There’s a joke that some West Virginians use when they call Virginia the “mother ship.” True enough the State of West Virginia was formed out of the State of Virginia when West Virginia refused to leave the union during the Civil War and fight on the side of the confederacy. That put the Hatfields on the West Virginia side securely aligned with the North, while the McCoys on the Kentucky side fought on the side of the South. Hence one of the things that started the famous “feud.”
West Virginia is either the Northern most Southern state or the Southern most Northern state. I tend to believe it is the later. Having lived in both states, West Virginia just doesn’t feel like the “South” to me seeing that in exactly 4 hours from the southern most point of the state, you can be in Pittsburgh.
And for as much as a bad rap that the State of West Virginia takes at times and frankly some of it they bring on themselves with their ridiculous taxation and highways that haven’t been improved since the Civil War, there is one area where West Virginia completely blows the “mother ship” off the map. And, that’s the State Basketball Tournament.
Staring tomorrow, West Virginia begins a two week celebration of a sport the state absolutely loves, basketball. Ladies first as the State Girls’ Tournament opens a four day run at the Charleston Civic Center followed by the State Boys’ Tournament next Wednesday through Saturday.
Everything about the State Tournament has a big time feel to it. It’s played in a 15,000 seat arena in the State Capital, the teams are treated like royalty by the Civic Center staff, and the games are broadcast on a state-wide radio network (which eliminates the inevitable local “hooger boy” broadcast) with a professional broadcast you just don’t see on high school sports.
It’s a gathering place not just for the parents and students of the respective schools, but there are people who have no allegiance to any of the teams who come to watch because it’s traditional to do so.
It’s not perfect. There’s been a long conflict between the private parochial schools like Wheeling Central Catholic and Charleston Catholic and the small public schools such as Summers County. In West Virginia, the private schools (mostly in Class A) play for what’s commonly known as the “public school championship.” The public schools don’t think it’s fair that the private schools – who can and do recruit – play in the same division with them. Unlike Virginia where a private school can only play with the public schools if it follows specific rules, West Virginia’s private schools are not restricted to getting their players from the same geographical area as the public school in their area. So Wheeling Central can and does have players from Ohio and Pennsylvania on their roster.
And the public schools do have a point. Of the past 28 girls’ champions in Class A (West Virginia’s smallest division), 26 have been private schools led by Huntington’s St. Joseph’s school which won 7 titles in a row from 2009 to 2015. On the boys’ side, 16 of the past 20 Class A champions have been private schools.
Despite that obvious problem, the State of West Virginia puts on a show in Charleston while Virginia puts on a “shit show” and the reason comes down to four little letters V-H-S-L.
The Virginia High School League is allegedly the governing body of high school sports in the Commonwealth. But, you wouldn’t know it by the lack of leadership coming from State Farm Boulevard in Charlottesville. The VHSL is a spineless, rudderless organization which purports to be in charge of high school sports, but gives back all its power to the various Districts and Regions across the State. It also routinely thinks that it’s a good idea to allow those same Districts and Regions to have 0-10 teams qualify for the Football playoffs because god knows in this “soccer mom” world we can’t actually have kids working to accomplish something.
As an example, two 0-10 teams made the post-season in football last year. They finished 0-11. In 1984, Salem High School went 9-1 and you know how many playoff games they won in 1984? None, because they didn’t make it.
The VHSL’s general philosophy appears to be that they are going to hold a state championship on “x” date so you guys figure out how to get a team here. And that results in a hodge podge of trash that defines logic and common sense.
While West Virginia brings all the state qualifiers into a big arena for the experience of a lifetime, the VHSL quarterfinals and semi-finals in high school basketball are played at neutral sites in the area of the higher seeded team. The result is that what could be best described as a “regular season” game dressed up as a state tournament. The kids are robbed of their accomplishments because someone in Charlottesville can’t figure out the basketball tournament.
It’s been a mess for years now. In all fairness, the VHSL used to put on a state tournament in one location (typically at University Hall in Charlottesville) when there were just three classifications. Since expanding to six classifications (which for any sport other than football is too much) they’ve given up trying.
After six classifications began, it used to be that the VHSL put the quarterfinal round in a “super site” and that seemed to work well. There were multiple games at one location among various classifications – both boys and girls – in a bigger arena and at least had the feel of a state tournament.
Since someone in Charlottesville couldn’t leave well enough alone, they then made the decision to put each classification’s quarterfinals and semi-finals in a designated site. It was a complete disaster. You had a team in Sussex Central (near the Atlantic Coast) travelling over 350 miles to play their quarterfinal game in Bristol, right on the Tennessee border. Roanoke’s Northside High School under the old system would have played its quarterfinal at the nearby “super site” Salem Civic Center. Instead they had to go all the way to Richmond to play its quarterfinal and then a few days later go right back to Richmond for the State Semi-Finals. When he was asked about it VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun (once a football coach at Richlands High School) could only say that “we can’t have that.” Way to be a leader Billy.
The VHSL tried under the super site concept to have the semi-finals and finals – for both the boys’ and girls’ – played in the same week in Richmond. Yep, another disaster. Teams were playing on Tuesday morning at 10:00 am.
So now we have the biggest disaster of them all. Teams go all across the state to play quarterfinal and semi-finals games wherever the host school can find a neutral gym. And I said gym. Yes the State Semi-Finals beginning tonight in Virginia will in most cases be played in high school gyms. In Southwest Virginia, Carroll County High School and Pulaski County High School will play in the State Girls’ Class 4 Semi-Finals in the gym at Galax High School. The young ladies who have no doubt worked their asses off and dreamed of being on this stage in their lives get the memory of the lifetime in Galax. And that’s just one of a number of sites hosting semi-finals.
The winners do advance to play for the championship at VCU’s Seigel Center in Richmond so yes at least 24 teams between both genders will get to compete for a championship on a big floor and you might think there’s no way that the VHSL could possibly mess that up, right? You’d be wrong. The State Finals will be played Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at VCU because the owner of the Arena – VCU – needs it to play St. Joseph’s in an Atlantic-10 game on Friday night. Can you imagine any other state in the country putting the state tournament in a place where it is interrupted so the tenant of the building can actually use it. Didn’t they check on this before they put the finals there? We interrupt your tournament for a game between our school and a school where the hawk mascot never stops flapping his wings because the “hawk will never die.”
There is no perfect system, but with a little creativity the VHSL could make the tournament a center piece of a celebration of basketball in Virginia. Nothing says that the girls have to play the same week as the boys. Hell give the ladies their own week because they deserve it. Nothing says all 6 classifications have to be in the same location. The VHSL splits up championships by classifications in other sports. So, why not basketball? At least, they get to feel like they are going to the state tournament rather than to a nearby gym.
Other states figure it out, so why can’t Virginia. It appears because they don’t want to and for guidance they just need to look to the West because in this case the mother ship looks lost and the kids pay the price for the VHSL taking the path of least resistance or is that supreme incompetence?