AS EXCITING as the NHIAA basketball season can be, there are factors that are hurting the sport. Chief among the issues is a never-ending season.
Most NHIAA winter sports have the problem. Schedules run into March for a variety of sports, including basketball, after starting practice in the middle of November. NHIAA hoops is the sport that is most drawn out. Division I and II boys’ basketball holds their title games on March 16 after being able to start their pre-seasons the Monday before Thanksgiving, per NHIAA rules.
It’s a problem that’s now talked about annually by basketball coaches and school directors of athletics. Word from around the state is there is momentum toward shortening the season. But no clear-cut resolution is available.
“Everyone is interested in shortening things, but I think a lot of people are in a different place on how to do that,” said Sunapee Middle High School principal Sean Moynihan, who chairs the NHIAA basketball committee. “There’s just not a universal agreement on how to do that.”
A school’s stance on this matter varies from one to the next because there is no unified system in place. Division III and IV schools take issue with the start of the basketball season, which overlaps with fall sports. The problem is on the other end for Division I and II schools, which conclude as spring sports begin.
“I think it comes down to what a particular division wants its season to look like,” Moynihan said. “Like, when do they want to start and end. I think it’s possible to do, but there hasn’t been anything formal that people have come up with in terms of starting, ending and lining up tournament dates.
“I think, for right now, we still think it’s done the way that works the best, given all the factors, but we continue to look at things.”
This is far from a black-and-white dilemma. There are arguments for and avenues to change, but some come with complications.
Freedom above all
ONE THING all parties involved can agree on is that having the season cover three vacations can’t continue. As it stands, players and their families are set to sacrifice Thanksgiving break, Christmas break and February break to participate.
“I’m more of a proponent of shortening with an eye towards family time,” Manchester girls’ basketball coach and athletic coordinator Mike Wenners said. “I believe if the season was shorter and there was to be more vacation or family time for these kids then we might preserve numbers and get more kids to come out.”
Numbers for basketball are down in New Hampshire public schools due to prep school transfers and AAU sport commitments, however, athletes simply passing on basketball due to its time commitment is a growing factor as well. Wenners said he knew of at least two girls that would be playing on his team this winter if they weren’t sacrificing nearly four months for a sport that is secondary to another they play.
“It’s very daunting for a kid who is not a full-time hoop player, or any other sport, to say they’ll give up three breaks. They’re not doing it and I understand,” Wenners said. “You’re duct-taping teams together now because kids want to go away and parents want to take them away. You really can’t blame them.”
The idea of more free time also connects with the overlap basketball has on either end of its season. The idea of preserving athletes physically should be under consideration while trying to shorten the season.
“Our girls’ soccer program has been very good to where they’re going to the semifinals or finals these last couple years,” Newmarket boys’ basketball coach and AD Jamie Hayes said. “So we’re talking about basketball starting a week later. Their bodies are beat up and they get a week to deal with that and be a teenager again before jumping right back in. They are teens and bounce back quickly, but it’s not ideal.”
Value in venue?
WHAT’S PERCEIVED as the greatest hurdle in any plan to condense the basketball season is tournament site availability. The NHIAA has done well in securing top-notch venues at the University of New Hampshire, Southern New Hampshire University and Plymouth State University for the semifinals and championships. Playing in those college atmospheres has been a reward to those teams that get there and an experience that some athletes won’t ever see again.
The idea of shortening the season might mean moving away from those venues as the colleges do not have the flexibility to tend to the NHIAA’s needs more than they already do. SNHU is easily the most accommodating school as it provides the NHIAA seven dates, including five days that include two games. Such generosity wouldn’t be the same if the high school season ended earlier.
“If they wanted to move it earlier, we really couldn’t displace our teams for that many dates during the season,” said SNHU’s James Gassman, the associate director of athletics for operations, facilities and equipment. “You’re looking at those current dates and those doubleheader days are dates where we’re shutting the gym down from 3:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. It doesn’t work with the needs that come with scheduling time for our programs.
“I’d have to re-work academic schedules, practice schedules, travel schedules and then not have a home game at the end of the season when I’m trying to keep teams relaxed and rested before their own tournaments.”
UNH declined to comment on whether or not it had the flexibility to manipulate schedules to facilitate earlier high school tournament dates.
If the NHIAA didn’t play tournaments at current college sites, the organization would have to either seek out alternative college sites or use large-capacity high school gyms in order to shorten schedules.
