For area basketball coaches, players and fans, the recently concluded sectional and district tournament had a noticeably different feel this season.
For the first time, the Northeast District Athletic Board implemented a format that had the higher seeded team hosting sectional games, before moving on to a neutral site for the district round. For several area schools, this meant either one or two additional home games.
While other sports such as football, baseball and softball have used this format for years, all basketball tournament games in the Northeast District have traditionally been held at a neutral site.
"We ran into problems with a number of district sites that had trouble hosting both the sectional and district rounds because of other scheduling conflicts," said Northeast District Athletic Board President Bill Schumacher from Richfield Revere. "We also were trying to cut back on the amount of travel some schools had to do and this seemed to be the best option. Other districts have been doing it for a while and seem to be having success."
Reaction to the change among local athletic directors, coaches and fans was a mixed bag of overwhelming support, indifference and direct opposition. Lisbon athletic director Don Feren-whose Blue Devils hosted two boys games-was among the more vocal critics.
"I was not the least bit in favor of it," Feren said. "I thought it was a horrible setup. The atmosphere at both games did not feel at all like a tournament game. They both felt just like any old regular-season games.
"In the past, going up to Salem for tournament games was something special that the fans and coaching staff both looked forward to. But this year, with us hosting, it did not feel nearly the same."
Lisbon coach Chris Huckshold aknowledged that it was an adjustment but said there were positive aspects as well.
"I can see how it would be a headache for administrators because it's something they and the fans have never dealt with before," Huckshold said. "I also think it makes senior night a little anticlimatic if you are hosting a game and takes away some of the novelty of going to Salem. But on the other hand, the players enjoyed it and it gives teams something extra to shoot for."
Part of the problem, as Feren and others saw it, was the way games were scheduled. Nearly all of the area sectional games were scheduled on the same night rather than in doubleheader format when all games were at neutral sites. This deprived area fans the chance to see multiple games on the same night.
"I liked the idea of having doubleheaders," United athletic director Mike Leone said. "It gave fans a chance to check out some different teams they might not have seen during the year. This year did not have a tournament feel at all."
Western Reserve athletic director Jeff Martig expressed concern that coaches would not be able to scout other tournament teams like they had in the past.
"I would like to see them stagger the schedule if they stay with this format," Martig said. "I know our coaches like to scout some of the other teams, but with everybody playing at different sites on the same night that makes it really hard."
Sebring athletic director Josh Scott, also the Trojans' boys basketball coach, was also among those who were less than thrilled. Sebring hosted one girls tournament game.
"From a coaches standpoint, I hated it," Scott said. "Even though we had a nice turnout for the game we hosted, I thought it felt just like an ordinary game. Going to Struthers or going to Mineral Ridge for tournament games was something our kids looked forward to and I think was a great experience. I talked to (McDonald boys coach) Jeff Rasile when we played them and he was 100 percent against it for the same reasons."
Other schools, however, looked at the opportunity to host games differently. Wellsville athletic director Don Elliot said the community and coaches were overwhelmingly in favor after hosting two boys tournament game and one girls game.
"To travel to tournament games up at Struthers is almost an hour drive for some people down here," Elliot said. "For all of the games we hosted we drew better than we would have up at Struthers. I had a lot of older people who didn't want to make the drive in the past come up to me and say how glad they were to attend a tournament game."
The West Branch girls team hosted two girls sectional games and assistant athletic director Ellie Geiger said the experience was very positive for many of the same reasons Elliot listed.
"It was nice for a lot of our fans to only have to travel to Austintown for two tournament games instead of four," Geiger said. "Our coaches and players thought it was a nice reward for a good regular-season record. I didn't hear any negative feedback at all."
Former longtime Crestview athletic director Andris Baltputnis serves as the public address announcer for the boys district games at Salem and encountered a number of fans who were pleased with the change.
"A lot people seemed to be happy," Baltputnis said. "I'm very much in favor of it. I think the number one benefit is t gives teams who might be out of contention for a league title something to play for."
Crestview hosted one girls game and current co-athletic director Paul Cusick said the experience was better than he expected.
"I might be in the minority, but from my perspective it really wasn't a big issue," Cusick said. "I'm used to it from coaching the football team, and I thought it was nice for our fans. I could see how it might be difficult to adjust if you were used to the other way. I thought it was OK though."