The Alaska School Activities Association has done a great job making the state 3A and 4A basketball championships the centerpiece of the high school athletics championship season. For my money, though, you can't beat the atmosphere you find at the tournament ASAA hasn't made into such a big deal -- the 1A and 2A tournament.
I'll admit it. I like rooting for the little guys. And the ASAA State 1A and 2A Basketball Championships at Service High School last weekend was a great place to watch the biggest little guys in the state.
The small-schools tournament is a lot like a race car -- stripped down to the essentials. Six-disc in-dash CD changer? Don't need it. Leather seats? Custom alloy rims? Air conditioning? Remote starter? Forget about it -- all these guys need is an engine, a gas tank, four tires and a steering wheel and they're off and running. And as far as I could tell, even brakes were an unnecessary option.
The small-schools tournament isn't much on frills. You won't see any cheerleaders or pep bands or dance teams at halftime. The public address announcer pipes in "Jock Jams," but more often than not, it's drowned out by the crowd. Games are played in a stuffy high school gym, not the more glamorous Sullivan Arena.
The small-schools tournament is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of event, and what you get is a zealously enthusiastic crowd packed into a high school gym cheering wildly for every dribble, bounce pass and shot.
I'll concede that many of the players on the court for the small-schools tournament might not make the junior varsity squads at the state's larger schools.
Still, the basketball is exciting. Just about every game is close, perhaps because the schools truly are the same size -- there's no Mat-Su and Anchorage vs. the rest of the state disparity at play.
Then there's the fact that the players on every team actually live in the communities they represent. There just aren't many athletes taking advantage of Alaska's open transfer rules at this level, picking a school based on how far they think it will get them.
Instead, they're putting their all into getting their school as far as it can go, hustling up and down the court with reckless abandon.
Basketball at the 1A and 2A level doesn't always have the same disciplined play that marks some the top 4A teams in the state. Then again, because the player pool is limited, teams generally find ways to play to their strengths, changing tactics instead of trying to force players to do things they're not capable of doing. If all you've got is shooting guards, then go ahead, take your shots. With perhaps the notable exception of the Kenai Central boys, small-schools players are more willing to put up the treys or push the ball up the court on a fast break instead of setting up in a half-court offense.
The communities support their teams with fervor. Part of what makes the atmosphere at the tournament so much fun is that everybody packed into the gym has a rooting interest in the game, if not because they're supporting a specific team, then because they simply can't get enough basketball.
The spectators that show up at the 1A and 2A tournaments are basketball junkies. For example, at the District 3/2A tournament hosted by Cook Inlet Academy, a quick perusal of the gym would have revealed several area 3A and 4A basketball coaches in attendance, as well as numerous players from the area's larger schools, folks who just wanted to get out and see some basketball.
So next year, when the big schools, and all the hoopla that goes with them, are done with the hard court for the season, I'll load up the car for another trip to the big city.
But I'll ditch the CD changer first.
Will Morrow covers sports for the Peninsula Clarion. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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