Scrapping the use of college facilities certainly isn’t out of the question. Concord boys’ basketball coach and New Hampshire Basketball Coaches Organization president Dave Chase remembers when the NHIAA switched neutral-site quarterfinal games to home games for the higher seed over a decade ago.
“Somebody would have to look it over and try to figure out where to put people, but just look at that last big change,” Chase said. “We made a drastic change and nobody really liked it except the Final Four teams, but everybody got used to it and now we all do it. That’s just how things go.” The word equity has popped up with the topic of venue. Making an equal experience for all is always a goal for the NHIAA, but it has shown that equality doesn’t always work out. NHIAA soccer is a prime example of equity being an afterthought as boys’ soccer plays its four finals at SNHU while girls’ soccer splits their championship games between Laconia High, Exeter High or Stellos Stadium in Nashua.
There are arguments for and against equality trumping a shortened schedule, but Wenners has a different spin on what a venue means to players.
“Speaking from the girls’ side, what my girls want more than anything is to play in front of a packed gym,” Wenners said. “We can easily pack a Pinkerton, which used to be the championship site for girls for a long time. The place was packed and had an atmosphere, which is the more important thing. There are so many great gyms capable of that now.”A possible solution
MOYNIHAN SAID there weren’t any formal proposals in place to consider, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good ideas being tossed around that could eventually be turned into something formal. Chase believes he’s found a model that could work after his personal research, talking with fellow NHIAA coaches and meeting with basketball minds from around the country at National High School Basketball Coaches Organization conferences.
The first step in Chase’s plan is to have every division of boys’ and girls’ hoops start after Thanksgiving, which helps kids avoid fall season overlap and missing out on Thanksgiving break. The preseason, which would begin the Monday after Thanksgiving, would feature a 10-day moratorium where no games can be scheduled.
As far as regular-season play goes, Chase suggested keeping the current number of games the same but scheduling three games a week, which is a change from the typical two-game week in place for most schools now. Chase said any version of a six-day week, between games and practices, would lead to completing the entire season somewhere before or during February vacation. This plan includes a break after the end of the regular season to accommodate postponed games.
“I think we can keep the standard schedule here while cutting this down two or three weeks,” Chase said. “It’s just a matter of playing more games in a week, which is all kids really want to do anyways.”
The plan Chase has in mind calls for regular-season games in place of Christmas tournaments, which is another topic that comes with mixed views depending on who you talk to. Wenners doesn’t believe those tournaments necessarily have to be sacrificed, but instead just modified to cater to the needs of a regular season.
“For me, it’s for the good of the sport, the division and the state,” said Wenners, whose Little Green host their Christmas tournament while the Central boys are annually lumped into the tradition of the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament. “I don’t have an issue playing over Christmas and we really don’t have to close down shop. You can be creative with this though. Massachusetts has holiday tournaments count for them. I could see scenarios where you still have these tournaments, but then say we open up with a Memorial, which is a game we could count towards our record.”
Chase said some coaches might take issue with not having two days between games to prepare for an opponent, but his idea of three-game weeks still allows for a practice before every game. Some teams, like the Newmarket boys, welcome the idea Chase alluded to with replacing extra practice time with games.
“When you get to midseason, the kids really don’t want to practice all that much anyways,” Hayes said. “It’s nice if we have a lot of snow and then you have those open dates, but I know I’d be fine going with two or three-game weeks. We’re playing three a week in the other two sports seasons. There’s no reason why we can’t do it here.”
Chase hasn’t fully explored playoff venues beyond the NHIAA possibly reaching out to SNHU Arena with the idea of holding all the basketball finals in one weekend like NHIAA hockey does. SNHU Arena did not respond to inquiries regarding if such a championship weekend was realistic within its own scheduling, but the arena’s website confirms it can seat approximately 11,140 people for basketball games. If SNHU Arena is available, then the NHIAA is left asking colleges for fewer dates or it can explore moving the semifinals to high schools capable of hosting, which might include schools like Exeter, Nashua North, Nashua South, Londonderry, Concord or others.
The easiest way to make Chase’s idea or any other come to fruition is by hypothesizing, sharing and communicating. Chase thinks the key to finding common ground is simply putting the decision in the hands of those who are participating in the sport.
“Why don’t we just put a survey out and ask the kids and families what they might like?” Chase said. “Ask them what they think of things right now versus something like starting after Thanksgiving and ending somewhere around February vacation. Let them decide what they want and then bring it to the NHIAA with all that.”