The winter prep sports season is long. Girls basketball games begin in early-to-mid-November; the big school boys state tournament runs through at least the middle of March.
Even if you like high school hoops, and I certainly do, it’s easy to find regular-season games monotonous and repetitive around this time of year. Occasionally, there will be a match up that really gets my juices flowing, and what seems like pedestrian tilts going in can sometimes turn into thrillers, but there is a lot of blah on the schedule in the last week or two of January.
One positive aspect of the winter sports season, which makes it seem shorter, is that it gets divided. The first few weeks consist of Thanksgiving tournaments. There are then a few weeks of regular play, followed by holiday tournaments and a couple of short stretches without games.
In the Interstate Eight and Little Ten conferences, the season gets broken up further when conference tournaments are staged around this time of year. It’s something I wish would happen in the other conferences we cover, such as the Northern Illinois Big 12 and the Southwest Prairie.
I think the benefits of conference tournaments are many. They give teams an additional goal at which they can take aim. They sometimes give two teams legitimate bragging rights within their conference. If everyone travels to a neutral, centralized site, and teams play each other once instead of twice during the regular season because of the tournament, they can reduce travel.
And they’re exciting. I was on the beat when the Coal City girls won their third I-8 tournament title last week in Braidwood. It wasn’t the most thrilling I-8 tournament I’ve ever covered, to be honest; all of its wins were by comfortable margins, and the weather helped keep the crowds down. Still, the atmosphere in Thursday’s championship win over Peotone was better than it would have been for a random late-January weeknight game between the two teams.
I wasn’t there, but the LTC tournament girls final Saturday between Newark and Serena couldn’t have been much more dramatic. Serena’s Demi Witter made a 3-pointer with just over two seconds to play to give the second-seeded Huskers a 47-46 lead, which ended up the final score only after Newark had its own buzzer-beating try rim out.
Obviously conference tournaments aren’t limited to basketball. They’re basically an every-conference-we-cover thing in sports like golf, wrestling and track and field. And basketball is not the only sports in which conference tournaments aren’t that common where they could be. Why wouldn’t they work in, say, soccer or volleyball?
Conference tournaments seem like such an obvious add in our basketball conferences that don’t have them – and I should include the River Valley, which once did – that I can’t believe they’re not more common. The I-8s decision to add its tournament several years ago was a great one. I’d love to see other conferences follow suit.