.  If you are amateurs, things will not go well.  Murphy’s Law.  FAT problems will ruin your Sectional.  In my opinion, the host school has enough to worry about without taking on the biggest job of the meet.

In one Sectional last week, the meet had been over for ten minutes and no one knew the 200 times or the 4×4 times.  Not good.

We hired Chris Arnold from Endurance Race Timing.  Our cost was $1350 and it was worth every penny.  Then again, I don’t make or lose money running a Sectional.

Endurance Race Timing has a link for live results.  Pretty cool to see times pop on your phone instantly.  In addition, all lap-races have FAT splits.

After having a scoreboard instantly displaying official times, I am forever spoiled.  Someone tripped over the power cord during the 800m last Thursday.  Everyone was lost.  How can we proceed without a scoreboard?  Panic reigned.  Order was restored when power was re-established.  I don’t know how many Sectionals had FAT scoreboards but we did and so did Bloomington (Adkins Track; Marchan Adkins).  After watching those two Sectionals, I feel sorry for the rest.

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If you’ve ever had a scoreboard, you are forever spoiled.

In addition, your FAT system must be able to run sprints with the wind.  If you can’t turn around the 100 and 110-highs, you will have only two qualifiers, no more.  Kids deserve the wind.  Spend the money, spend the time.  Whatever it takes.


3. Announcer?

I may be over-the-top on this subject but I think the announcer is the 2nd most important employee at the Sectional (FAT technician is #1).

I hire Ralph Drendel.  Ralph is a Hall of Fame track coach.  Ralph talks to the fans the entire meet.  Every field event competitor is announced during the field events.  Prelims are explained.  Ralph comes with a 3-ring binder of background information on the top athletes and those expected to qualify.  Relay runners are announced by name, not just team.  Every race is like the Kentucky Derby.  Good announcing makes the most boring sport come alive.

Here is an example.  No one pays attention to the slow heat of the 4×4.  However, Ralph explained to the crowd that Waubonsie Valley was trying to qualify out of the slow heat.  The crowd cheered for the Warriors to hit the qualifying standard of 3:23.74.  Waubonsie was a near miss, but the crowd was into it.  I ran a team of four sophomores going for our FS school record of 3:30.  Ralph made a big deal out of my four sophomores running 3:28.14.  The crowd was into it.

Matt Piecinski, the famous announcer at the IHSA State Meet, announces our meet at Belleville West and Edwardsville but is probably busy doing the girls state meet during our Sectional dates.  Paul Vandersteen of Neuqua Valley does a great job.  I’ve never done it, but after watching Ralph Drendel, I want to try announcing someday.

Regardless, you must find an enthusiastic track expert to be your announcer.  Don’t fill the air with mindless “first call”,  “second call”, and “third call” crap.  Tell the fans what to watch, who to watch, and why to watch.  The announcer should celebrate along with the athletes, coaches, and fans.


4. IHSA Officials?

I really have no problem with IHSA officials, so this is not a hot-button issue for me.  If you can get Mike Powers, get him.  We hire Joe Geiger of Sandburg frequently.  Back in the day, my favorite official was Rod Shurtz Sr.

Even though I trust all IHSA officials, I do meet with them.  I tell them that my goal as a Sectional Manager is NO FALSE STARTS, NO DISQUALIFICATIONS.  We had no false starts and no disqualifications (three botched 4×2 exchanges but no tough calls).  I like that.

It’s also important to relay your philosophy to the IHSA Officials.  Do you want an uptight rule-driven formal meet?  Or do you want an athlete-centered celebration of track & field?  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no fan of anarchy at a track meet.  Runners should stay in their lanes.  No one should false start.  No one should swear or throw a baton.  I think coaches understand what I’m talking about.  It’s important that your IHSA officials also understand.  Everyone should be on the same page.  You don’t want a gunslinger with an orange sleeve.


5. Seed Meeting?

“Guys, this is not my Sectional, this is our Sectional.”  This statement is critical.  Include and involve the other schools in your Sectional.

Track may be the only sport where we are forced, as coaches, to referee.  I tell stories to illustrate my point.  In 1992, I was assigned the 2nd exchange of the Sectional 4×1.  DuQuoin, the top seed, had a late exchange.  In my mind I can still picture it.  The outgoing runner had both feet out of the zone reaching back to grab the baton.  In my mind, he was out.  I raised the red flag.  I have never forgiven myself.  My team qualified because of DuQuoin’s disqualification.  I will never forget the look on Coach Bob Karnes’ face.  That was 23 years ago and it still haunts me.  I tell our coaches not to disqualify anyone unless it must be done.

I also tell the story of a long jump athlete of mine who jumped 22’2″ and 22’2 1/2″ when the qualifying standard was 22’3″.  If it’s close, you may need double check the measurement.  I teach science.  Measurement is never perfect.  Measure twice, cut once.

