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Minnesota's class conflict

Even the fast-food industry was tested by this loss. Because in addition to the flood of congratulations' and can-we-play-you's, no restaurant could schlep together a burger quick enough to get Ulen-Hitterdal coach Tom Critchley Jr. out of the do...

Even the fast-food industry was tested by this loss. Because in addition to the flood of congratulations' and can-we-play-you's, no restaurant could schlep together a burger quick enough to get Ulen-Hitterdal coach Tom Critchley Jr. out of the door before he was approached by someone, anyone, about a 77-74 defeat against Hopkins.

To recap: On Jan. 17, the Spartans, representing a school with 70 kids in grades 10 through 12, led for 31 minutes before falling to the Royals, who have an enrollment of 1,957 and were ranked No. 1 in the final regular season big-school boys basketball poll.

It got people talking, and not just about that game.

Is Ulen-Hitterdal exceptional enough to change the rules of Minnesota's much-maligned, four-class system? As what Critchley calls a "once-in-a-lifetime team" for consolidated Ulen-Hitterdal, the Spartans are a great story and off to a second consecutive Class 1A tournament.

But what if they're also the best team in the state, regardless of class?


"There's just questions now," 22nd-year Moorhead coach Chuck Gulsvig said. "There's not answers to matchups like that."

And there won't be in the near future.

"Some people think four classes is too many," said Kevin Merkle, an associate director with the Minnesota State High School League. "But that's where we're at right now. I don't know if that's going to change."

From 1913 to 1970, there was only one class. A two-class system, based on enrollment, was in place 1971 until 1994. After that came two seasons of the Sweet 16 format - two classes held separate section playoffs but joined for a the state tournament to produce a single state champion. Two classes became four in 1997, a setup which continues today.

For change to occur, Merkle said, the activity advisory committee would have to research the issue and pass a recommendation to 16 regional committees for review. The input would then be sent back to the activity advisory committee for further comment before going to the board of directors and, potentially, to a vote of all member schools.

That process began in December 2003 - but didn't receive the backing to get past the first stage.

The primary reason, Merkle said, was to establish consistency. This week marks the first time in the history of the four-class system that all 32 tournament teams will gather in one city - Minneapolis - for the quarterfinals. Previously, the first-round games were held at assorted locations.

"As far as cutting it down to 16 teams, people say it's watered down, and maybe it is, but 32 teams out of (427) get a chance," said Gary Schuler, who will coach Fergus Falls to its first state tournament since 1990 this week. "The opportunity to take kids down there, you can't beat it."


That's not to say things will ever be the same.

Merkle, who grew up in St. Paul, remembers the days of "18,000 in Williams Arena and you couldn't find a ticket" to root for Moorhead to knock off "kingpin" Edina in the 1967 and 1968 finals.

"That was a different time, that was a different era," said Gulsvig, who has coached the Spuds to seven tournaments since 1987. "Basketball was basically the only show then."

That was pre-girls basketball, which began in 1974, before the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Even the boys hockey state tournament didn't start until 1945.

"You can talk about this being the state of hockey, but there's way more basketball teams and interest in the state in basketball than hockey," Merkle said. "And that's not putting down hockey, that's a fact."

It's also a fact that attendance at the boys basketball state tournament has taken a substantial hit the past 30 years.

In 1971, with the advent of the two-class system, the tournament drew a record 140,313 fans. Attendance dropped 15 times over the next 23 years, bottoming out at 59,646 in 1994 before the Sweet 16 format was put in place. The numbers have since leveled off, with an average of 73,638 spectators going to the seven four-tier tournaments.

"If you study our statistics, when you do a new format there's a growth the first year or two," Merkle said. "But then, after people get used to it and maybe it's not such a big deal, it seems to drop down again. And a lot of times it depends on the past history of teams, and with more classes you're likely to have more teams return.


"And the first time it's a big deal, the second it's not."

While greater participation is the driving force behind having four classes, the result is a loss of prestige and the end of traditional rivalries - not to mention creating confusion for fans and media.

Critchley grew up with the District 23 tournament at Concordia College, where his dad coached Hawley to a 1987 state berth.

"People would come from North Dakota," he said, "and we would out-draw the North Dakota state tournament."

Now, schools like Hawley (218 enrollment) and Barnesville (173), small by any standard and separated by 26 miles, are in different sections and classes.

"It really disrupted 1A and 2A because it really tore down the big district tournaments," said Gulsvig, who also spent a chunk of his youth at District 23. "It really changed basketball."

And not for the better, according to the coaches polled.

What, then, is the solution?


Because with four classes for 427 teams, Minnesota falls in line with neighboring states. Iowa and Wisconsin each have four classes for 395 and 484 teams, respectively, while North Dakota has two classes for 144 teams and Nebraska has six for 318 squads.

"The Sweet 16 was a gem," Gulsvig said, an opinion shared by Schuler and Critchley.

That's some well-informed support for a system that lasted only two years and was voted out by the MSHSL prior to the second.

What's the allure? One champion - just like the good ol' days, with 16 solid teams getting the same state tournament experience.

Plus, towns in the top and bottom halves of the current system tend to gravitate toward one another; the Heart O' Lakes Conference is comprised of 1A and 2A schools, while Moorhead (4A) has played Fergus Falls (3A) three times in each of the past two regular seasons.

Why not meet in the playoffs, too?

"It was the fact that both those small schools made it that far both years. That was the exciting part of it," Gulsvig said of the Sweet 16. "It was a blowout, but there are lots of games that are blowouts in the finals. ... The fact that you had two different flavored opponents in the finals was the big issue."

The quarterfinals were set up in a way that didn't guarantee a 2A vs. 1A final, but that's what happened. In 1995, Minneapolis North beat Staples-Motley 54-52. The Polars defended their crown the next season by beating Fertile-Beltrami 80-47.


David never beat Goliath, but people sure did love cheering for him.

"You're never going to convince the small schools that (the current setup) isn't the best," said Schuler, a head coach for 31 years, who led Warren to four tournaments from 1979 to 1989 before joining the Otters. "They get a chance. ... It's a big risk for small schools to approve that change. The town will close down, we know that, and that's huge for a community."

As a former athletic director in St. Paul, Merkle said he believes a three-class setup would be "optimal" based on the number of schools. But as an officer of the MSHSL, he acknowledged that "politics" can impede the pursuit of perfection.

"What is the right number of classes? I don't know," he said. "Even if you're a 1A school or a 2A school and walk away with a state tournament trophy, nobody is turning it in."

Ulen-Hitterdal was (unofficially) given that chance.

Critchley was asked if he would be willing to trade those two section championships for the chance to qualify for one Sweet 16.

"I would be willing to take my chances with these guys," he said after some thought. "We're a once-in-a-lifetime team for a school our size and you want everyone to have that opportunity to go to the state tournament.

"I think going to the state tournament is as much a thrill as winning it for most kids. Once you get to the state tournament I would like to see them get everybody together like they used to, because they could compete with the big schools."


But bigger isn't necessarily better - that goes for a tournament field, as well.

The Spartans' real goal this season: to be their best.

"Our kids are capable of so much more," Critchley said. "It's fun to put them in those extreme situations and see what will happen. Good athletes will rise up regardless of the class."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Terry Vandrovec at (701) 241-5548

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