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State tournament shake-up could hurt Hillsboro schools

Eliminating consolation games will limit exposure for non-powerhouse programs


In the world of Oregon high school sports, nothing stays the same. State powers come and go, sports are added are dropped, and playoffs procedures are changed.

Should the OSAA State Championship Committee continue to support and eventually recommend the elimination of consolation and third-place games at volleyball and large-school basketball state tournaments, it will not be the first tournament-related change, only the most recent. But those changes always generate consequences, some of them unintended or unforeseen. Perhaps some of the interest the committee maintains is lacking for consolation play is a byproduct of those changes, which seem to have resulted in a lack of turnover at the top of the state pecking order.

Glencoe athletic director Scott Ellis maintains that staleness is a factor in current interest.

“What happens is there’s complacency because the same teams are there,” he said. “It’s not even a big deal anymore. But you get a team like (the) Glencoe (girls) ... a couple years ago we were there. It’s a big deal for us.”

The 2003-04 season was the first in which the OSAA reduced the basketball fields at the state tournament sites from 16 to eight. The organization was still operating under the old four-classification system back then, expanding to the current six-class model for the 2006-07 school year.

After the expansion, tournament site fields remained at eight teams, which seems logical considering the reduction in the number of teams in most classifications. The large-school levels (6A, 5A and 4A) all have about 40 schools each, give or take, so offering 16-team tournament fields appears to be a little excessive.

Back in the four-classification days, the OSAA utilized a completely different playoff format than it does today. Teams qualified for the state playoffs based on league play and then matched up in blind draws to determine which league’s particular seeds played each other in the playoffs. That sometimes resulted in barnburner matchups in earlier playoff rounds — such as when strong teams from the best and deepest leagues met up — that would knock out some of the top-ranked squads.

That system sometimes allowed for lesser regarded teams to keep advancing while better teams in other parts of the bracket stayed home because of an unlucky draw. The flipside of that, though, is that a more random system than the one now in place may have allowed for more variation in the late rounds.

Now, the OSAA may be a victim of its own success regarding the power rankings, the current system by which basketball and volleyball playoff matchups are determined. Without going into minutiae, that generally means the top-ranked teams in the playoff field start off by playing the worst-ranked teams, while middle-ranked teams play each other.

“Pretty much, it’s all set up to get you to the finals, because they want the best teams there,” Ellis said.

That can mean that squads such as Century, last season’s Pacific Conference boys basketball runner-up, face a difficult climb to the state tournament by playing in a weaker league, which drags on the team’s power ranking.

The Jaguars went 11-3 in league play, but were ranked just 19th at the end of the regular season and had to travel to Central Catholic in the round of 16. They lost 78-70 in overtime to the Rams, who went on to make the state final.

Some might argue that since the team was ranked No. 19, it got knocked out when it was supposed to, but that does not seem to tell the whole story. The Jaguars were clearly of enough quality to push the eventual state runner-up to the limit, and part of the reason they were ranked 19th to begin with was because of a down conference.

In another system, Century might well have advanced to the Rose Garden.

“For a school like us, you never know how many opportunities you’re going to get, because there’s always going to be a core group of four or five that are probably almost always going to be in there,” Century coach Scott Kellar said.

A system advancing the best teams to the state tournament clearly has merit — after all, the point of the tournaments is to determine state champions. What may be the heart of the issue is that the best teams seem to be the same teams year after year.

For example, in the past four years, a total of 32 berths have been available in the Class 6A girls basketball tournament. Oregon City took up four spots by qualifying each year. And Central Catholic, St. Mary’s Academy, South Medford and Tigard qualified three times apiece. That means that just five schools occupied 16 spots — a full half of the available berths. Given that Jesuit, Westview, Beaverton, Clackamas and South Eugene qualified twice each, a total of just 10 Class 6A schools snatched up more than 80 percent of the classification’s state tournament berths over the past four seasons.

The Class 5A girls state tournament has largely looked the same over the past four years as well. Hermiston, Willamette and West Albany advanced four times each, while Springfield, Bend and Wilsonville made the big dance three times apiece. So six schools occupied almost two-thirds of the berths.

Even in the 6A boys field, Jesuit, West Linn, Lincoln and South Medford occupied 13 spots, and another four more schools took two each. So over the past four years, the same eight schools have taken up 21 berths at the Rose Garden.

It may be a lot to ask of the same student bodies to keep showing up to games, especially consolation ones. And seeing the same teams advance year after year probably does little to stir interest among casual fans without strong ties to these schools.

Something that also deserves some consideration is whether a one-and-done tournament format would perpetuate the trend of the same schools advancing to the tournament. After all, common wisdom does hold that “having been there before” can be helpful in performance.

“The more time you can get on that floor and the opportunity to play in those big games, the more it’s going to help you the following year,” Kellar noted.

That certainly held true for Century several years ago. Starting four juniors, the Jaguars went two-and-out at the 2008 Class 5A boys state tournament. The team returned the next year and advanced all the way to the title game, where they fell to a powerhouse Jefferson squad.

“Losing two in a row definitely left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth, but I think it maybe motivated them all to work even harder in the offseason and then hope to get back,” Kellar said.

The championship committee will not make a recommendation to the OSAA until early next year. Its final meeting is scheduled for Jan. 13. Keeping the basketball and volleyball tournaments financially viable is certainly important — for both the organization and its member schools — and how to do it is a tough task, especially with so many competing interests and implications.

Those are some things that don’t change.



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