Benefield: Debate swirls over SCL runners' disqualification for hand-in-hand finish
It’s right there in black and white.
In Section 6, Article 5, Item c of the National Federation of State High School Associations track and field rulebook, it states clearly: “It is an unfair act when a competitor receives any assistance. Assistance includes ... Competitors joining or grasping hands with each other during a race.”
No one disputes that El Molino High senior Brian Schulz and Healdsburg High sophomore Dante Godinez joined hands on the home stretch of the 1,600-meter run at the Sonoma County League track and field prelims May 11. And no one disputes it violated the letter of the law.
As a result, both athletes, stars on each of their respective squads, were disqualified not only from the 1,600-meter race but the 800-meter race as well, for behavior considered unsporting.
Where the conversation gets murky is over the athletes’ intentions - was it to taunt or showboat their significant lead? Or merely to celebrate making it to the final? If it makes any difference, and I think it does, these are athletes from rival schools who joined hands.
“You are talking about two people who actually care about each other. That’s not unsportsmanlike to me,” said El Molino track and field coach Ryan Hopkins. “This is a very tight-knit, close community of distance runners who train year-round. I understand (the rule), but to not allow someone to compete in their best events just because they care about each other?”
The NFHS rulebook calls for athletes who have shown “unsporting conduct” - which “includes, but is not limited to: disrespectfully addressing an official, any flagrant behavior, intentional contact, taunting or criticizing or using profanity directed toward someone” - to not only be disqualified from the event during which it occurred, but the whole meet.
The fact that both were allowed to run in the 3,200-meter race at Saturday’s SCL finals was a kind of technicality. Because the 3,200 did not have a preliminary heat Thursday, it was decided that it was a separate meet, so they were allowed to compete. As expected, and perhaps spurred by an added fire, Schulz ran away with it, finishing in 9:24. Jonny Vargas of Piner finished in 9:44 and Godinez got third in 9:54.
Both Schulz and Godinez advance to Saturday’s Redwood Empire Championships at Redwood High School in Larkspur.
The 3,200 meters is Schulz’s best event and he is one of the best the area has ever produced. Godinez is the cream of Healdsburg’s distance runners, but his better events are the shorter 1,600- and 800-meter races from which he was axed.
So good is Schulz that, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have noticed the DQ in the prelims had it not been attached to his name. The senior is all over the record books.
His best 3,200-meter time this season, 9:24, is fastest in the Redwood Empire and eighth fastest in the North Coast Section.
In the fall, Schulz finished third in the CIF cross country Div. 5 boys race - the best placing among all Redwood Empire runners at the event. Schulz posted the fasted 3,200-meter time for a freshman ever in the Redwood Empire. He holds the third-fastest sophomore time and the third-fastest time for a junior. His 4:22.08 is the sixth-fastest 1,600-meter from an area sophomore ever.
Godinez is Healdsburg’s top distance guy. His 2:03 in the 800 meters is ninth best in the Empire this season and he’s only a sophomore.
The runners’ athletic gifts may have brought more attention to what happened last Thursday, but it doesn’t change how the penalty could have, or should have, been meted out.
“(The rule) doesn’t say for what reason they did it, whether they were trying to block out other runners or whether they were doing it for spirit. You can’t do that,” said Sonoma Valley track coach Linda Patterson, who was meet director at the prelims. “Unfortunately, it was the two fastest runners.”
By Patterson’s account, Schulz was way ahead of the main field, but Godinez was his next-nearest competitor. With about 100 meters to go, she said, Schulz slowed to allow Godinez to catch up.
“At about 80 meters they grabbed each other,” she said. “They went hand in hand down to the finish line holding hands.”
I asked if it seemed liked taunting, considering the lead both runners had on the rest of the pack.
“It was inappropriate,” she said, declining to go into detail.
Reaction from the meet umpire who was stationed at the finish line was immediate: Both runners would be disqualified.
Hopkins, who was overseeing the discus event and didn’t see the infraction, said he was approached by Patterson immediately following the completion of the race.