Search for a seat at Drake Stadium during a state track and field event, and all you’ll see is T-shirts.
High school teams and fans coordinate bright colors to commemorate the occasion and stand out in the swelling crowd, but with 300 schools and more than 5,000 athletes participating during the three-day meet, the bleachers end up looking plastered by noisy globs of paint.
The shirts offer a cross-section of Iowa, and for the Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, a portrait of success before summer.
“You see the color pods, they’re in their groups. They’re cheering and having a great time and it doesn’t matter if the kid comes in 24th or first,” said IGHSAU executive director Mike Dick.
“Honestly, in my 13 years in the office, I think the best thing I’ve been involved with was making this a coed meet. I’m so proud of what it’s become. It’s because of all the people, the workers, the coaches and kids. You bring them in here and get out of their way and let them do their jobs.”
Total paid attendance has floated around 35,000 for the last five years of the four-class boys’ and girls’ meet.
Iowa’s nationally-elite runners are great for weekend records and recognition that ticket sales are boosted by the depth and range of state qualifiers, especially in relays that feature 24-team preliminary heats in each class.
If every team has a cheering section and most competitors bring their families, well, it’s a lot of T-shirts.
“Staying all three days can be tough as a coach,” said longtime Washington boys’ track and field coach Steve Roth. “But it’s totally worth it in the long run. There can be a lot of stressful things you don’t want to do in life, but this is a fun thing.”
Friday’s strong crowd of 14,810 put the 2015 meet ahead of expectations with a two-day total of 27,407.
The Myers family from Underwood more than did its part to fill seats and support daughters Gabby and Cecilia.
“Getting to run in this stadium is a pretty cool treat for Iowa kids and track has become kind of a family sport for us,” said father Mike Myers after Friday’s early Class 3-A and 2-A session.
Myers was sporting one of the 19 custom-made blue shirts he ordered that boasted, “Sister Power,” and one of the $10 daily stadium entry wristbands that he and his wife, Janel, purchased for their eight children.
Add in two nights in two hotel suites, and it’s a family commitment to see senior Gabby run in the 4×800 and Gabby hand off to freshman Cecilia in the 4×400.
“It’s a necessity to be here,” Janel Myers said.
The 4×400 unit would finish ninth in 2-A’s prelims, one spot out of finals qualifying, but that wasn’t the point of their trip to Des Moines.
“We just want to run our best,” said Cecilia Myers. “I’ve come in the past for my siblings, but it was really cool actually getting down there for myself.”
Roth says Washington’s state meet routine has stayed the same throughout his 34 years in charge.
That makes athletic director Bryce Smiens’ planning easier — reserve seats in the southeast bowl and rooms at Valley West Inn — but he still has to look after Washington’s state qualifiers from start to finish.
“There’s work involved, but in terms of getting down and getting organized, state track kind of runs itself,” Smiens said. “We just find our old seats and get ready to go.”
The Demons won the 3-A boys’ title in 1998 and their fan support was still loud and visible in fluorescent orange on Friday as they had just six team points through 10 events.
“If you’re here, you’re one of the top 24 in the state,” Roth said. “That’s what it’s about. Just getting here. You’d like to perform, but if they don’t, they still finished their season on the big blue track.”
The IHSAA and IGHSAU extract more out-of-the-state championships than their regional neighbors to get the proclaimed, “largest high school track and field meet in the nation.”
Nebraska and Minnesota cram their action into two days in Omaha and St. Paul.
Kansas also claims, “one of the largest meets in the country” with six classes competing on two days in Wichita. Missouri splits up its championships into a pair of two-day weekends in Jefferson City between small classes and large classes.
South Dakota runs its three classes at three different sites for preliminaries — Sturgis, Spearfish and Rapid City — and then gathers for finals the very next day in Rapid City.
“We’re not growing, we’re not dropping, it’s great right here,” Dick said. “We honestly don’t hear any negatives.”
Track and field can’t draw naturally like the state wrestling tournament, which has averaged better than 70,000 spectators for the last decade.
But it can offer typically nice weather on a travel-friendly weekend late in the school year. And plenty of qualifying spots for athletes to make a state meet pilgrimage.
“It’s a boom for Des Moines and the metro area,” Dick said. “Everyone traveling uses restaurants, hotels, shopping, gas and anything else.
“And the support we get from grandpas and grandmas and neighbors is amazing. It’s not just the kids and the parents that come.”
Travelers from across the state know they’ll have to spend.
Shelli Kollis from Rock Valley has brought her family of five to Drake Stadium for the last five years and makes a mini-vacation out of the trek.
Her sophomore daughter, Marissa, finished 17th in Friday’s 2-A high jump for Western Christian of Hull.
“We just know in our family that when state track comes we’re coming down,” Shelli Kollis said.
“It’s a reasonable expense. We find our hotel and go out to eat and shop a little. Two years ago we bought our vehicle while we were here on our down time and drove it home.”
Marissa’s expectations didn’t involve a medal or catching nearby Hannah Willms’ state record or becoming an elite champion like Linn-Mar’s Stephanie Jenks, Gilbert’s Thomas Pollard and Kingsley-Pierson/Woodbury Central’s Kiana Phelps.
Like most of the weekend’s competitors and their supporters sitting in T-shirt mobs around Drake Stadium, she wanted to partake in Iowa’s busiest and most colorful state tournament.
“It’s all about the experience,” Marissa Kollis said.
Attendance at state track and field has stayed strong for the past few seasons. Numbers provided by IHSAA & IGHSAU.
FALLING IN LINE
Based on average attendance, co-ed state track and field offers comparable numbers to other IGHSAU-hosted events. Total numbers from girls’ 2013-2014 state tournaments.
Track & field…3 35,202