Locker Room: Time to put playoffs back at home sites?

     Is the current playoff system fair? Don’t get me wrong. The VHSL has nothing but good intentions. But I believe that VHSL playoffs in all major sports need to be evaluated. I’m speaking of where the games are played and the decision making process.
     Take the present ongoing state basketball tournament in all classifications. Auburn was in the Class 1 semifinal. They had to go all the way Wise County to play Grundy Tuesday. Congrats to the Eagles for making the final.
     Under the current playoff system a team can win its region and get the home region advantage so to speak, but some school’s home region advantage is greater than others. In the state basketball tournament the championship games will be played in Richmond, but only the six finals for both boys and girls. The rest will be played at locations of the earned region home court.
     Insurance Center of Dublin 10 4 copyThis is basically a rural vs. urban situation. If your school is located around Richmond, Roanoke, Tidewater, or most anywhere in the northern region you don’t care. You have earned the home court for your region, but you can’t play on your home court. You must play at some other site within your region, but you hardly leave your neighborhood.
    So what does that mean? It means that Loudoun Valley has its region home court advantage and it moves its game to another school in Loudoun County basically a five-minute drive away. There are 13 high schools in that single county. Pulaski County’s girls won the same region advantage, but had to play in Christiansburg. Nothing wrong with CHS, but that’s a 30-miunte to 40-minute drive for some Cougar fans. Still, PCHS had a great crowd, and plenty of support, but the game should have just been played on the Cougars’ home court.
     If you are the higher seeded team and you have earned the home court why not just play the game there? I understand the VHSL tries very hard to be politically correct. It is the public school system and I understand the attitude, but doesn’t making a buck come into play somewhere down the line? Maybe we should try to earn a dollar instead of just spending dollars all the time.
     Just go ahead and play the games at home sites, sell a bunch of tickets, make some money, and be able to better provide for public high school sports. Either that or put the entire tournament at a central location. Do you think that will happen? No, you don’t and I don’t either. Why? Money!
    The travel situation and cost is unfair to rural schools and certainly to the families and fans of those schools. The Halifax boys team had the region home court and still had to drive over an hour to play the game. Like a lot of things in Virginia, things are more difficult for the southwest region of the state. There needs to be a better understanding.
     And I’m not just talking basketball. I subscribed to a closed circuit setup and watched all six state championship football games. Class six and five were played in Hampton and the fan turnout was horrific. Which is to say there were very few.
     In Class three and four in Lynchburg there was a nice crowd for the Class 3 matchup between Lord Botetourt and Hopewell, no doubt because it was close to Botetourt County. Two hours later when Tuscarora and Lake Taylor played for the class 4 title, you could hear fans voices echoing off the concrete. It was a horribly small crowd. If Pulaski County played just a regular season home game and the crowd was that small, there would be a panic.
     The largest attended state championship game was obviously Class 1, Galax vs. Riverheads in Salem. The championship game between the two smallest schools had the largest attendance. Just think about that. It makes no sense, but then it does. Just like what happened in Lynchburg for the Class 3 game. Rural communities support their local schools more than people support urban schools. If somebody wants to argue that, show me the numbers.
     So if rural communities support the best, then why not try to be a little more understanding to those people. They do the traveling, they buy the tickets. Northern Virginia is the highest populated region in Virginia, but they didn’t drive down to see Tuscarora play in Lynchburg, and that’s not a bad trip at all. Nobody from Newport News came down to watch Lake Taylor either. If the four class 5 and 6 schools had any sugnificent support at all in Hampton, it was hard to see. A regular season home game in Dobson Stadium would outdraw four of the six state championship games last fall. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
    Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of people that wanted to see the state title games put at major venues. I was one of them. I thought it was a great idea. Pulaski County would get in the playoffs and if the game was two hours away we were happy. The travel was that bad. I remember the trips to Richmond, to Fairfax, to Woodbridge and so on.
     But even four hours from home, I remember something else very vividly. Pulaski County had by far the most fans even though it was so far from home. The local more urban schools didn’t even have half the support of Pulaski County’s football team even though the game was in their own backyard. The Cougars took over, not only on the field, but around the field with their fan support. It wouldn’t be any different today either. That brings us back to who supports high school athletics. It’s rural America.
     And things change in time. I think the state championship football games should be played on home fields now. That way you at least have a state championship type crowd, the setting would feel special, certainly expenses for the VHSL would have a sharp decline, and you would have excitement, fans! A crowd of 2,000 people in a 20,000 seat stadium is not very exciting and it doesn’t look good. And if you spend less, and make more, the result is more profit, and that should mean good things for the kids that play sports, and the VHSL.
     In this opinion there was just not enough excitement at many venues during state championship Saturday this past football season. I’m sure all the teams gave their all, but a state championship afternoon should also mean there’s a great atmosphere around the game, and fans in the stands! The VHSL needs to look at the playoff system, and it certainly needs to try and be more understanding to the rural areas of the state. If the playoffs were more profitable, maybe we wouldn’t be looking to make cuts in other areas.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot