Road-weary and anxious to get moving, Hoquiam’s boys basketball team got about 40 minutes of pre-game shoot-around time at Mountlake Terrace High School last Friday.
The Grizzlies had just finished fighting through a 3-hour commute through treacherous weekend getaway traffic in Seattle. They got onto the court, stretched their legs, hit some jumpers and then … were kicked out of the gym.
Where did the team stay before it was let back into the gym 20 minutes later to prepare for its Class 1A regional-to-state game?
“On the bus,” HHS head coach Curtis Eccles said.
Seven Twin Harbors basketball teams spent a lot of time on the bus during the regional basketball weekend — road trips to Tumwater, Bothell, Mountlake Terrace, Tacoma and Ellensburg were all on the itinerary.
This is the fourth year of the regional format to the WIAA state basketball tournaments and the furor over the change hasn’t let up since its inception.
Complaints about the costs, shouldered solely by the school districts, of sending teams to the regional games, then turning around the next weekend to go to Yakima or Spokane or Tacoma, are still flying. Game experience, gate revenues and the bracket seeding are also talked about by coaches, school officials and fans.
On Saturday night, the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association blasted the WIAA for “cutting short the seasons of 96 boys and girls basketball teams across the state” with the format.
That rings true for six of the Twin Harbors’ seven teams, with costs running approximately $2,000 or more per team to send them to their games. Montesano’s girls had the shortest trip (Tumwater), while Willapa Valley’s girls, North Beach’s boys and Taholah’s girls had the longest trip (Ellensburg).
Valley’s girls ended up with an extra night in Ellensburg when their bus broke down and needed repair on Saturday.
“It was a Murphy’s Law kind of a day,” Willapa Valley boys head basketball coach and athletic director John Peterson said. “It cost us just over $3,000, approximately. Plus, there are the costs for the families, fans and others who traveled to both games (in Bothel and Ellensburg). It is expensive.
“It is an abrupt way to end the season,” Peterson added. “In the old days, you can lose your first game and still work your way through the back door to get a trophy. You won’t get to see many Cinderella teams in these tournaments anymore, because top seeds will get the advantages over the lower seeds. In 2010, Pe Ell won the title. It beat Bear Creek. What if Pe Ell had to travel to face Bear Creek on a neutral site. As good as Pe Ell was, if that game was near Seattle, Bear Creek would have won.
“I don’t like it and I don’t know any basketball coach who does,” Peterson said. “I’m pretty old-fashioned, a hard-nose, but I have a soft heart when it comes to the kids. What we’re choosing to do is wrong. I get it, but I disagree, respectfully.”
For Eccles and the Grizzlies, even with the shoot-around snafu thrown in, their regional trip to Mountlake Terrace was an improvement over their first-ever regional trip to Glacier Peak in 2010. There, Hoquiam’s two games were seen by a very small handful of fans in a quiet gym with all the atmosphere of a funeral march.
“Playing in a high school gym doesn’t even compare to playing in the (Yakima) Sundome,” Eccles said. “But, (Friday) was much better than the experience four years ago. (Having the band there) makes a big difference. It was nice to see the support from our community this year. Even though we traveled, we traveled well.”
On the Twin Harbors, the consensus on the regional format is a resounding “no thank you.” Many still hold the old 16-team format in high regard, especially the Class B state tournament at the Spokane Arena. In comparison, the regional games can’t compete with that.
“It doesn’t compare,” North Beach girls basketball head coach and principal Brett Mackey said. “I still believe that the regional (game) is a step down from our District IV tournament. Our district games are better attended than the regional games. Nothing against Ellensburg (High School); they did a great job of organizing the regionals and there weren’t many snafus there.
“(The format) reduces the state experience for the kids; that’s the hardest part,” Mackey said. “The feeling you get of playing in the Spokane Arena for four days, you can’t compare. When I had a team there, all of the kids were there for the first time. Walking into the arena, their jaws fell to the floor.”
Taholah’s girls team will get that experience starting tonight. The Chitwhins traveled to Ellensburg for their regional game, then returned home Saturday before heading back over the mountain passes to Spokane — a double whammy of expenses for the Taholah School District.
And, the Chitwhins won’t be alone in that situation. Neah Bay’s boys team, the District 1/2/3 champions, had an overnight stay in Tacoma for its 10 a.m. Saturday regional game against Wishkah. The Red Devils will make the trip back to Spokane this weekend as well.
“Going to Ellensburg was better than going to Spokane last year; we stayed two nights in Spokane, because we travel the passes during the day only,” Mackey said. “I’m struggling to foot the bill and save money. You have a team like Taholah, which went to Ellensburg and will now go to Spokane. (This format) didn’t save them any money. There are a number of districts who are in the same position as they are.”
The most frequent question asked in regard to the regional format over the past weekend was — is it worth the money for the experience? The WIAA has noted in the past that it has saved money on renting the facilities in Tacoma, Yakima and Spokane and the trimming on the consolation games, which have been notoriously under-attended in the larger tournaments.
However, to counter, what about the teams, the coaches, the players and the communities? Is it worth the money for them to experience the state tournaments, minus the regionals?
“(On Monday), I talked with Matt Noren, who played for me on the state teams in 1999 and 2001,” Peterson said. “He noted that he didn’t remember any of the teams they played. But, what he did remember was the bus trip to Spokane, the dinner trips, playing cards and bonding with his teammates and going to play in the (Arena).
“He said, ‘I remember looking up and the entire one side of the court was full of Willapa Valley people,’” Peterson said. “He’s 30 years old, with a great job, a family and kids. That’s one of his biggest memories and that’s a wonderful memory for those kids (who played). I’m sorry. I don’t care what that costs. There are 96 teams who don’t get to have that experience. That’s a huge deal.”
Rob Burns: (360) 537-3926; email at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @RobRVR.