A Finals argument/The Red Line

The U.P. Finals in track and field are an unparalleled occasion on the peninsula’s sports calendar.

In no other location, particularly since the demise of Hedgcock Fieldhouse and regional basketball at Northern Michigan University, do all of the colors of the U.P. come together. Lakes face Wolves, Hornets meet Emeralds and Copper Kings race Maroons.

But whenever this time of year rolls around, a progressively louder voice wonders if the day does more harm than good.

A few years back, Sports Illustrated attempted to name Marquette the best high school sports program in the state by virtue of all its “state championships” without noticing that most of them were U.P. only.

The cultural unity of the Upper Peninsula is a major part of what makes this place special. Just ask anyone who watched the Ishpeming football team this fall.

However, I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers a U.P. state title to be worth 100 cents on the dollar of a full-state title in the sports where they’re available to teams from Ironwood to Monroe.

Now that wrestling (2008) and volleyball (2000) conduct full-state tournaments, the only U.P. Finals the MHSAA sanctions are in cross country, tennis, track and golf.

In many cases, a unified and elite competition field in a full-state competition would provide a more desirable scenario for U.P. schools. I’ll admit that.

But the creation of such a competition probably faces too many natural obstacles to be implemented.

Here’s a short version of what would be necessary to abolish just a few of the U.P. championships I am most familiar with:

Golf – We’d have to go to the statewide convention of girls in the fall. Regionals last year downstate were around Oct. 11. Would you like to roll the dice on continuing your season at a U.P. course in mid-October? That’s if we can find one that’s still open that late.

Track/Cross Country – In addition to killing the one truly U.P.-wide athletic event remaining after the demise of beloved Hedgcock Fieldhouse, anyone short of state record Brimley high-jumper John Payment (possibly the biggest miracle in U.P. sports history) is probably driving eight hours for the right to finish seventh.

Marquette freshman Lindsey Rudden demolished the U.P. record in all three distance runs at U.P. Finals June 1. Her times would not have placed in the top eight of any of the three events at the Division 1 downstate finals the same day.

That’s demotivational both for athlete participation and to the superintendents who have to approve that mileage, whether it be on a bus (God have mercy) or in a van.

The state cross country finals take place at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, which is 551 miles away from downtown Houghton. Grand Forks, N.D. is 80 miles closer.

To be frank, this is the greatest issue.

The remaining U.P. Championships exist at a sweet spot of geographic impossibilities, cost containment and providing a goal that is at least somewhat worth striving for, personally and collectively, and is recognized in the community (after all, even U.P. state champions get road signs).

The MHSAA Representative Council and U.P. Athletic Committee members who keep the status quo going are athletic directors who have to answer to superintendents, or superintendents who have to answer to school boards. I don’t envy them for a second. And if the choice is between gassing up a van for the state tennis finals or giving a teacher a raise (or more accurately, keeping a teacher employed), a choice other than the classroom would be utterly self-defeating.

In a perfect world, there would be resources to go around so that everyone can compete to the fullest. But someone has to pay for it, and thus reality creates the compromise we have today.

Every year, the drive home from Kingsford is full of interesting shop talk about the races we’ve just seen, and the unintentional traditions we’ve just witnessed. One of these years I’m going to start a pool on which school produces the first kid to throw up in a trash can on Finals day.

Would we as journalists be able to drive to the Grand Rapids area to go to one of four separate track meets? Another choice I wouldn’t want to make.

It’s not perfect, but there’s more good to it than bad.

The kids who competed at U.P. Finals this spring may have to make difficult choices like that throughout their lives, especially if they stay in the U.P. Might as well get used to it now.

Brandon Veale can be reached at bveale@mininggazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/redveale.