By David Krueger
Daily Herald Writer
Nalin Sood said he's coaching today because of an experience he had nearly 25 years ago.
At the time, Sood was an assistant coach on the Mountlake Terrace High School boys basketball team that reached the 1989 Class AA state tournament. The Hawks lost their first game at what was then a 16-team, four-day state tournament at the Tacoma Dome. They rebounded from that initial loss to Chief Sealth, won three straight games in the consolation bracket and wound up placing fifth.
"I remember standing there, and I was two years out of high school and I thought, 'Wow! This is the most unbelievable experience I've ever had in athletics!'" said Sood, now the head coach at Mountlake Terrace.
Today, that experience would be impossible. A loss in the first-round of the state tournament would end the Hawks' season.
Four years ago, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) modified the state basketball tournaments, shifting first-round play to "regional" sites throughout the state. The move reduced the number of teams advancing to the Tacoma Dome and other state-finals venues from 16 to eight. It's a move that didn't sit well with Sood and many of his fellow coaches.
"There's a lot of us that believe the 16-team state tournament is what's best for the student-athlete, the fan, parents, the student body, the bands, the cheerleaders and the communities ...," Sood said. "And in our surveys, our discussions, our communications, that's what we keep getting back from everybody. Everybody wants the 16-team state tournament."
Everybody, that is, but the WIAA.
With attendance at the state basketball tournament dwindling — attendance dropped 33 percent from 1997 to 2010 according to WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese — the organization decided something had to be done.
"We looked at a lot of different options," Colbrese said. "Do we go to single eliminations? Coaches said, 'No. We don't want a single-elimination state tournament. We want to stay with a double-elimination.' So, we went with the first round at regional sites. ... I know there are a lot of people that want to go back to the 16-team tournament but it doesn't pencil out."
The dip in attendance was alarming because the basketball state tournaments generate more revenue than any other sport. In 2012 — with the regional format in place — the basketball tournaments brought in $467,153 after expenses, according to a report on the WIAA's website. That accounted for 47 percent of the non-profit organization's excess revenue from all 20 state tournament events. That excess helps fund tournaments such as golf and tennis, which lose money.
"I want to be careful and say it wasn't a deficit," Colbrese said. "We just weren't making the kind of money that we needed and we could see the continual downward tick."
The biggest financial benefit came from cutting costs associated with the state basketball tournaments.
Before the change, the WIAA rented the Tacoma Dome (4A/3A tournaments), Yakima Valley SunDome (1A/2A) and Spokane Arena (1B/2B) for two consecutive weeks — one week for each classification. Each tournament ran for four days. Under the current format, the state tournaments all take place the same week and require just a three-day rental.
"We're realizing a few more dollars, but the significant difference is we cut our overhead in half," Colbrese said.
The Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association (WIBCA) has proposed ways to try to alleviate the financial concerns, including an offer to lobby businesses for additional sponsorships for the state tournaments.
"If it's money, how much is it?" Lake Stevens girls coach Randall Edens said. "Give us a chance, as a coaches association, to go out and get sponsors and get it done."
Colbrese said adding sponsors is not that simple.
"The difficulty, of course, is to get more corporate sponsors you're going to diminish the value of our two title sponsors (Les Schwab Tires and the Dairy Farmers of Washington) and we need to stay loyal to them," he said. "To bring in more corporate sponsors would diminish the value and visibility of them."
According to Sood, who is the reigning WIBCA president, the regional format means 1,152 student-athletes over all classifications see their seasons end after the regional round and miss out on the final week of the state tournament.
The WIBCA sent out a statement after the final regional games Saturday night expressing sympathy to the "96 basketball teams whose seasons were cut short of state by the regrettable regional format."
The press release then went on to list the 96 teams from across the state that lost in the regional round.
A different feel
The coaches' biggest issue with the current format is that games hosted at regional sites don't have the same feel as those played at the more prestigious venues.
"Kids aren't going to remember scores or who they played against," said Edens, whose Vikings have been to state seven of the past nine seasons. "What they are going to remember is that experience at the Tacoma Dome 20 years from now. Or the SunDome. That's what we need to keep in mind."
If the regional format is here to stay, Sood would like to see a more "state-like atmosphere."
"What we shared with the WIAA is our No. 1 issue was we'd like to see games getting played at state venues, and state venues are colleges or arenas," Sood said. "That was a big thing for us."
The WIBCA wants to eliminate situations like the Stanwood girls basketball team experienced in February of 2012. Facing Federal Way in a Class 3A regional game at Auburn High School, the Spartans were without a locker room and were told they would have to change in a classroom. When the curtains in the classroom wouldn't close, the girls were forced to get ready in a public restroom.
"It was not a good state experience for the young ladies," Stanwood coach Dennis Kloke said. "It just didn't feel like a state game. The facility was a little older, and we didn't have a locker room."
The WIAA has used feedback from coaches and administrators to whittle down the sites that can host regional games, creating criteria such as capacity, number of parking spaces and the availability of locker rooms.
