A question of class: Plymouth hosts IHSAA hoops tourney town meeting

PLYMOUTH — Growing up in Carmel in the 1970s and early 80s, Indiana State Senator Mike Delph remembers hearing about Scott Skiles and the Plymouth High School basketball team. So it was no accident that when it came time to pick sites for the Indiana High School Association’s town meeting series on the state basketball tournament, Delph chose Plymouth.
PHS hosted the eighth stop on the IHSAA’s town meeting tour Tuesday, giving coaches, players and community members a chance to stand and be heard in the ongoing debate between keeping the current multi-class format for the state basketball tourney and restoring the former single-class system.
Along with the Pilgrims’ 1982 boys basketball championship, Plymouth also owns the rare distinction of having won state championships under both the old system and the new. In 2007, Plymouth won its second boys title in the Class 3A championship, and the Lady Pilgrims followed with a program-first girls state championship the following year, making PHS an apt venue for the controversial class basketball debate.
“Us being selected was not out of accident. I think that was something that was in the mix, and it is an honor to be in that category. It’s a venue for fans, patrons, coaches to voice their opinion to listen and kind of step up and be counted,” said Plymouth Athletic Director Roy Benge prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
“It’s a good opportunity, a good exchange, a good dialogue. It’s across the state, and it’s across all socio-economic lines.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the latest in a series of 11 stops organized by Delph and IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox to collect feedback on a topic that has been divisive ever since the IHSAA first implemented a multi-class format for the basketball tourney back in 1997-98.
Citing flagging attendance and a general lessening of interest in the state hoops tilt, Delph proposed to remand the IHSAA to restore the old single class format in the Indiana General Assembly’s last legislative session earlier this year. The IHSAA balked at the idea but agreed to gather data and hear public opinions on the issue with a series of town meetings at 11 different high schools beginning with a stop at Fort Wayne Northrop on April 10.
“I think it’s important for us to listen,” said Cox. “That’s what this tour is all about. We have to be able to listen. I think that’s been a criticism of our organization for years, and I’m willing to listen. That doesn’t mean things are going to change immediately; that doesn’t mean that things are going to change next month or next year, but at least we’re listening.”
Speakers at Tuesday’s town meeting expressed a variety of opinions for and against the multi-class system with supporters of the current system invoking issues of fairness for smaller schools and detractors citing the decline in interest and transportation problems as sectional fields have become more diffuse. The attendance was sparse but speakers on both sides underscored the controversy and complexity of the issue.

The good old days
Skiles was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting due to a charity commitment but wrote a letter to Cox arguing in favor of a return to the old system. Skiles’ teammate on the 1982 PHS state championship team Todd Samuelson read the letter and followed up with some pro-single class remarks of his own.
“I was a member of Plymouth’s basketball team that won the state championship in 1982, and I suspect me standing over here, everyone thinks I have a bias, and I probably do,” he said. “What I wanted to speak to is just what has transpired since class basketball has come to the state of Indiana, and while I no longer play I do attend many if not all of the games that I can. We were fortunate enough here in Plymouth to win the state basketball title again under the class system. Those kids, and I know many of them, were very talented and deserved that state title… Under the class system, we’ve had teams from Triton, we’ve had teams from Oregon-Davis that have had the opportunity to experience a title or an opportunity for a title. My observation is one, when I go to the sectionals every year, it’s just not the same. You can talk about winning some state titles, et cetera, but at the local level, the sectional experience has been lost.”
Plymouth basketball coach Ryan Bales was also on hand Tuesday. Bales helped lead North Judson to a regional title in 1995 under the single class system. He has gone on to coach in each of the state’s four basketball classes as an assistant at 4A Noblesville and head coach at Class A Caston, 2A Judson and 3A Plymouth, and he remains in favor of the old format.
“I was one that was sad to see the single class system go,” he said. “At the time we had some great things happen, I was a part of some great teams in high school with a small school and we were able to go compete with the Valpo and Michigan City schools, and it was always a challenge and that was the fun part about it. Even if you lost the game, to me, you’re getting a chance to compete against some very good teams, some very good schools. Since then it’s obviously opened up a lot more opportunities for more schools to have success. We have four champions crowned each year, which is a good thing for schools, but from the standpoint of the tradition and the atmosphere at games, I think things have been impacted with the change. You don’t see the rivalries I feel like as often now. I think the single class tended to keep schools a little bit closer to each other in location, so that obviously would have an impact on the rivalries. In the sectional now with the switching every couple years of teams moving in and out of the class and moving to a different sectional, now it’s really tough to establish those rivalries and teams that the fans want to see compete.”
“We never had the chance to see what we could do against any of the 4A schools — the Warsaws, the Concords — in the tournament. My senior year we made it to the regional round of the tournament, and we played in front of a half-empty gym in Chesterton against Gary Wallace,” echoed 2010 PHS grad Bo Davidson at Tuesday’s meeting. “I would have traded anything to be able to play in a one-class tournament. We would have gone to Elkhart North Side gym for the regional, probably in front of a packed house against our rivals — Warsaw and Concord. I feel like I’ve been shorted by the IHSAA.”