I believe “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  I also believe “Track is not a zero-sum game“.  Both statements are important to a Sectional seed meeting.  We are not competing against each other, we are striving for excellence.  We are all in this together.


6. T-Shirts?

The last three times I’ve hosted a big meet, I’ve used Boomer T’s out of Plainfield.  Boomer gives us $2 for every t-shirt he sells and $1 for every shirt that gets personalized.  Kids love personalized shirts at Sectional.

Last week, it was good news bad news.  The good news:  we sold 225 t-shirts by 6:30.  The bad news: Boomer made only 225 transfers because we sold 175 three years ago.  We could have sold 500 shirts.  I highly recommend Boomer-Ts.

I designed the logo and kids liked it.

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Your other option is to order t-shirts and sell them yourself.  I always go through Angelo at The Graphic Edge.

By the way, t-shirts must come from a licensed IHSA distributor.  Yes, the IHSA gets a piece of t-shirt action.  And yes, a couple of my assistants still have to pay to get into the IHSA State Track Meet this weekend.


7. Concessions?

Plainfield Central’s Boosters wanted the concessions (and they should).  Concessions at Sectional is a huge money-maker.  Over 2000 people (spectators, athletes, and coaches) attended our Sectional.  The meet started at 4:30 and ended at 9:00.  People get hungry.  You can make close to $10,000 if you do it right.

Almost everything was gone at Central by 6:30.  No burgers, no pizza, no plan-B.  Plainfield North could have made a boatload of money because we would not have run out of food.  We would have had more than one window open to the concession stand.  Lines would have been short.

By the way, this is not an indictment of Central AD Dave Stephens, he’s my 2nd-favorite athletic director in the state.

Plainfield North would have had food cooking throughout the meet.  PN Athletic Director Ron Lear would rather have too much food than not enough.  Cook meat at Sectionals.  I love it  when Jersey Mike’s does their grill thing at a meet.   Anything that makes people hungry is a good thing.

Our hurdle coach, John Singleton of John’s Rib House would not have run out of food.  John would have sold thousands of dollars of BBQ.

Consider food trucks.  Think out of the box.


8. Field Event Officials?

Find people you trust.  Do not simply ask every school to fax you the names of three workers.  The three workers may look like they crawled out from under a rock.

I made personal contact with field event experts.  I made sure my head field event people were trustworthy.  We had three head football coaches working field events:  Tyson LeBanc of Oswego East, Bill Ellinghaus of Neuqua Valley, and Mike Romelli of Plainfield East.  I make fun of football coaches, but they are strong, trustworthy people.

None of my coaches worked an event.  Instead, I made my own coaches managers.  Sean Carlson managed the two throws.  Dr. Brian Damhoff managed the four jumps.  Both were given total responsibility for all things concerned with their events.  Tape measure, rakes, brooms, clip boards, extra cross-bars, scales, etc.  I delegated and they managed.  John Singleton was the hurdle manager.

Here is our list of workers … Sectional Work Assignments.


9. Time Schedule?

I feel strongly about this issue.

I told the coaches at the seed meeting that our kids would run best if we had a time schedule with built-in rest, like the state meet.  We can either have rested kids running fast times or we can get home 45 minutes earlier.  Is anyone in favor of a rolling schedule?  The room went silent.

At some Sectionals, Athletic Directors high-five other administrators for finishing the finals in world-record time (2 hours).  Not ours.  Our finals took three hours, 6:05 to 9:05.  My Athletic Director left Plainfield Central at 10:30 because he’s a kids-first guy.

If you want to see our time schedule, here it is … Time Schedule.


10. The Playlist?

Maybe this goes back to the days of my youth … seeing the Eagles at Washington Park in 1975, the Stones at Soldier Field in 1978, and the Grateful Dead at Alpine Valley in 1981.  Music needs to be a part of your festival.  Good times deserve a soundtrack.  The Sectional needs a playlist.

My playlist started at 3:10.  I got a thumbs-up from Yorkville coach Ben Draper as La Grange (’73) boomed from the loudspeakers.

Coach Derks alerted me my playlist included skin, dimebags, gin, smoke, mary jane, and strangleholds … but luckily the censors weren’t paying attention.

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Give your Sectional some personality.

If all of this wasn’t enough, Jake Swank sang the National Anthem while playing his ukulele.  Later, Jake ran the 800 for Minooka.  I love hosting Sectional.


If you skimmed my article, don’t skim this.  Study it and commit it to memory.

  • Make the Sectional kid-centered. 
  • Find an announcer to tell spectators who to watch and why.
  • Create a festival of food and music.
  • Make sure your officials understand the spirit of the meet.
  • Pay for an FAT system that has a scoreboard.
  • Create a “Rising Tide”. 
  • Qualify as many as possible. 
  • Disqualify as few as possible. 
  • Slow down the meet to promote rest.
  • Celebrate achievement.


