By Kyle Daubs

Optimism is circulating in the air for local athletes.

The Illinois High School Association board of directors announced Wednesday that they have voted to expand the IHSA state series for two sports. According to the IHSA, boys/girls golf and cross country will expand from Regional to also now include Sectional events.

“Despite the challenges of this school year, our board has remained committed to providing the most rewarding postseason experiences possible,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “Given the relative success we have had safely conducting cross country and golf this fall, the board asked our staff during the September board meeting to explore the possibility of expanding beyond regionals to conduct sectionals as well.”

For participating athletes, this will give teams a sense of closure if a state series is not conducted. For teams that would qualify, it would give teams the conclusion that their team was good enough to qualify.

However, for some, they are remaining hopeful that the final piece of the puzzle will be placed when the time gets closer.

“I couldn’t be happier,” said CHS golfer Hannah Harpster. “Hopefully, the IHSA can get a state tournament in this year.”

The Charleston girls have a chance to qualify for state as a team. Like CHS, the MHS boys have the same opportunity. The Green Wave have won three invitationals, including last week’s 14-team invitational in Paris, and they placed second in another.

Needless to say, this was positive news for both programs.

“I’m extremely excited about the idea of having a Sectional,” said MHS golfer Meade Johnson, who shot 1-under 35 in a dual match at Mattoon Country Club on Tuesday. “It’s another opportunity to play and another chance to win and compete at a high level before I can’t anymore.”

“This doesn’t change much for our team,” Mattoon coach Bill Behrends said. “Our goal since the beginning of the season was to win the Apollo Conference Tournament and the Regional, so this just gives us one more level for which to shoot.  The boys were really excited when I told them at practice today, and I am excited for them.”

As for cross country, questions linger.

“It’s nice to hear that we are progressing towards things being back to normal,” said MHS cross country runner Kylie Haacke. “It’s a good sign. I’m just concerned about what the meet will entail. Will we have one race? Two or three different races? And what will that mean for the Regional meet as far as who will be able to get out?”

Haacke, a two-time state qualifier, is searching for a third state berth and knows that this could be a positive move towards reaching that goal.

“Since we have smaller numbers, I am concerned that will make Regionals harder to get out of,” Haacke said. “This also makes me wonder if it will be a positive step towards having a state meet.”

MHS junior Brock Davee has been crushing courses this season on the boys side, winning the CHS Invitational and taking second last weekend in the Olney Invitational. If a state series is conducted, Davee has a chance to make the state meet as a qualifier, if the team does not make it out. However, Davee is just trying to keep his expectations on a day-to-day basis.

“I would say I’m pretty excited to get to run a few extra races this year,” said Davee. “I’m glad there is a possibility of there being state but I am also worried about the fact I might get my hopes up for knowing I could qualify but then get shut down and not have state.”

Charleston’s Megan Garrett has also been running well this season, nearly breaking 19 minutes earlier this year in the CHS Invitational and remaining near the front of the pack in other races.

Trojans girls cross country coach Chris Hawk said he was pleasantly surprised by the news.

“I’m hoping that is a direct reflection of how well things are going for cross country programs and competitions across the state,” Hawk said. “My runners were pretty excited to hear that they will now have a chance to advance past Regionals this year.  It adds a little more motivation and excitement to the state series.”

The state has named regional sites for golf, sending Mattoon girls to play in the Class 2A regional at Decatur’s Red Tail Run on Oct. 7 while Charleston will play host to the Class 1A regional at Charleston Country Club.

Both the Trojans and Green Wave boys teams will travel for a regional in Paris the day before, on Oct. 6.

Sectional sites have not been assigned.

Cross country regionals will take place Oct. 24, although sites have not yet been announced for any postseason meets.

As we already reported, there remains a chance for an invite-only unofficial cross country meet in Chillicothe in early November.