Time for 'Hoosiers' moment - but not in Washington state

Commentary: Too many tournaments, too much confusion, too many mulligans for even the most avid prep hoops fans

February 28, 2011 

This is the time of year that always reminds me of "Hoosiers," Hollywood's version of the true story about Milan High School, a small-town team that went on to become Indiana's 1954 state champions.

The state champions. Indiana in those days recognized no enrollment classifications, an essential premise of the movie’s David versus Goliath story line.

Although the tradition of the single state-tournament winner seems as outdated as the two-hand set shot off a four-corners stall – Indiana finally adopted enrollment classifications in 1997 – there remain moments that rekindle the underdog grit depicted in “Hoosiers.”

Last Friday night, for instance. During the final seconds of what was billed as a Boys 3A “state tournament game” at Spokane Falls Community College, North Central found itself trailing Kamiakin, 43-42. A kind of “Hoosiers” upset was in the works: North Central’s Indians, with an 11-12 record, didn’t really belong on the same floor with the Braves, whose 21-1 record was worth a No. 3 ranking in the boys 3A poll.

But with :05 remaining on the clock, North Central’s Gunnar Swager took a pass at midcourt and dribbled through a defense determined not to foul him. Just as time was about to expire, Swager banked a layup off the backboard.

Indians 44, Braves 43.

You can imagine the classic state-tournament snapshot in the aftermath of the game winner: A dog-pile celebration on one side, a numbing sense of bewilderment on the other.

Except this is the 2011 Washington state basketball tournament, which is following a six-classification playoff format that has both reduced the field and the size of the event (from 16 teams over four days, to eight teams over three days) and increased confusion.

It turns out that while North Central was able to earn a spot in the boys 3A quarterfinals Thursday at the Tacoma Dome, so did Kamiakin, which the following night advanced to Tacoma by beating Mercer Island.

In other words, it’s conceivable North Central could face Kamiakin this weekend in a rematch – now there’s a plot twist not examined in “Hoosiers” – by which time the odds of the Indians pulling off another stunner figure to be prohibitive.

Kamiakin is the beneficiary of a back-to-the-future format first used by the state’s larger schools in the 1980s. Instead of scheduling eight first-round games at a prearranged state-tournament site – say, Tacoma – the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), in a cost-cutting move, split the 16 qualifying boys teams (and 16 qualifying girls teams) into four regions of four teams apiece.

Sounds pretty simple, no?

Uh, no.

Teams last weekend were posed with different agendas. Where North Central was facing a loser-out fate in its first-round game, Kamiakin, as the region’s top seed, was granted what amounted to a mulligan. The Braves could discard their defeat and still move on to the quarterfinals by surviving their own loser-out game against Mercer Island.

The different-rules-for-different teams is only one aspect of the tournament that screams for revision. Another is a scheduling quandary, forcing school fans and pep bands – and families, for that matter – to decide between attending a girls game and a boys game.

Under the old format, a school with girls and boys teams in the state tournament was assured that both teams would reach the same destination and compete in the same building, if not the same floor.

This past Friday, the Kamiakin-North Central boys game at Spokane Falls Community College was preceded by a Kamiakin-North Central girls game at Shadle Park High School.

It was possible to watch most of both games – Spokane Falls and Shadle Park are separated by only a few miles – but I can think of a few hundred things I’d rather do as a fan than to rush to my car in the parking lot outside one gym and hurry to find the parking lot outside another gym.

Fans from 1A Granger were required to do this in Yakima, where the boys were at Eisenhower High and the girls were at West Valley High.

Same thing for Kentwood supporters. The girls game tipped off at 7:30 Friday at Jackson High in Mill Creek; the boys game tipped off at 8 at Kirkland’s Juanita High.

(There were other examples of boys-girls scheduling conflicts, but if I don’t stop here, my head will explode.)

I don’t mean to pick on the WIAA, which is doing its best to make tournament basketball more efficient during these tough economic times. It has come to the very reasonable conclusion that the status-quo – 16 teams from each of six enrollment classifications congregating over four days – is a money loser.

Having watched some of those sparsely attended morning consolation games at the Tacoma Dome, where the student body in the stands is, literally, one student’s body in the stands – I’ve always suspected there was room for tweaking.

So let’s tweak.

Six classifications? Too many. Three classifications of schools with fewer than 512 students? Again, too many. On the other hand, the designation for Class 3A – between 1086 and 1303 students – strikes me as too narrow.

Consolidate. Instead of six classifications, how does three sound? Two would even be better – make the cutoff at 1000 students – and continue to give any school under the cutoff the option of moving up.

Once consolidation is achieved, scrap the consolation games. If traveling hundreds of miles across the state results in sudden elimination or an overtime defeat, a fifth-place trophy isn’t going to soften the landing. Never has, never will.

If the WIAA decides consolation is out of the question, and continues to insist the opportunity to play for a fifth-place trophy is the inalienable right of every dejected high school basketball player restless to get out of Dodge, it might note how the cost overruns of the previous state tournament format weren’t to be confused with the national debt.

The WIAA changed the format in 2011 to counter a $150,000 dive into red ink. About 110,000 fans bought tickets to state-tournament games last season. Hike the ticket price by $1.50 or $2.00, and the $150,000 in losses turns into a marginal profit.

Whatever the solution, make the stakes of every tournament game equal for both sides: Winner continues, loser goes home.

Nothing against Kamiakin, but Gunnar Swager’s last-second shot should have sent the Braves back to Kennewick. It should’ve broken some hearts, while emboldening the anything-is-possible resolve of ridiculous underdogs.

Instead, Swager’s shot was merely a wake-up call for one of the best teams in the state.

This is a tournament?

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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