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It’s the most wonderful time of the year: state tourney time

For some people, March is the most wonderful month of the year. It’s not just because spring-training games has started and those of us who live in snow belts can fantasize about warm weather and the perennial hope their favorite baseball team will do better this year. (The explosion of media coverage is such that most major league games are now on radio — and several of them are televised as well.)By Dave Wright

For some people, March is the most wonderful month of the year. It’s not just because spring-training games has started and those of us who live in snow belts can fantasize about warm weather and the perennial hope their favorite baseball team will do better this year. (The explosion of media coverage is such that most major league games are now on radio — and several of them are televised as well. Here at August Publications, where there is roughly two feet of snow on the ground today, this is cruel and unusual punishment.)

But there is another phenomena that takes place every March — an event that an outsider may be hard-pressed to fathom.

March is State High School Tournament Month. Every state has them in some shape or form. Most are (or, like Idaho, already have) hosting tournaments in basketball and hockey. They come in all shapes and sizes, producing anywhere from two to nine state champs in their chosen sport.

We may be a bit of a jaded society these days but there is something about high-school tournaments that still stir the blood. Two decades after he played for tiny Springs Valley High School, Larry Bird still fondly remembers the team that advanced to the regional final before losing to a bigger school, Bedford. At the time, Indiana still held a one-class tournament. Bird’s team came within a game of making it — and they still kid the teammate who missed three one-and-ones that might have gotten them there.

In 1954, tiny Milan fought off the big schools to win the Indiana state title (for the uninitiated, rent "Hoosiers" — although there seems to be some question as to whether women like the one Barbara Hershey portrayed in the movie actually existed in Milan but why quibble?).

But those days are gone. For a decade now, Indiana has evolved into four state hoop champs instead of one. Traditionalists still grumble but the championship games are played in a NBA facility (Conseco Fieldhouse) March 24 and will draw considerable media attention. As for the kids from the tiny towns, their eyes are just as big walking around town now as they were in 1954 when Bobby Plump and his buddies came in and defeated Muncie Central. The difference now is there are more of them.

In Minnesota, the big tournament is this week — the state boys’ high-school hockey event. Although there are 39 states that sponsor boys’ ice hockey tournaments, none seem to compare to the intensity and media scrutiny of this weekend’s activity at the Xcel Energy Center. (Disclosure: I’m involved in the event as the public address announcer for 10 of 16 games played at Xcel this weekend.) Roughly 100,000 people will attend games this week. Scalpers have a field day with extra tix for the big school semifinals on Friday night.

For almost forty years, the championship round of games has been televised on a statewide network. (When KSTP-TV, the ABC affiliate in the Twin Cities televised the games, they brought in Howard Cosell to interview the winning coach one year. This year, 14 of the 16 games at Xcel in Class A and AA will be aired.) A slew of radio stations will also call the games for their respective towns. In fact, one of the biggest headaches the league PR staff over the years was finding room for all the radio crews covering the event. The tiny town of Roseau (pop: 2,700) is roughly seven hours from the Twin Cities by car — in good weather. The local high-school team made it to this year’s event but if they hadn’t, the big school games would be broadcast back home. The same was true in towns like Thief River Falls (where Don Olson called the games for 35 years — even though the local team only made it to the tournament one time) and Hibbing (where the mayor was the play-by-play announcer at one point).

The tournament evolved into a two-class affair a dozen years ago. There was the same sort of yelling as one heard in Indiana. Attendance fell off a bit at first. But the Class A (smaller school) tournament now draws 8-9,000 for their title game and the big school title tilt is still a sellout. Proponents of the small school event note it has allowed players like Little Falls’ Jared Festler (a 5-9 center who scored 69 goals this season) a showcase for his skills. Under the old format, his school would have never made it.

The event has become so huge that, in an effort to make sure they stayed the home of prep hockey for years to come, the NHL Wild turned the use of their building to the high school league for the state’s recent girls’ puck tournament. Girls’ high school hockey is only 13 years old (the boys’ event goes back to 1945) and draws roughly one-fifth the crowds at the boys’ games. No matter. It was worth it to the Wild to host the event.

Granted, this isn’t the World Cup, the Super Bowl or even the Stanley Cup playoffs (although the local ratings are generally higher). Still, there is something refreshing about the fact that prep state tournaments across the land still draw considerable media attention — even if Cosell is no longer available.

Dave Wright is an editor at August Publications.

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