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THE END OF THE ROAD
Alexander Wolff
March 17, 1997
With Indiana bidding farewell to its all-comers high school basketball tournament, boys from small towns like Batesville took a last shot at a dream
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March 17, 1997

The End Of The Road

With Indiana bidding farewell to its all-comers high school basketball tournament, boys from small towns like Batesville took a last shot at a dream

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Good Burial weather graced southeastern Indiana last week. Daytime highs mild enough to keep the soil diggable followed periods of hard rain. They make caskets in Batesville, a company town of 4,700 people that sits astride Interstate 74 some 45 miles northwest of Cincinnati. The Batesville Casket Company turns out anticorrosive Mono-seal metal caskets and top-of-the-line cremation urns, if that happens to be your preference. Company officials call caskets and urns "at-need" products, as distinct from "pre-need" services like burial insurance, which one of Batesville Casket's affiliates would be pleased to sell you too.

Lest you think Batesville exists only to make death and its prospect a little more peaceable, we would like to set you straight. We would like to set you facing due north, in fact, on I-74 last Saturday morning, right about 9:15 a.m. That's when a police-escorted caravan of 105 cars and trucks, having just pulled out of the Batesville High parking lot, fell in behind the team bus as the 25-1, third-in-the-state Bulldogs made their way to the New Castle regional of the Indiana high school basketball tournament. No one who saw the caravan's loud blue-and-white war paint or heard its gaudy Klaxons would have described it as funereal. But others might regard it as a symbolic cortege, and therein lies a story.

For 87 years including this one, high school boys' teams from across the state have gathered for an all-comers postseason basketball tournament. From 56-student New Harmony High in the Utopian settlement of the same name, to sprawling Ben Davis High in suburban Indianapolis, with its largest-in-the-state enrollment of 2,798; from schools with picturesque handles like Turkey Run (enrollment 164) and Rising Sun (252), to consolidated districts that go by neologisms like Tri-West Hendricks (301) and Jac-Cen-Del (228), the eyes of March are on the tournament. In the process, 382 teams are winnowed down to 64 sectional winners, who advance to 16 regionals, who send 16 teams to the four semistates (that's SEM-eye-states, for your information, Mrs. Bruce Willis) that determine the final four to converge on Indy's RCA Dome on March 22.

Over the years schoolboy hoops has done as much as anything else to define the character of Indiana, but starting next season the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) will stage multiple state tournaments, one for each of four enrollment classifications. To some that development is unspeakably sad. As people across the state came to terms with the implications of the change, there was something autumnal in the early spring air last week. No longer will only a dozen boys have the honor of calling themselves state champs. No longer will Batesville, whose enrollment of 589 will barely qualify it for the second-highest of the four new classes, be able to contemplate challenging the Ben Davises and Fort Wayne Northrops in the postseason. No longer will the plug of an Indianapolis skyscraper and the socket of a downstate granite quarry connect and electrify the state for four weeks each spring. No longer will schools big and small, most within an hour's drive of each other, meet in the 64 score-settling sectionals. No longer will every schoolboy player in Indiana shoot at the same goal.

Every Batesville Bulldog can tell you how, in 1954, tiny Milan High, enrollment 161, beat out mighty Muncie Central for the state title when Bobby Plump, a 5'10" kid who learned to shoot in a hayloft, splashed a jump shot into the net. And each Bulldog knows that only one school of fewer than 800 students has won the state since then, and that was in 1986 in the movie Hoosiers. But so powerful is the Milan mystique, and so pervasive is the backlash toward the IHSAA's decision to tinker with Hoosier Hysteria, that misty-eyed media types polled before the start of this year's tournament actually picked Batesville to win it.

The Bulldogs knew that was a sentimental prognostication. But last week they also knew that if they hadn't blown a 10-point lead with four minutes to play against Kokomo High in January, they and not New Castle High, whose 9,325-seat field house is the largest high school gym in the world, would have been unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state. They had felt the sting of losing the regional semifinal to New Castle in Newcastle last March, when an off-balance, wrong-handed, 35-foot heave banked in at the horn. But they were fully aware, too, that back in 1994, when half of their current players were freshmen, they had overcome New Castle's huge home court advantage and beaten the Trojans in the regional final.

Of course the Bulldogs would have a better chance of winning one of four state titles in the new class system than of pulling off another Miracle of Milan. Yet to a man they sneer at the change. "I'd rather lose a game like this to a team like this than win some other state title against somebody else," said Michael Menser, Batesville's star, after the Bulldogs were eliminated a year ago. Menser is a senior now, a 5'10", 145-pound point guard who wanted to play for Indiana, only to discover that the Hoosiers felt he was too small to play for them. He has signed with Indiana State, but not without remarking on the similarity between how he and his team are regarded. "People have told me I'm too small to play Division I ball," he says. "Well, I don't want to be categorized as small. And our team doesn't want to be categorized as small, either."

The April decision by the IHSAA board, later ratified by a majority of the state's high school principals, is supposed to spread happiness by spreading more postseason hardware—300% more hardware, to be exact. Yet the change is opposed by clear majorities of the state's players and coaches, according to the IHSAA's own polling. So Indiana is left with one of those rare, go-figure cases in which the adults in charge want standards lowered, and the kids want the bar left right where it is; a case in which educators are saying winning is important enough to rewrite the rules, and students are saying, No, there's something more important.

Plump now lives in Indianapolis, where he sells insurance and runs Plump's Last Shot restaurant and fights class basketball through his lobbying group, Friends of Hoosier Hysteria. He counts such state icons as Steve Alford, George McGinnis and John Wooden among his coreligionists. "Certain coaches and principals want a so-called 'state championship' on their résumés, and that's the overriding reason for the change," says Plump. "The IHSAA board and the high school principals say they're doing it for the kids. But the kids don't want it. And they're doing the kids a great disservice. Tell them again and again that they can't compete, and pretty soon they'll begin believing it."

Plump and other anticlass activists point out that Turkey Run beat Center Grove High, a suburban Indianapolis school more than nine times its size, for last year's state title in girls' softball, one of three other sports that will be affected by the change to the class system. And they point instructively at Kentucky, which with Delaware and Hawaii will still be playing an open basketball tournament next season. A year ago little Paintsville (Ky.) High, a school with 299 students, won the boys' title, beating a succession of bigger schools along the way. "My gut says they're going to have to go back," says Mel Siefert, Batesville's 34-year-old coach, who is optimistic that IHSAA officials will realize the mistake they have made.

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