Watching the latest edition of the Iowa Girls State Basketball Tournament made me appreciate living through some of its best years. It was tough to turn on the 2010 event as I know how great this one week of basketball use to be, and what it meant to Iowans.
The Girls Tournament I remember promoted the "Iowa Girl" and showcased her talents. The "Iowa Girl" was a brand before brands were marketed and the entire week was about her.
My first recollection of the week-long experience was its nickname, "the Sweet Sixteen." Sixteen schools from Iowa fought their way to play in the capital city. To make it to Des Moines meant you were the best from your area. One team could play four times in the first week just to make it out of their district. It may take another three games to qualify for state. Once at state there were no classes and the smallest of communities may have to battle a school from a major metropolitan area.
Once in Des Moines the state's focus centered on these sixteen teams for five days. Opening-round games were on the first two days followed by the quarters on Thursday, semis on Friday. On Saturday the consolation preceded the championship, each on a state-wide television network, just like the semi-final games. As the week progressed tickets were harder to come by. Not only fans of the participating teams would be on hand, but other high school teams from around the state came to watch the team from their area battle schools that they only hear about in the newspapers. Also, farming families would make a week out of this tournament. It wasn't out of the ordinary to find rural moms and dads spend the week in Des Moines just to watch the best the state had.
The state's media turned out in droves. Local radio stations and newspapers shared press row with broadcasters who also were the voices of the state's largest universities. For many years people like Jim Zabel and Frosty Mitchell, who were also known as the play by play voices for the Iowa Hawkeyes would also broadcast the state finals who may make up the smallest of communities. But to these girls and towns, it meant everything.
While at the tournament it was all about those playing the game. With sixteen teams, and the state's interest it was easy to get to know a young lady from a small high school miles away. One time scoring leader Lynne Lorenzen from Ventura made a name for herself as a freshman when she and her sister advanced to state. Although losing in the first round, fans of the game from around the state knew of Lorenzen and followed her career.
The in-tournament pageantry was provided by young ladies and gentlemen from throughout the state. High School drill teams, vocal groups and jazz bands was the entertainment. Awards given out were to the athletes who achieved not only in basketball, but in other sports. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony was a big deal. At halftime of the championship game the lights were dimmed and spotlights on the newest inductees. The awards were nicknamed the "Victoria's," a feminine way to say Victory. The Iowa Girls Basketball Tournament was the high profile event for the Iowa Girls Union. And at the end of the week the all-tournament team was a selection of the best athletes the state had to offer.
But the latest tournament offered a difficult watch. Regardless of the game changing to five-player, many of the qualities that set it apart has vanished.
Instead of one champion, there are now four, one representing a different classification. With redistricting and consolidating of schools it is an easier path to state than twenty-five years ago. The argument is to give smaller schools a competitive advantage to winning a state title, but there have been times over the years I would like to see a 1A team battle their "bigger sister" for the right to say they are best in the state. The field has doubled from its "sweet sixteen" days to 32 and four state championships. Games starting early Monday morning, lasting through to Saturday night.
The awards have lost their identity. The presentation for Hall of Fame has lost its specialness. Done early on Friday night, they were announced following a presentation given to a long-time referee. He received the Jack North Award, an honor that at one time was presented to a basketball and softball player. I don't recall any male receiving an honor at the state tournament in the glory days of the tournament.
Announcing the games on tv is a core of announcers that can be seen doing all of the other state tournaments, male or female. The current play by play man will work next week's boys tournament as well as already calling the state wrestling and football play-offs.
Jazz bands, drill teams and vocal groups have been replaced by pre-recorded music. While lifting the championship trophy, each winning team was serenaded to "We Are the Champions." Although this is a generation of players who are better motivated by this type of music, it has cut out the opportunities for others throughout the state to showcase their talents in front of an audience unfamiliar to them.
And finally corporate sponsors have taken over the tournament. The Girls Union now has a corporate sponsor tag put on them. Farm Bureau is seen all over the tournament with the head of the company, Craig Lang handing out the medals to the all-tournament teams of each class. Pizza Ranch awards the most outstanding player in each class while the Iowa Pork Producers present a grilling package to the "Fan of the Game" in each class.
I cringe now every time I tune in to watch the Girls State Basketball tournament in Iowa. I'm glad I can appreciate how good it once was, and it is too bad that today's athlete don't know what they are missing.
(picture from the 1993 tournament. Montezuma v Atlantic. The last year of the Six-Player tournament at Veterans Memorial Auditorium)