After attending my first Hardwood Classic game last Friday, I came away with this impression: The WIAA’s Hardwood Classic format will be short-lived.
As a cost-cutting measure in sketchy economic times, it makes sense to scale things back. Yet, in spite of WIAA’s effort to market its regional play-in and seeding games as state tournament games, you won’t find many buyers among players, coaches, school administrators, devoted fans or media members who remember the days of four-day tournaments played in large arenas.
Here’s my main complaint: Each Hardwood Classic started off with 16 teams, the same number the four-day, double-elimination tourneys featured. The point being, each team was guaranteed a trip to the state tournament to enjoy that—for many kids—once-in-a-lifetime experience of performing on a big stage for at least two games, against the best competition in the classification. (And, if your team was lucky enough to stick around all four days, you got to take home a cool trophy and have your picture taken with the Washington Dairy Princess.)
Under the Hardwood Classic format, if you’re a low seed out of your district, you had to win two games at a regional site Feb. 25-26 to qualify for the final eight in your classification. If you happened to lose your first-round game, it was like, oh, so sorry, but thanks for coming, and better luck next season.
So, the question becomes: Whose interest does this streamlined format serve? Certainly it isn’t those schools that qualified teams for the state tournament through their district competitions, only to see them eliminated in a game played in just another sparsely filled high school gymnasium (albeit in Walla Walla’s case, a really nice gym).
If the WIAA is convinced this is the way to go for the time being, however, why not take it a step further and open the tournament up to all the schools in each classification? Let’s eliminate district tournaments and play single-elimination ball from mid-February through early March to produce four semifinalists in each class. These Final Four teams in turn would play for state championships on the same weekend at major regional venues, such as the Spokane Veterans’ Memorial Arena, Yakima SunDome and Tacoma Dome.
We’re talking Hoosiers here, people, with a touch of the NCAA’s March Madness. Every team, boys or girls, no matter its record, has a shot at winning its class’s state championship in basketball. No gimmicks; all a team has to do to win the state title is post a specified number of victories in a row. We’ll still have to play games at regional sites, and seed teams according to regular-season records, but these games will take on added weight when the teams know the loser doesn’t get a second chance.
Which is why this proposal has no chance of receiving serious consideration. Coaches like the four-day format because if their team doesn’t perform well on day one, it has a second chance to show it can play better, then a third and a fourth if its luck holds out. Tournaments, at their essence, are demonstrations of the survival of the fittest. Eligible teams in the recent past got there because they’d survived the rigors of playing against the best competition their district had to offer.
In the final issue, my guess is we’ll see the WIAA retreat because of intense public criticism of its current program and reinstate the four-day, double-elimination format before next season. I will say this, though: The 2011 Hardwood Classic was an interesting concept that suffered only from poor design.