State games: new format, same dream

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Making it to the state championship is the goal of just about every high school team when a season starts.

Sure, it's fun to play the game, but most student athletes know the real payoff comes when your school earns the right to make the trip to a state tournament.

The pace of the action is faster, the emotions run higher, and the rewards for winning are much greater. Of course, it's also a lot more painful to lose, but that would be another story.

In the past 30 years, Steamboat boys basketball coach Kelly Meek has been to his share of state playoff games. He has never captured the elusive state title in his division, but that hasn't stopped his teams from trying.

But this year the coach, and other coaches on the Western Slope, were dealt another blow. For a team to get into the state finals, which will be held at the University of Colorado's Coors Event Center, it will need to break into the elite four instead of the highly regarded eight.

It's not an easy task in any division but far more difficult if you happen to play in the 4A's Western Slope League where the schools are about half the size of their Denver-area opponents.

The change in the playoff structure could make the regional round and the state playoffs a little more exciting for the fans, but Meek fears it will come at the expense of his players.

"I've got guys who will come and tell me that sitting on the bench in McNichols Arena (where the state tourney used to be held) was their best high school memory," Meek said. "The kid was sitting on the bench, and it's still one of his best memories from high school -- that says something."

While Meek thinks the new system, which will put more emphasis on four regional playoffs before the state finals, has merits, he fears that it will rob the players, their families and fans who support those teams of the unique experience that is produced by the current system that allows eight teams to play in the finals at a site such as the Pepsi Center.

Having only four teams at the state finals will save the Colorado High School Activities Association money, but what's the point of high school sports? Saving money or giving as many kids as possible the chance to experience a state playoff?

Chuck Howell, assistant commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association, makes a good point.

He thinks the system, which is very similar to the one used in the NCAA's March Madness, will offer more players a true tournament experience.

I guess we will know more next March when the high school tournament comes to a close.

Some of the veteran coaches such as Meek might change their minds about the tournament after experiencing it. But the students who come out to play will open the season as they always have -- dreaming of a state title -- no matter what it takes to get there or where it is played.

-- To reach John F. Russell c all 871-4209

or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com

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