View from the Bleachers: VHSL needs to rethink basketball

As the Edison girls’ basketball game against Highland Springs wound to a close Wednesday, a colleague of mine from The Richmond Times Dispatch tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the stands at the far end of the court. Woodson High’s renowned Cavalry was pouring into the gym, their white T­-shirts and face paint creating a formidable sea of uniformity in preparation for the next game.

“Can you believe how many they brought?”

I shook my head in amazement, but then I looked to the other end of the court, where casual spectators of varying ages scattered the bleachers.

“You should have seen the place last week,” I replied.

That’s when the irony of the situation hit me. Wasn’t this supposed to be the state tournament? The Final Four, even? Why was I ribbing my fellow reporter about last week’s regional competition?

Nothing about last Saturday’s state semifinal action at Robinson Secondary had the makings of high school basketball’s biggest stage. Boys and girls games were alternating back and forth, mixing various classifications and confusing spectators to the point where even one of the reporters next to me kept needing to clarify which teams were playing where and when.

Even the stage itself seemed odd. Rather than unfold in a college arena — as the state final four has traditionally done — Saturday’s games were held in Robinson’s gym, same as last week’s 6A North Region semifinals. It was my fourth time covering Woodson at that gym this season, and it wasn’t even the best attended of the four, not even close.

For all Woodson’s hard work, for all the obstacles they had to overcome and tragedies they needed to reconcile, this is what they ended up with: a veritable home defeat in the state final four. Despite making it just as far as they did last year, the Cavaliers never even got out of the county.

Maybe it was the heartbreaking way in which Woodson lost Saturday’s game, or the fact that every local team met its downfall over the weekend, but I emerged from Robinson’s gym feeling decidedly underwhelmed. Could that have been what this whole winter was building toward? Was that it?

No, that wasn’t it. Saturday’s postseason basketball jamboree — or whatever you want to call it — was only part of the problem. The real truth is that the state basketball tournament as a whole has devolved into a farcical shadow of its former self, watered down by a rushed reclassification process that went into effect last fall.

The Virginia High School League’s reclassification has lowered competition in state tournaments across multiple sports, but nothing has been affected quite like the hardwood. All the traditional powers have been cast into lower divisions, while bigger schools are left to fight for a 6A trophy with considerably less luster than its predecessor, the AAA crown.

Just how watered down is the state tournament for our local public schools, nearly all of which now compete in Division 6A? The boys don’t have to worry about any of the state finalists from the past five years, while the girls no longer need to fear Princess Anne or Lake Taylor, winners of four of the last five state championships. Richmond and Virginia Beach-area schools like Henrico, Hampton, I.C. Norcom, Highland Springs and King’s Fork now dwell in Divisions 5A and 4A, while other traditional blue bloods like Petersburg and John Marshall have tumbled all the way to 3A.

T.C. Williams’ 2008 triumph makes the Titans the only 6A North team to win a boys state title since Robert E. Lee High did it in 1981. Oakton, meanwhile, is the only 6A North girls program to win a state title since 2000. Now that the VHSL is crowning six state champions instead of three, T.C. Williams and Oakton are two of 26 6A North Region schools competing in a statewide field of 52 schools, a pool more than twice as small as the old AAA field. Clearly, the road to a state title has become far easier than it used to be, even if everybody around here happened to lose this year.

The state championships that are sure to come to our local basketball teams in future years will be sweet, but they won’t carry the same weight. Before this season, winning the state tournament used to be kind of like winning the NCAA Tournament: to do it you had to get through schools big and small, of varying basketball pedigrees and traditions. Now it’s more like winning a conference championship: get through those familiar schools of like size and you’ll be golden.

The fan experience has also been diminished. Traveling down to Richmond for the state final four used to instill excitement, as fans knew they would get a rare glimpse at each team vying to qualify for the championship game. Players relished the chance to watch unfamiliar opponents before and after their games, all in the confines of a state­-of-­the­-art venue that’s home to one of the country’s most elite college basketball programs.

With the new format, a trip to Richmond for a state semifinal game is no longer so appealing. Rather than play each game on the same day, the VHSL now spreads the semifinals over three days, with teams in the same classification playing on different days. Casual fans curious about last Friday’s Lake Braddock/Colonial Forge game faced at least five hours of round­-trip driving to see a one­-and-­a­-half hour contest that the Bruins were likely to lose anyway.

Only two buses of Lake Braddock students came down, and crowds on both sides were lackluster at best. The Siegel Center would have been rocking if Woodson and Landstown had joined the party. Woodson’s fans travel well — as seen in their state semifinal last year — and more Landstown fans would have made the considerably shorter trip to Richmond. Landstown would have enjoyed a much fairer neutral site, while Woodson would have appreciated the opportunity to make long­-lasting memories at a venue that validated the season­-long journey that got them there.

The format also subtracts urgency from region championship games. Region finalists are now guaranteed spots in the state final four, so where’s the motivation to win the region? Lake Braddock players and fans seemed to lack fire against a Woodson team they were playing for the fourth time this season. You can bet the game would have been more competitive had there been more at stake.

When it comes to implementing its sweeping changes, the VHSL is clearly learning on the fly, something seen in Lake Braddock’s changed tipoff time the day before Friday’s semifinal. If they want to get this thing right, more change should be on the way.

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