Commentary: Metro all-star teams are problem, not four-class, with state hoops

by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

“Putting students first” is the motto of the Minnesota State High School League. It’s an appropriate posture to take, and state basketball tournament week is a good time to remember that.

Every year you hear radio talk show hosts  yammering about the tournament was ruined by going to multiple class and how the much-smaller crowds these days prove it was a mistake and how they’d probably watch if there was a chance to see an Edgerton win a one-class tournament again. People who haven’t been to a high school game in 20 years but want to make the rules, who think prep tournaments should be run like professional franchises.

Such decisions are, and should be, made by people intimately involved in prep sports week after week, year after year, people who, unlike these critics, care about the kids, and recognize that Zimmerman competing against Hopkins would be inherently unfair, that for every Edgerton story you’ve got a hundred Edina stories.

So, WCCO, KFAN, KSTP, it’s fun listening to your take on pro and college sports, but when it comes to the preps, put a sock in it, OK? Forty-six of 50 states have multiple classes, most between four and eight. Only Kentucky, Delaware, North Dakota and Rhode Island are still one-class in basketball.

The smaller crowds now are not just due to multiple classes. Until the 1970’s the boys tournament had absolutely no competition for  attention. The NCAA’s were a puny, untelevised event then. We had no pro team. Boys hoops was the only state tournament of any note, all year, with no girls sports, and with hockey and wrestling tourneys barely noticed because few schools had teams. The only other winter meets were boys swimming, skiing and gymnastics. And TV’s had only three channels then.

Quit complaining already. Elvis ain’t coming back, and neither are those big crowds, one-class or not. In fact, they tried one-class in 1995-96 with the Sweet Sixteen format and it had no impact on attendance. All that experiment accomplished was to deny Fertile-Beltrami what would have been the only state title in any sport in the school’s history. Rather than finish 28-0 as Class A champ, the little  burg  was buried 81-48 in the finals by a metro area all-star team, Minneapolis North.

Speaking of metro all-star teams … that’s what makes me squeamish, not multiple classes. Last week, DeLaSalle, Providence Academy, and Maranatha Christian Academy swept 3A, 2A and 1A girls titles, the second straight for both DLS and MCA, with each of the three likely to win again next year.

Covering the state tourney for MN BB News, I know that these are top-notch kids getting quality educations and excellent coaching But you have to wonder, did all  this  talent from around the metro area wind up at the same schools by coincidence? Is this why the smaller classes were created, for metro private schools to assemble powerhouse lineups to beat up on the small  towns?

It’s true that open-enrollment allows athlete movement in public schools, too, but in small-town culture that just isn’t done, at least nowhere near as commonly as in the cities. My hometown New London-Spicer, has 14 state trips (two championships) and a 25-win average in girls hoops during the last 28 years, the kind of  program that would attract streams of top-notch cagers to transfer if it were a metro private school, but NLS has had exactly one player move in during 28 years and only because the family bought a resort in the area.

It’s tough for even an outstanding country team, like Fergus Falls, which lost to DLS in the semi’s, and Sauk Centre and Mountain-Iron-Buhl, who lost to Providence and Maranatha, respectively, in the finals, to compete with metro privates like these. It’s been like that in many other sports, too, especially tennis in Class A, for years.

This will never happen, but a rule that would require any team using players from outside a certain mile radius to compete in Class 4A would be, my opinion again, “putting students first” by creating a more level playing field. Or at least, start a policy to list each player’s hometown in the state tourney program, like they do for college teams.