Note to WIAA: It's time to move the state summer baseball tourney
Lack of teams outside Milwaukee area should warrant change
Though the much put-upon WIAA state summer baseball season has and always will be a minority to its much larger and much more influential spring brethren, it will remain a viable entity for the near-future.
Here's the good news.
"We were told at the spring clinic by (WIAA Deputy Director) Wade Labecki that there are no plans to end the program," said Menomonee Falls coach Pat Hansen. "Even if it falls down to 40 teams or so, we will remain viable. He said it is here to stay."
Now for the bad news.
The 65-team southeastern Wisconsin-dominated tournament (a team outside the southeastern region has not won the title since Unity in 1992) will likely lose the La Crosse-area Dairyland Conference after this season, reducing the number of teams to below 60 for the first time since 1969 (the fourth year of summer baseball).
The trend continues a downward slide ever-since the program hit its peak of 110 in 1999. Hansen said Labecki told the clinic that it was not the difficulty of winning against the larger Milwaukee-area teams that was driving teams out of summer ball, but the fact that they had to drive so far for competitive games in the regular season.
As it was, if you look at past state tournaments, you'd see that a lot of those teams from outside the Milwaukee area had to schedule a lot of American Legion teams (made up of spring ball veterans) in order to fill up a schedule and not kill their mileage budgets.
But Oak Creek coach Scott Holler could agree with that assertion up to a point, as he also noted that a precipitous drop in schools also coincided with the WIAA spring baseball program adding a fourth class in 2006, making it easier for the smaller summer schools to find games and compete for titles.
"I can feel for teams like West Salem (enrollment of 538, champion of the Dairyland)," he said. "They can compete in that first game with their No. 1 (pitcher) but then they get to the semifinals and they're usually out of gas (against the larger, Milwaukee-area-based teams)."
Along those lines, there has been a plan discussed by some summer coaches to build a two-class summer session. Informal and unofficial surveys from some circles say that up to 60 additional teams could be brought back into the summer fold if that were to go through.
However, Hansen reported that Labecki said that a two-class summer plan would not fly because between the spring and summer seasons that would create six state baseball champions, more than any other sport except for football (seven) and that was felt to be inequitable by the WIAA.
Which brings us to the main thrust of this column.
If indeed the Dairyland does switch over to spring ball, then that will only leave the Eastern Wisconsin Conference in the southern Fox River Valley as the only conference outside of the greater Milwaukee area.
This is all the more reason for the WIAA and its member coaches to move the summer tournament from its 22-year home of Stevens Point to the southeastern portion of Wisconsin.
The topic will be raised at a WIAA meeting to be held early this fall and there is no shortage of good options.
UW-Whitewater, with its state-of-the-art facilities and turf infield, was raved about by all the coaches who played on it this summer (there were a number of Saturday non-conference games held there this summer) and the new, still being finished facility at Concordia University in Mequon is also reportedly to be a place of interest.
The need was made even clearer this past week, as at the latest state summer tournament, a two-fold series of vicious storms knocked down trees, dented fences and sent fans and players scrambling at lovely Bukolt Park in Stevens Point.
The storms wiped out the first day's session, shortened the second day and left fans sweating and short of clean clothes as a full additional day was needed to complete the eight-team, seven-game program.
Further, as has been the case since the southeast has started dominating the summer series, relatively few fans were willing to make the 2 ½ hour trip to Point and the local paper in Point scarcely made mention of it.
"I remember when we played Oak Creek in the state final in 2004," said Hansen. "There were fewer fans there than for an average regular season game."
And it was a shame that more people did not see this year's tournament, because Franklin won its second consecutive title with a wonderful, messy, heart-stopping series of victories, all of which went down to the final at-bat.
Imagine the great attendance for such games at Whitewater from such baseball-mad communities like West Bend (where the tournament was originally-based), Waukesha and Franklin. The 45-to-50 mile trip would be a walk in the park compared to the 180-mile slog to Point. People could drive home to their own beds instead of scrambling for hotel rooms like they had to do (twice) in Point this past week.
Don't get me wrong, Bukolt is a beautiful place, filled with great history (the fog-covered walk-off extra-inning championship win for West Bend East over Muskego in 2002 leaps to mind as a truly legendary moment) and the traditional leap by the winning team into the nearby Wisconsin River is great fun.
But it's time to bring it back to where people can see these great kids playing great baseball. Until the summer program expands out of its southeastern Wisconsin base (and I will remain a true believer in that idea, as baseball is truly a summer sport), then its championship should be played in southeastern Wisconsin.
"It should definitely move down here, where all the teams are," said coach Jim Hughes of the two-time champion Franklin squad. "I would go every year (as a fan, if Franklin did not make it there) if I didn't have to pay for a hotel. You have a beautiful stadium (in Point) and nobody is there.
"The WIAA wants it down here; that's what they've told us. They will do better financially, since this is where the fans are."
The time to make the move is now.
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