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New state basketball tourney format unpopular with coaches

  • Fans from Lake Stevens cheer on their team earlier in the month during the state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Fans from Lake Stevens cheer on their team earlier in the month during the state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.

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By Rich Myhre
Herald Writer
  • Fans from Lake Stevens cheer on their team earlier in the month during the state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Fans from Lake Stevens cheer on their team earlier in the month during the state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the state's governing body for high school sports, introduced a new state basketball tournament format this year designed to cut expenses while still providing memorable experiences for participants and spectators alike.
And it worked ... sort of.
Yes, the WIAA reduced costs considerably by replacing the traditional four-day, 16-team tournaments with a schedule of first-round regional games at various sites around Washington, followed by three-day, eight-team state tournaments.
Unfortunately, many people -- specifically, an apparent majority of coaches from around the state and presumably players, too -- don't like the new format very much.
The primary complaint concerns teams that are eliminated at regional tournaments, often after just one game. In other years, those same teams would be guaranteed a trip to state -- for Class 4A and 3A schools like those in the Western Conference, the traditional site is the Tacoma Dome -- and the chance to play at least two games.
Mountlake Terrace boys coach Nalin Sood, whose team lost its regional opener to Hazen at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and was eliminated, is president of the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association (WIBCA), a statewide organization of boys coaches. Sood says he understands the financial issues that prompted the change, but believes the WIBCA is virtually united against the new format.
If there are supporters in the association, Sood said, "I haven't heard from any. ... Maybe the WIAA is not hearing a lot of negatives, but we are."
Meanwhile, Sood's personal opinion matches those of his fellow coaches.
"I've been fortunate to have taken teams to (state) and done well, and it was a great experience," he said. "And I've taken teams when we didn't win any games, and it was still a good experience. But this go-round was not a good experience."
Instead of being something special and memorable, he said, "it just kind of felt like one more game."
Arlington boys coach Nick Brown agrees. He spent the last few years developing this season's senior-laden squad for the purpose of ending the program's long state tournament drought. Hopes were high, but Arlington ended up losing its regional game to Kentridge at Jackson High School and was eliminated.
"We showed up, we played and we didn't win," Brown said. "And we were literally driving home two hours later, and we were looking at each other and thinking, 'That was state?'
"State (should be) going to Tacoma," he said. "It's getting some days off from school, it's walking into the Tacoma Dome, it's getting a pin, it's getting your picture taken beforehand, it's having the band come down, it's having the community come down, and it's just a great experience of playing and being away from home."
A single game at Jackson "was just not the true state experience that our kids had worked so hard for," Brown said.
The Monroe boys team had a similar experience. The Bearcats lost to Olympia in a regional game at Bellevue's Juanita High School and, like Arlington, were one and done.
"The state tournament has been and should always be a two-game situation for all the teams," Monroe coach Nick Wold said. In a four-day, 16-team tournament, Monroe could have lost its opener and still come back through the consolation bracket to claim either fifth or eighth place, "and that would've been a landmark victory for our program," he said.
Glacier Peak boys coach Brian Hunter, whose team reached the Class 3A semifinals, also went to state when he coached previously at Stanwood. "I know what a huge deal that was for that community (of Stanwood), that school and that program, to get to Tacoma," he said. "So I think about Arlington and Monroe a lot. Those kids worked really hard to get to Tacoma, too, but they didn't get to experience that."
Jackson boys coach Steve Johnson, who took teams to Tacoma last season under the old format and this season under the new format, says he appreciates the financial constraints, but adds that "in a perfect world, if you made it to state you'd get to play at the Tacoma Dome. … If I controlled everything, somehow getting all the kids who make it to state to the big venue, that'd be my choice."
When the new format was unveiled a year ago, "I don't think anybody liked it," said Glacier Peak girls coach Brian Hill, whose team won its regional game to advance to Tacoma, where it lost twice and failed to place. "And I'm still not sure I like it, though maybe I'm a little more open to it (than before)."
Among area coaches, Edmonds-Woodway girls coach Duane Hodges is perhaps most receptive to the new format, though he still prefers a 16-team tournament because "it feels like the state experience is fuller."
WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese has heard these and other complaints in the weeks since the state tournaments. But he has also spent recent years listening to coaches, school and league officials, and spectators who found flaws with the 16-team tourneys. Among them, lost class time and a prolonged season that overlapped with the start of spring sports.
But the most obvious downside to a 16-team event is the cost. Tournament attendance has declined in recent years, and the Tacoma Dome and Spokane Arena (site of this year's Class 1B and 2B tournaments), "are expensive venues," Colbrese said.
Under the old format, the Tacoma Dome would be used for boys and girls 4A and 3A tournaments in two successive weeks, a total of eight days. This year the 4A and 3A tournaments were combined in one week, meaning only a three-day rental.
Under the new format, "and because of our decisions for cutting expenses," Colbrese said, "financially it worked." By reducing the number of games in the large venues, "we eliminated half of our overhead right away."
"But a lot of people want to go back to 16 teams, there's no doubt about that," he acknowledged.
Decisions about the state tournament formats are made by WIAA's 13-member executive board, comprised of representatives from different enrollment classifications around the state. The board is in the process of collecting financial data and participant/spectator feedback from the recent tournaments, and is expected to make decisions about next year's events at meetings in April.
Some issues seem likely to be addressed. For one, this year's regional tournaments were called first-round state tournament games, except that fooled no one.
"I think lot of that would have been better … if we'd just said these are regional events and left it at that," Colbrese said.
It is also possible that some enrollment classifications, but perhaps not all, will revert to 16-team tournaments, he added. But those decisions will not be made until the board meets in another few weeks.
"The (executive) board insisted that they would not make a final decision until April," Colbrese said.

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