"I think you'd find that you're not hearing those kinds of comments anymore. ... I should say, you won't be hearing maybe as many comments," Colbrese said. "I think we found out which sites work, and which sites don't work. We're down to 19 different sites now and those seem to be working for us really well."
Auburn High School is one of those sites and played host to three regional games last weekend.
Not the only issue
As WIBCA president, Sood has spent much of his six-year tenure trying to revive the state tournament of old. He said it's "the hottest topic" among the coaches.
But it's not the only one.
Coaches also aren't thrilled with the way the regional matchups are set up.
Before the season, the WIAA sets the regional pairings. For example, the Jackson boys knew all season that if they won the Northwest District title, they would face the No. 4 team from the District 3/4 playoffs in the regionals. Such foreknowledge is one of the coaches' biggest concerns with the current process: Sometimes the best route to the state quarterfinals doesn't include winning.
In each of the past four seasons there were teams that won their district tournaments only to be rewarded with a more difficult opponent — based on the Associated Press state rankings — than those that finished second.
"There's a lot of coaches put in that moral dilemma," King's girls coach Dan Taylor said. "One year I had a friend say, 'Are you actually going to try to win this game?' I said, 'Yeah, of course. I don't play to lose. I'm a competitor.' By us winning, we had a harder opponent and went to their backyard to play and lost in regionals. The team we beat went to a quote-unquote 'easier' opponent and won, and got to go to the dome."
Two seasons ago, the Lake Stevens girls team went 22-1 and won a district title, before being matched with Skyview in the regional round. The Storm, who won the 4A Greater St. Helens championship, defeated the Vikings 72-56, doubling Lake Stevens' loss total and ending the Vikings' season.
Skyview went on to win the 4A state championship.
"The loss in general was certainly crushing," Edens said. "We were excited but we knew we were going to have the toughest regional draw out there. We were essentially penalized for doing all the right things. We won a district championship, a league title, had one loss all season and then we get Skyview, who went on to win the state championship."
Taylor, the president of the Washington State Girls Basketball Coaches Association, said the situation has led to rumors of games being thrown for a better opportunity to advance.
"That's just rumors, but yeah, it could be an issue," Taylor said. "... Ultimately everybody wants to get to the dome to have that state experience so it's a moral dilemma for a coach in a sense. Do I have a team give it their all or do I just lose to get a better chance of getting to the dome?"
Colbrese called the rumors "disappointing" and said the WIAA will continue to post the postseason draws early in the season, because it shows transparency. He is worried that if the draws are not announced beforehand, the WIAA will be accused of "plotting certain draws" and purposefully picking certain matchups.
"The (WIAA executive) board believes the honorable thing to do is show it before," he said.
Some like the new format
While the current format has its detractors, there are those who prefer the present setup.
"I like the fact that you go down there on Saturday and you can watch four state championships," said Tom Lafferty, the sports director for Fox Sports 1380 AM in Everett who has done play-by-play of high school athletics for 28 years. "One ticket, one night, one city."
Colbrese, who will complete the state tournament trifecta next week with trips to the Spokane Arena on Thursday, the SunDome on Friday and the Tacoma Dome on Saturday, leaves the door open for a possible return to the 16-team, one-site format. However, there would have to be a steady increase in attendance to justify the change, he said.
Sood and the WIBCA plan to continue fighting for a 16-team, one-site tournament.
"I really can't say how optimistic I am," Sood said. "This is a format that's been here for four years and it doesn't look like we'll switch back. ... I think it's just going to be looking at how it's going to get better. But I think the whole basketball community would be elated if we went back to the 16-team state tournament."
Timeline of changes to state basketball tournament
March 6, 2010
Kentwood boys beat Jackson 67-58 in the 4A state championship game.
April 24, 2010
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association executive board votes to change the state boys and girls basketball tournaments from 16-team, double-elimination tournaments to 8-team, double-elimination tournaments with a loser-out regional round preceding each one.
July 27, 2010
The WIAA executive board decides that the format for the inaugural regional round of the state basketball tournament will include a pair of No. 1 and 2 seeds at each site and two rounds, with the winner of the No. 1 seeds advancing to state and the loser remaining alive to play the winner of the No. 2 seeds for the final state berth.
April 20, 2011
The WIAA executive board votes to make the 2012 regional round of the state basketball tournament single elimination with first round games being held at local sites. They also decide to rebrand the regional round as regionals, not state.
the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association posts a letter to the WIAA expressing its disappointment in the association's decision to keep the regional round of the tournament and to create single-elimination regional round. In the letter, which WIBCA posted on its website, the association writes "we feel strongly that the WIAA continues to lessen the experience of state basketball tournaments and is not making the positive experience for the student-athlete a paramount issue, and it appears to be last on the list."
Feb. 4, 2014
The WIAA announces changes to its process for assigning games to approved regional sites for the first round of the state boys and girls basketball tournaments. Teams will no longer be able to host regional games and sites will be chosen to based on limiting travel as much as possible. The WIAA made the changes based on complaints from coaches and fans.
Contact Daily Herald writer David Krueger at firstname.lastname@example.org.