Every year about this time, my cellphone ringtone, which I change often due to boredom, goes between the previous CBS-TV NCAA basketball theme and the best thing John Tesh ever composed, “Roundball Rock” (which younger readers may recognize as Nelly’s “Heart of a Champion”).
The WIAA state boys basketball tournament, which starts on St. Patrick’s Day, is the first non-Packers sporting event I recall watching on TV. (Which means it was the first sporting event I recall watching on TV, blanket over the south-facing living room picture window, with my father not getting upset over the incompetence of the post-Super Bowl II Packers, who were in the first stretch of the two-decades-long Gory Years.) I’m not sure which state tournament I watched first, and I’m pretty sure there was no specific rooting interest, but if for no reason than the fact that state was on instead of soap operas, I was transfixed. A high school friend and I even remember the unnamed theme music on WKOW-TV (channel 27) in Madison for Thursday 1 p.m. games, Friday 2 p.m. games, and, once Class C games were moved, “Breakfast at the Fieldhouse,” the Friday 9 a.m. small-school games, which often are more worth watching than the Division I games, certainly from this area’s perspective.
Almost 45 years after I first started watching (and 35 years after I attended my first state games my freshman year in high school), postseason girls and boys basketball, even in the early rounds, is an excellent example of what ABC-TV’s Jim McKay called “the human drama of athletic competition” at the opening of every “Wide World of Sports.” That was the part after Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj stopped his ski jump the really hard way during “the agony of defeat” part.
“The agony of defeat” describes a senior whose high school career ends at the final buzzer this month, often accompanied with tears. (Or, last week, when she fouls out of her last game, as I saw twice. The ovation for Belmont’s Brooke Knebel after she fouled out in Shullsburg Friday proves the contrary, in at least one instance, to claims of deteriorating sportsmanship.) “The thrill of victory” describes winners who get to, to quote Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson, “survive and advance,” but particularly unexpected (at least to others) winners, like the Potosi girls after beating higher-seeded Six Rivers West rivals in successive nights.
Other things you might not have expected to see include the Platteville girls, having given up 80 points to Richland Center in their first meeting, giving up 76 points to the Hornets in their next two meetings, including, most pertinently, Saturday’s 52–39 regional final win. This year’s team has done two things no Hillmen girls basketball team has ever done together — win a conference title (their second, the first three years ago) and a regional title (their first since 1992). The 1992 regional title came eight years after the 1983–84 Hillmen didn’t win their conference title, but got not just a regional title, but the really big trophy presented then at the UW Fieldhouse, and now at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Another thing you might not expect to see, but did this week, was a team traveling nearly three hours for a regional quarterfinal game. And yet, Nekoosa High School, seeded 11th, was lined up against Platteville High School, seeded sixth. (Similar to the Division 1 games Friday between Hudson and Oshkosh North, and between Eau Claire North and Neenah.) That is the unintended (one assumes) result of (1) expanding to five divisions a few years ago and (2) seeding by half-sectional. The former was to make the playoff field more fair, by that year’s definition. (That is, the difference in enrollment between schools at opposite ends of what then was Division 1, 20 years after the field expanded from three classes to four divisions because of the difference in enrollment between schools at opposite ends of what then was Class C). Half-sectional (semisectional? hemisectional?) seeding was to make the field within each sectional seeded more fairly. I think the latter has been achieved, but win or lose, writing this before the game I predict a group of 15 zombies, plus their coaches, at Nekoosa High School today. (Think of it as like a UW–Platteville basketball game at Stevens Point on a Wednesday night.)
State is a sign of spring, which makes the regional and sectional rounds a sign of a sign of spring. (Even though often accompanied by winter-like weather, like the thundersnowsleethail a couple of years ago in early March, or the ice storm that hit while my high school was on the way to ending Stevens Point’s undefeated number-one-ranked season not undefeated and not number-one-ranked.) For those who think three days of two state tournaments is a long time, consider that Iowa’s state tournaments last one week each. Scheduling your life around a week-long state tournament must give new meaning to the term “March Madness.”