By Joe Henricksen
I know this is a time to celebrate high school basketball. Thus, I do admit I feel like the Grinch that Stole March with this blog, but I can't help it. As the small school state tournament comes to a close this weekend in Peoria, with Class 1A and Class 2A schools being crowned as state champions, I continue to hear from different people in conversation about how the four classes is giving teams a chance.
The small schools can't compete? No, they can't if they aren't good enough. History shows that small schools can compete. Quit telling me small schools can't compete.
The 2007 Class A Elite Eight had three schools with relatively small enrollments in state champion Maroa-Forsyth (367 students), Mt. Sterling-Brown County (240) and Putnam County (308). In the 2005 Elite Eight tiny Liberty with 185 students finished fourth in the state. In 2003 half of the Class A Elite Eight field had enrollments under 300 students, including Mt Carroll (149 students), Cairo (216 students) and Cissna Park (130 students).
What about state champion Nauvoo-Colusa (136 students) in 1998? Or state champion Warsaw (195 students) in 1997? Those two small schools couldn't compete? That Warsaw team in 1997 had to battle an Elite Eight field that included whopping giants like Nokomis (275 students), Madison (245 students) and Williamsfield (94 students).
The figures go on and on, year after year, including four of the eight schools in the Class A Tournament in 1995 being under 300 students, four of the eight schools in 1991 under 300 students, and Findlay winning a state championship in 1992 with 96 students.
Want more? If the 1990s weren't proof enough you can dip into the next decade to 1987, where -- holy, small schools! -- the first, second and third-place finishers in Class A all had tiny enrollments. The top three finishers that year -- Venice (174 students), Okawville (234 students) and Chrisman (146 students) -- had an average student body among the three of 184. And do you think the beloved Ohio team from 1986 that finished second in the state with 69 students would have been remembered in a four-class system the way they are now?
In 1985 Chrisman finished as the state runner-up with 142 students. The 1984 Elite Eight field in Class A had four schools with enrollments under 300, including second-place finisher Mt. Pulaski with 225 students. In 1983 Flanagan finished second in the state with 132 students in an Elite Eight field that had three other schools under 275 students.
And don't tell me about private schools, either. In the last 30 years there have only been four private schools that have won a small school state championship: Providence St. Mel (1985), Hales Franciscan (2003), Chicago Leo (2004) and Hales Franciscan (2005). And one of those -- Hales in 2005 -- was forfeited.
In a 15-year period from 1990 to 2004 there were 29 schools with enrollments of 304 or fewer students that reached the Class A Elite Eight. Small schools can't compete?
Yes, more small schools that just aren't that good are now getting more opportunities to win regional and sectional plaques. The four classes allows Rochelle, a team that finished fifth in its own conference and lost its last four games of the regular season by an average margin of 18 points a game, to win a regional and advance to a sectional championship in Class 3A.
However, the number of schools that get to experience the state finals in Peoria remain the same. There are still eight small schools in Peoria and eight large schools. What the four classes also did was make it a whole lot easier for the basketball powers in 3A, which includes a few of the Public League powers, St. Joe's, Hillcrest and Peoria area powers, to win regular state championships. We saw Simeon, a school that would have been a 3A school win the 2007 Class AA state title, Marshall in 2008 in 3A and, very likely, North Lawndale this year. Will 3A schools eventually tire of the Public League or the same powers in 3A winning every year? Or are they just happy and content with winning the regional and sectional?
Does winning a regional title mean less to the schools that are winning them today? Probably not. They are loving and living it up just as the schools did a few years back in the two-class system. With that being the thought, however, why stop at four classes? Why not five or six classes? I just don't know what was so wrong with having a regional championship mean something and remaining a goal that was difficult to attain while keeping the special and historical Elite Eight concept alive?
In our society today success is only defined, I guess, by winning. That's sad.