Separate is equal
Proponents of class basketball say its a simple fairness issue, however. They say there’s little chance for smaller schools to compete on a regular basis with bigger programs and that the current system helps level the playing field.
“The students in 2012 are different than 30, 40, 50 years ago. We can’t be serious if we expect a school such as mine with an enrollment of 300 students to compete in the tournament year-in and year-out with a high school that has over 4,500 students and to tell our students that we can win this tournament,” said Culver Community High School principal Albert Hanselman, reading from a prepared statement. “Many of the larger schools in the state today have athletic facilities that some colleges are envious of, and they have as many varsity assistant coaches as we have in our entire athletic program. In fact, one of the larger high schools in our area had more Division I basketball players on its roster in its past season than our high school has enjoyed in the history of our program. The reason the largest schools have more athletic success is not because their kids are more dedicated or have more desire; it’s because they just have more kids. And if you have more kids, you have more opportunity to win at the highest level. It’s simple math.”
“We continue to talk about glorious tradition, and I now realize that we as adults are living in the past,” he added. “Our responsibility is to the students that we serve in our schools today, not reliving our past.”
“I was a junior when we switched to the multi-class tournament, and at first I really wasn’t in favor of it as a player,” said Mason McIntyre, athletic director for Triton High School, which has advanced to the Class A boys state finals three of the past five years and won girls championships in 2000 and 2001. “I didn’t think it was necessarily the best move for us at the time, but then after my senior year, because we won the sectional and it was the first sectional that we had won since 1965 in basketball, that kind of changed my opinion on it pretty quick.
“I think when I look at everything our kids have been able to experience, especially with basketball — our kids have been able to experience playing at Conseco Fieldhouse three different times, we’ve been able because of that success to play at Mackey Arena, we did the game at Grace College with Warsaw — and some of those opportunities I don’t think would have come along if we didn’t have class basketball.”
Others cite the effect tournament success has had on the communities surrounding smaller schools. LaVille Athletic Director Will Hostrawser was the AD at Oregon-Davis when the boys and girls basketball teams both won Class A state championships in 2007.
“I was just fortunate to be a part of it at OD when we won both the girls and boys state title in one year and saw first-hand what it did to the communities and how it drew all the Starke County communities together and how special it was, so I’m a huge proponent for class basketball,” he said.
“I’ll never forget coming back on the bus and the people in the community of North Judson and Knox lining the streets and cheering our kids on. When we had the post-game celebrations in our gym and packing it up with fans just after the fact and seeing the story lines with our players — I still keep in touch with the boys basketball players and the girls basketball players — and we’ll always have that bond. And I think that’s something that only a very limited number of people will get that opportunity in a single class tournament.”

Other solutions
While most opinions tend to be either hardline for or against a return to single class basketball, other proposals are more nuanced.
Some support reinstating the old “Tournament of Champions”, a mini-tournament in which the four class champions played each other to determine an overall state champ in the weekend following the four separate championships, an institution that was eliminated due to lack of interest after just two years in 2000. Others would like to see more rather than fewer classes, with parochial and charter schools separated from the current field. And still others have proposed various hybrid systems.
Earl Mishler, who runs the basketball website “etpearl.com”, has suggested a kind of dual tournament similar to the old state wrestling series in which teams would first play in an open, single-class tournament and move to a three-class tourney once eliminated. Some have suggested a kind of multiplier system, currently in use in other states such as Illinois, which would effectively bump programs who have had continued tournament success up an enrollment class or more. The IHSAA actually considered a similar move but decided to temporarily table the amendment at the association’s annual Board of Directors bylaw review April 30, when it also unanimously rejected the establishment of a separate class for private schools.
Even those who would support reinstating the single-class system acknowledge the difficulties of such a return.
“I think it would be very difficult to go back to single class from where it’s been, but I do believe that the system could be tweaked to benefit everyone involved,” said Bales. “Personally, I guess the way I look at it is class basketball was designed to make things more fair, for more teams to get more opportunities to compete at a certain level. But I think there’s always an issue with private schools. I know it’s a hot topic, and I know other states do a multiplier system and other things. I do think with the way the attendance has been — I went to the state finals this year, and it was not a very good atmosphere at all — I think that there’s got to be something out there. I know either way it’s going to be competitive whether it’s single class or multi-class, but I do feel like there can be some changes made to the current system to make it better.”
“We were one of the schools in the initial vote that voted for single class basketball, and having done this for I don’t know how many years now, it’s always neat to host, it’s always neat to see kids with that smile behind their face, and the community rally behind them, and that’s what the IHSAA’s biggest uphill climb in all this is,” said Benge. “Having had a taste of that at all those levels, are you going to not put that on the table in the future? That’s going to be a tough sell for small communities. We probably are that one community where we’ve had it both ways, and it tasted pretty good both ways, to be honest with you.”

Time for change?
Tuesday’s town meeting provided a forum not only for open discussion on class basketball but a means for the public to make its voice heard via straw poll following the event.
Some on both sides of the issue have argued that whatever changes are made or not made to the state tournament it should be up to the IHSAA and its member schools to decide, not the state government.
Senator Delph gave a rebuttal to those questioning the legitimacy of a possible legislative intervention, invoking Article 8 of the Indiana state constitution as giving the state assembly the authority to make changes to the tournament but stopping short of saying it would.
“Our founding fathers at the state level of government wanted to give us almost absolute control and authority over this area of public education,” he said. “So the question when we had this debate in the Senate Education Committee was not whether we had the authority, but whether we should exercise that or whether we should allow the IHSAA to do their thing. Commissioner Cox made a very courageous decision in going on the road and hearing directly from the public, and I applaud him for that. I was very grateful that he invited me to go on the road with him.”
Cox offered a similarly ambiguous forecast when asked whether or not the IHSAA would in fact change the current system, but he asserted that whatever happens to the tournament, it will be decided by the IHSAA and not the legislature.
“The reality of the situation is the Indiana High School Athletic Association is a private, not-for-profit membership organization of 408 voluntary members who choose to join this association and participate in their activities,” he said. “We have elected representation — 19 members that make up the board of directors and the executive committee representative of all these members, small schools, medium-sized schools, big schools, female representation, minority representation, urban representation — and it’s their charge to make decisions that are in the best interests of student athletes in the state of Indiana. When they get this data, it gives them an opportunity to make this decision. It’s their decision.”