The 95th annual boys basketball state tournament wrapped up this past weekend with four new champions crowned but a few important questions left unanswered.
The addition of the Perry Commodores and Delphos St. John’s Blue Jays made the affair much more interesting for fans from our area of the state but, unfortunately, they did not fare well in their semifinals.
The Blue Jays ran into a Cleveland Lutheran East squad whose quickness made for an impossible preparation on the part of the St. John’s coaching staff. Down only three points at half, coach Aaron Elwer believed he had the game at the pace he preferred, but the dam broke in the third quarter and St. John’s simply could not keep up with the speedy Falcons. The most interesting moment in the game, for me, came when the large Blue Jay student cheering section broke out in the chant, “We’re home grown, we’re home grown.” More on that later.
Perry could not have asked for a better start in its game against Columbus Wellington. The Commodores vaulted out to an 8-0 margin and held the lead going into the second quarter. But the switch to a 2-3 zone by their opponent changed the game. The advantage for the Jaguars could be summed up in one word, length. With the rim protected by their 6 foot, 9 inch and 6-7 post players and the passing lanes clogged with long armed defenders, Perry’s offense could not keep pace with the Jaguars. The Commodores may have been undersized to Wellington but they were not short on heart. They never quit and gave their large contingent of fans plenty to be proud of.
If the OHSAA were allowed a rooting interest, it would have been squarely behind our local squads. Perry and DSJ brought an impressive number of supporters to their games while their opponents appeared absolutely lonesome. When the Division IV championship game tipped off, the Schottenstein Center looked nearly deserted.
Coach Matt Tabler and coach Elwer won their press conferences. Both spoke about the impact their successful seasons would have on future generations of young basketball players who were sitting in the stands idolizing their heroes. Like sprinkling seeds on fertile ground, their successful tournament runs provided plenty of nourishment for the dreams of their young fans. If you drive around the Delphos or Perry communities in the next few days don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of young kids shooting hoops on outdoor courts, imagining themselves playing in the Schott someday. For some, their dream will come true. Count on it.
Questions about dwindling attendance remained the most popular topic of conversation in Columbus. For coaches and fans, especially in my generation, the growing lack of interest in the games at state is disturbing. Put into perspective, the numbers tell the story. Attendance at this year’s state tournament was 115,658, continuing a slow decline during the last decade or so. Just 15 years ago, nearly 200,000 fans were drawn to the Schott. To be fair, LeBron James was in high school in that era, but you get the point.
Another perspective on the problem was provided by a long time ticket scalper who has worked the state tournament games for many years. I heard him tell a friend of mine that he was finished. “I can’t make money anymore,” he said. “People can get good seats for any game at the ticket window now.” Guys my age can remember a time when state tournament tickets were like gold.
Interestingly, the biggest crowd to watch a state tournament game in the last eight years (15,292) was the Lima Senior High-Wilmington semifinal last season. LCC’s 2010 state championship game (14,080) was also one of the highest attended games in the last decade. Lima Perry and Delphos St. John’s supporters came out in impressive numbers this year, proving there are still communities in Ohio that will travel to Columbus and passionately support their teams, many of them right here in our own backyard.
There are several contenders for the reason attendance has declined. The finals are all televised live now making it easier for fans, especially those who live long distances, to enjoy the game from the comfort of their living rooms. Some complain that the rise of ticket prices is a major problem. There is more competition for entertainment dollars now and this new generation just does not seem to be as enamored with basketball. Keep in mind the problem is not confined to the state tournament. Attendance at high school basketball games has been dropping all over the state for some time.
The loudest racket surrounds issues concerning the public school verses private school complaints. There is no question that private/catholic/charter schools are dominating the tournament at a percentage that is not consistent with their public school counterparts. This year, three of the four state champions were non-public schools. (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Cleveland Villa Angela St. Joseph, Cleveland Heights Lutheran East)
The OHSAA’s competitive balance plan to address the problem is scheduled to go into effect during the next school year. The hope is that it will curb schools that are playing with athletes who have transferred to schools simply to compete athletically. Athletes who transfer have to sit for half the regular season but are still eligible to play in the postseason and can skew the tournament, as the Blue Jays and Commodores discovered.
The competitive balance plan is designed to have transfer athletes count as more than one student, potentially moving the school up one division. The fall sports (football, volleyball, soccer) adjusted enrollments are due to be announced by the OHSAA on April 6. Critics of the plan, and there are many, do not see this solving the problem.
Many believe the solution is for the OHSAA to simply separate the public and private schools into two tournaments. The problem with this is the false premise that the private school advantage is that they all recruit. The truth is, there are private schools that do not recruit and public schools that do. Even if the tournament is divided, recruiting will still occur and those schools will continue to dominate their respective tournaments, both public and private.
Jim Naveau, an award winning sports writer for the Lima News, had the best solution I’ve heard. He half-jokingly suggested creating four separate tournaments: one public, one private, one for privates that recruit and one for publics that recruit. If only it were that easy.
This is what I know. Our state tournament in Ohio is regarded by many as the best high school basketball state tournament in the nation. Twice, while coaching teams in Columbus to compete at state, I was introduced to delegations from other states who were there to observe how our tournament was run. I can tell you they went away impressed.
The competitive balanced plan may or may not work. My gut feeling is that it will not satisfy many of those who insist on more dramatic changes to the tournament. But be careful what you wish for.
Change in and of itself is not a solution and sometimes simply leads to disaster. The OHSAA is in a delicate position and may have to make difficult decisions down the road. Wish them luck.
The one thing people on all sides of the issue have in common is a love for the game of basketball. We all want what is best for the game and the young athletes who benefit from the experience.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at email@example.com.