In closing, my dad told me after the meet,  “This was the best track meet I’ve ever seen.”  ‘Nuff said.







Comments 9

    1. Post

      We only play music before the meet at Sectional. As far as I know, the IHSA has not taken a stand on “rocking the 4×4”. If your announcer is good, you don’t need music.

  1. Does the IHSA have a Track and Field Commissioner? If not, I vote they make you the first. You are spot on with your opinions. I wish every meet was run based on your suggestions. Love reading your posts.

  2. wow . . . a simply amazing checklist. I’d also recommend a great many of those for large/important/high profile meets, not just Sectionals. GREAT WORK HERE!

  3. Tony,

    Love all of the suggestions, practice many of them! As a school that has hosted a regional (Michigan) for what seems like forever and the Golden Triangle Invitational, that hosts 70+ teams and 2300 entries on a single day. I love all your suggestions. We completely agree with Athlete Centered approach! At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about. I love it when coaches talk about our region as the region to be at.

    A couple of little things we add are travel bins (think 16 plastic, 10 gallon containers with tops, you can buy for $5 each from Lowes/Home Depot) for the races that don’t start at the finish line. Kids feel special when they finish a race and their gear is waiting for them in a bin with their lane # on it. It really does two things, It clears the start area of your laned races, and it allows kids to get their gear back on, on those days where the weather is an issue.

    The other thing we do is to plan for food. We cater in BBQ for all of our home (host) Coaches. Most begin the day way before 7AM and are happy to be leaving the track by 9PM. We have a crew of parent/non-varsity athletes, that delivers food to all of our adult volunteers and officials. A simple bag lunch with multiple items to eat, and a second round with a dessert, caffeinated drink and or Water later in the meet. Keep the Adults fed and they will work forever with a great sense of humor. And finally, we provide a couple of food coupons per team packet for the incoming coaches. It’s a small gesture and it eats into our food profits but they know we care about them as well.

  4. Tony,

    Excellent article! At HF we have hosted something like the past 16 of 18 boys and girls sectionals. We have or are working to address everything you have suggested. One thing we did last year that we thought was tremendous was start the field events at 2:00 and running events at 4:15. Two advantages:

    1. Sprinters/jumpers don’t have to toggle between events. The meet is about qualifying as many kids as possible. It’s no fun for a jumper to have to run in the 4×2, 400, or 300h and have to go back and jump.

    2. Weather. Earlier start time means higher temperatures. Big advantage when we have an unseasonably cold day/night.

    It does however mean wind is a greater factor (mainly for the 100/110h…when the sun goes down it’s usually calm for the 200) so reversing has to be an option.

    Side note….Last year we hosted arguably the best “sprint” sectional for girls. We had a girl who ran in the 4×1, 100h, 100, and 200 (would have loved the no prelim option last year). By the finals of the 100 she was on her 6th race in about 1.5 hrs. She took 3rd in the 100 running a qualifying time and then placed 2nd in the 100 at state. Without being able to reverse, she doesn’t qualify and the quality of the state meet is reduced.

    The earlier start also gives greater flexibility with storms. Delaying the start is an option if needed. I’m sure at some point we’ll beat an oncoming storm because we started earlier. Most coaches with some experience have dealt with coming back the following day to finish because of weather. It sucks and anything that reduce that chance should be put into place.

    *please excuse typos. I typed this on my phone!

  5. Sent again, but another read of a quality article. Thanks.
    My main response was just to add an announcer (the HOFFMAN ESTATES SECTIONAL GUY IN 2017 was FANTASTIC !!) Despite the bad weather, he was enthusiastic, called field event guys (particularly HJ) as they qualified. Announced what the average finish was at State for the winner (usually) of the sectional. Great Job !
    Also, one of the best officials in the State, Jim Effinger. I’ve been coaching since 1989 and he is the Best !!

  6. Run the meet according to the schedule, but priority should be to “Let the Kids Decide the Outcome”.

    In the 2017 Macomb sectional, there were 5 kids that had met or passed the 110 HH qualifying time. Some teams also had kids that had met or passed the qualifying time in the 100m sprint.

    The wind had strong intermittent gusts that day. During the 3200m, a coach from a team with no kids that had a chance to make state in the 110HH or 100m asked Macomb to switch the start/finish lines after the 3200 finished, so the 110HH would be ran with the wind. Macomb would not, in part citing they wanted to keep to the meet schedule. As a result, 3 kids barely missed the automatic qualifying time, and did not go to state.

    Take the time to switch start/finish! It’s bad enough that each year there are some events at sectionals where the 1st and 2nd place finishers at a section meet wouldn’t make the top 5 in another section, but those kids go to state because they are 1st and 2nd place in their section. Give the kids that are unfortunately in sections with good competition a chance to make it to state on the merit that they are fast!

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