"IHSAA keeps making it harder to play up

It’s been 10 years now since the Indiana High School Athletic Association broke Indiana’s collective heart with the switch to multiclass basketball.

A few years after the deal went down, the organization threw betrayed Hoosiers a bit of a bone by giving smaller schools the option to play up in class, to compete in the tournament with larger schools if they chose.

The IHSAA didn’t make it easy: Teams had to declare their intention to move up by the start of the school year (rather than, say, in January, when they’d have a better idea how competitive they’d be) and had to commit to the bigger-school competition for two years — both pointless rules seemingly designed to discourage schools from using the option.

So far, no one has taken them up on the offer, at least not in basketball. But the perfect candidate to break the ice is sitting on Indianapolis’ Northeastside: the Heritage Christian Lady Eagles, an exceptional — and exceptionally young — team that breezed through the past two 2A tourneys, winning 14 tournament games by an average of 18 points. There’s just one problem: The IHSAA recently made the already difficult option a darned near impossible one. It increased the required commitment of schools desiring to move up in class from two years to four.

“If the rule was just one or two years, we would have looked at the possibility of playing up,” says Heritage Christian Athletic Director Jeff Hester. The Lady Eagles earned their two Class 2A titles with their three best players as freshmen, then sophomores. Had they been in the mix, they might have won the 4A title this season. Their talent level was clearly a lot closer to the best 4As than the best 2As.

Only four of Heritage Christian’s 22 games this season were against 1A or 2A competition. The Lady Eagles defeated Brebeuf, which later won the state 3A title, by 10 points. Heritage Christian lost just three games, each to ranked 4A squads and all by a single point. Two of the losses, both in overtime, were to eventual 4A champion South Bend Washington and to four-time defending Kentucky state champ Lexington Catholic, which was ranked fourth in the nation at the time. The Lady Eagles’ third defeat came when their six-player rotation was one girl short, to an excellent Carmel team.

Heritage Christian is an extremely balanced squad, but one also possessed of a star — indeed a future Miss Basketball candidate — in sophomore Kelly Ferris, a lanky 5-8 forward who would improve not a few boys teams. The Eagles have a poised point guard in Claire Freeman and a versatile wing in Emily Anderson. They will graduate an important player in Bre Jones. But Jones’ sister Casey, the main reserve this season as a freshman, shows every sign of soon surpassing her older sister. With a core unit of four underclassmen already good enough and only getting better, it’s hard to imagine a more perfectly positioned team to make the leap and play up.

Playing up, taking on the best and biggest schools in the state at tournament time, would seem a risk to the timid. The Lady Eagles might not win it all. But they have already amply demonstrated they are the cream of 2A. The 2A tourney would likely remain a cakewalk for them over the next two years. Having already won it two consecutive years, what would this particular Heritage Christian core group of players really prove with two more 2A titles?

In going for the 4A crown, the Lady Eagles would seriously challenge themselves, as they have always been told the best athletes do. And they would instantly become the darlings of Hoosierland, with the entire state pulling for them all winter long. The mere attempt would garner more headlines than any class championship ever has; it would probably generate some national exposure as well.

And how wonderful would it be that the first team to risk a class title for a state title would be a girls team? How great for the sport of girls basketball, which still gets second-class treatment all too often?

And how great would it be to see an arrogant and hidebound IHSAA leadership set on its ear?

Ignoring the consequences

The IHSAA has thumbed its nose at most of the state regarding class basketball for a decade now, acting as if it serves just one constituency: the high school principals who vote on IHSAA matters. Or it falls back on the mantra that class basketball is better for the student athletes, which is debatable at best.

At the time, the IHSAA termed the move to class an “experiment” that would receive scrutiny, possible revamping and even reversal in subsequent years. After three years of class basketball, tournament attendance was down 44 percent and half the revenue was gone, yet the IHSAA didn’t seem remotely interested in re-evaluation.

If class basketball had indeed been an experiment, it’s hard to imagine what would have constituted “failure” in IHSAA eyes.

After committing a cultural crime of unprecedented magnitude against its own state, flushing one of Indiana’s crown jewels down the toilet, the IHSAA has basically spent the past 10 years ignoring the consequences.

That’s not to say the move to class has been purely negative. If proponents of class basketball should admit that the change hurt the tournament and was rejected by many people in the state, opponents should acknowledge that the change has brought some unprecedented tournament-time runs and tournament success to some smaller schools and smaller towns previously trapped in stagnating sectional situations.

Time is on the IHSAA’s side, certainly. With each passing year, fewer people will remember the David-Goliath context that helped make the old tournament so special. Today’s players have no real sense of that at all. New generations of fans will grow up knowing nothing but class competition, unaware of the precious historical legacy, unique to Indiana, that has been squandered.

The IHSAA will say there is no groundswell from its member schools to go back to the old tournament, or to otherwise change the current format. That’s an egregious cop-out. The governing body of prep athletics in Indiana shouldn’t have to wait for clamor from principals to propose changes that will benefit prep athletics.

Why stick with a four-class system that prompts schools to drive upwards of 100 miles just to play a sectional game? A two-class format would allow them to find more natural rivals closer to home, while leaving the IHSAA’s beloved “level playing field” intact.

Or if we have to have four classes, why not eliminate the one-game semi-state round and bring the remaining 16 teams to Indianapolis for a quartet of Final Fours? It’s a move that would return a significant amount of atmosphere to the tournament, while allowing twice as many schools to participate in the state finals. It would also eliminate the needless overlap that now exists with the boys and girls tournaments.

And why have a four-year requirement to move up in class competition, when it’d be so easy to let schools move up any given year they feel they could be competitive? Heritage Christian’s Lady Eagles might have struck a blow to reverberate around the state and beyond.

Every single year, serious suggestions for improving the current tournament are offered by fans and media alike. And every year, they fall on deaf ears. Former IHSAA Commissioner Bob Gardner was recently quoted, saying four-class basketball has been an unequivocal success — which is both depressing beyond words and a lot like listening to Dick Cheney talk about the Iraq war.



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