Prestigious Easterns Champs Adopting a Virtual Leaderboard Approach

Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

For members of the Easterns steering committee, two things became abundantly clear early this winter season.

The first was that collecting dozens of independent private schools from throughout the Eastern seaboard for a meet, some 800 swimmers, would be impossible in a COVID-19 era. The second, equally clear, is that the Easterns powers wouldn’t put the meet in a one-year deep freeze.

The compromise is the Eastern Interscholastic Championships virtual leaderboard, where schools that would normally compete at the event can submit times to measure their athletes against their peers.

“It was never a matter of whether or not we were going to do something. It was a matter of, what can we do?” said Jeff Thompson, the head coach at Germantown Academy and a member of the Easterns Committee. “The thought never crossed our minds to not to something. The tricky part was just figuring out how to be fair and understanding to all the teams that normally come to the meet. … I couldn’t imagine a year without some kind of Easterns.”

With the two obvious conditions met, there was one other line that the Easterns committee – led by Thompson, Peddie School coach Greg Wriede and Mercersburg Academy coach Glenn Neufeld – had to walk. How could they make things both important and special for the athletes, but also fair in being respectful of the different stages of pandemic restrictions in force across the country?

Easterns annually welcomes schools from New England to Virginia (plus, of late, Warwick Academy in Bermuda) to the meet. It’s usually held in February in the Philadelphia region – first at La Salle University for years with Germantown Academy as the meet’s steward, but the last five years at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. The result is some of the fastest high school swimming in the country, including the occasional national age-group record or national prep mark.

The conditions and government restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic look drastically different over that swath of the country. Some boarding schools (like Mercersburg) remain all virtual. Some day schools will have an abbreviated winter season. Some are pushing their winter seasons into the spring.

Plotting regional meets was a possibility, but the challenges remained, even before considering the fairness of how long some kids would be in the water and the usual, weather-related training irregularities that reintroduced themselves to the East Coast with this week’s snowfall.

So the committee settled on the leaderboard: From now through June 1, schools can conduct meets at their leisure and submit times. The times have to come in approved meets (officials are “encouraged” but that sign off rests with the athletic director) and be timed on pads. The events follow the eight individual events of high school meets plus diving, and schools are permitted one relay entry per event.

“Considering Easterns is the oldest running prep school meet in the country dating back to 1935, it allowed us to keep the event alive and not just scrap it and say, ‘this year it’s not going to work; there’s not going to be an in-person event,’” Wriede said. “It keeps it active for those kids, it keeps it active for those seniors that are graduating this year to possibly get up on the leaderboard and see themselves recognized not only for this year’s work but for the four years of work.”

The format means that Easterns continues in spirit even if it can’t in person. Some things have to change: For instance, Easterns won’t crown a team champion, using the leaderboard instead only for individual comparison. The time span accounts for differences in training, allowing flexibility to have a semi-normal ramp up to post fast times if training disruptions ease.

The idea follows USA Swimming’s push for virtual meets over the summer and instituting of the Under-18 virtual leaderboard for boys and girls.

“We did not have to reinvent the wheel entirely, but just customize it and specify the school things,” Neufeld said. “I think the inspiration just comes from all of us in the sport wanting to give kids opportunities, and many of those opportunities have been virtual or limited in size and scope. It hasn’t been fun for anybody, but we’re trying to inject at least a little bit of fun or excitement to it.”

One possible opportunity is extending Easterns’ reach. Many of the schools that compete use it as their championship meet, like schools in Pennsylvania (Mercersburg, Germantown Academy and the other Inter-Academic League schools) and Peddie in New Jersey that don’t have a proper state meet. Others test themselves at Easterns around other major invitationals, like the National Catholic Championships. It means that exact makeup of the field varies from year-to-year, cost of travel and feasibility obviously taken into consideration.

In sending out the information, Wriede included any team that has been at the event in the last decade. The hope is that a few schools on the fringe decide to buy-in. The low barrier to entry could bring new schools into the fold, with Wriede holding an open-door policy on any independent, tuition-based programs that compete in the winter season.

Times have started to roll in this week and will likely continue as the Inter-Ac League starts up this week.

Given all that has been taken away by the pandemic, the committee’s aim was to make Easterns still mean something, as a reward for all the student-athletes’ tribulations and hard work.

“It’s really just a chance to see where kids stand relative to their peers in the private-school universe,” Neufeld said.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    While it’s great that the inter-academic league kids will have a “championship” and I applaud your efforts to try and run a championships, this is half baked idea. Easterns has always been a TEAM effort. It is not about a singular swimmer but the best swimmers from each team based on team scores, points and a team dynamic. Shame on you for taking a School Championship and converting into an individual competition.