Belleville West celebrates state championship win
There is nothing like a high school basketball state-playoff run to galvanize a community.
Community excitement really begins to amp up at a sectional final. The decibels raised in those intimate — and often historic — gymnasiums are enough to rattle the fillings from your dental work.
And a road trip to state? It's an experience every sports fan should have, whether they have a team in the tournament or not.
But let's be honest: State-championship weekend is not what it used to be.
My first assignment to cover a state basketball tournament took me to Assembly Hall in Champaign to follow Carbondale in 1994. The Terriers lost the championship game by a point to that incredible group from Peoria Manual that went on to four titles in a row.
There were nearly 12,000 people in Assembly Hall for the title game. The place rocked.
In 1996, the IHSA moved its original March Madness to Peoria and Carver Arena, to accommodate the interactive and popular March Madness Experience. Then in 2007, basketball was expanded from two classes to four. That's when the crowds began to dwindle.
I was, and remain, philosophically unopposed to either move.
Expanding to more classes, as was explained at the time, allows more schools and more communities to experience the thrill of a regional championship and sectional play. Schools in rural Illinois towns — where kindergarten through 12th grades may be housed under the same roof — rarely ever got that opportunity.
But what was good for the mid-majors of Class A wasn't so good for ticket sales at the IHSA's grand high-school basketball showcase.
When the IHSA doubled the number of classes, it cut in half the number of super-sectionals that feed the state tournament weekend — instead of an Elite Eight, the IHSA currently hosts only a Final Four.
Half the teams means half the fans. And half is probably generous.
I took note of the crowd as West prepared to tip off its 4A semifinal game against Elgin Larkin on Friday night. What I saw was an 11,000-seat arena at less than a third of its capacity. And thank goodness for pep bands.
The championship game drew better, of course. Still, there were as many empty seats as there were tickets sold (this is a guess, by the way, because the IHSA doesn't share single-session attendance figures). The IHSA has convened a committee to look at ways to drum up more interest.
In the meantime, I've heard ideas both from school administrators and other media. The best among them comes from Nick Vlahos of the Peoria Journal-Star.
Vlahos proposes keeping the current four-class system as it is through the regional and sectional rounds. Sectional winners would then be consolidated into two brackets, one for 1A and 2A teams and the other with 3A and 4A teams. Each bracket's Sweet 16 would play in eight super-sectional games, the winners of which advance to an Elite Eight on state tournament weekend.
The third place games? History.
For the fans of each participating school, there would be more interest in the other games if they were part of a single tournament with eight teams instead of two tournaments of four each. Maybe they'd buy tickets for both sessions instead of just one?
For all other fans the elite competition would be a hotter ticket.
Whatever else the IHSA may come up with, it needs to keep the small schools involved and preserve the spectacle of elite teams playing on a big stage.
It should also take note of what the Okawville Rockets and Belleville West Maroons have proven over the last two weekends: There's plenty of quality high school basketball being played outside of Chicago.