Recalling the early years of the Classic

By Steve Sell
January 25, 2018

Time flies when you’re having fun.

It’s hard to believe today begins my 23rd year of covering the Mid America Classic — which means I have covered them all.

It seems like only yesterday a small group of us were meeting at the then-Pear Tree Restaurant (where Tres Amigos is now located) to map out our plans for what we hoped would be an event on par with the highly acclaimed McPherson Invitational.

Former McPherson High girls coach Scott Schaefer had been approached by the McPherson Optimist Club about the possibility of starting a tournament here after the Bullpups had spent years of traveling to Newton.

So the planning began. Schaefer, former McPherson High Athletic Director Carol Swenson, the late “Johnny Sunshine” Watkins (for whom the Sportsmanship Award is named), Bob Baldwin, Dave Chartier, Danny Glidewell and myself had regular meetings about the tournament we wanted to have.

The Optimists committed themselves to running all aspects of the tournament and they still wear their highly recognizable aquamarine sweaters, which can be seen throughout the Roundhouse during the three days as the entire club gets involved in a variety of duties.

It started mostly as a county tournament. Area schools Little River, Moundridge and Inman were in the midst of having powerhouse programs. Smoky Valley and Canton-Galva were also included, along with Hesston and Great Bend.

We had wanted Claflin for that first year (now Central Plains) because of Jackie Stiles, but it was booked. Can you imagine the response had she played in 1996, the first year of the tournament?

Our group thought the tournament had a chance to be winner, given that all the schools were so close in proximity and there was a sense of curiosity how the small schools could fare against the bigger schools. But never did we imagine the turnout the first few years, especially in initial title game as the doors were closed well before the championship game because the Roundhouse was packed beyond its limitations — about 2,700 at the time.

Little River, coached by the legendary Shane Cordell, won the first two Classics and it had some amazing players like Nicky Ramage and the spunky Prose twins, whose style of play made them fan favorites. I truly believe Little River was the best team in Kansas regardless of class in both 1996 and 1997.

 Ironically in 1997, Little River won the tournament against a McPherson team that would go on to win the first of three straight Class 5A titles. Moundridge, with the redoubtable Laurie Koehn, then won the third championship (beating McPherson’s eventual state championship team) before the host Bullpups finally won in their fourth try.

That was the beginning of a nine-year championship run in the tournament for MHS, while fantastic, also took some of the suspense out of it because the outcome became predictable and some fans grew weary of the Bullpups’ dominance. 

Unfortunately, some of the area teams’ programs started to decline and the smaller schools could no longer be competitive. Smoky Valley and Canton-Galva exited after 2004, Inman departed after 2005, Moundridge and Hesston left after 2006, followed the next year by Little River. Original member Great Bend had competed just two years.

The tournament shifted to bigger-class schools from the Kansas City and Wichita areas and while it made the field stronger, some of the original charm faded away, as did the sellout crowds. But the Classic is still in the pantheon of tournaments in Kansas, ranking right up with Newton’s tournament. It’s still well-attended on Friday and Saturday nights, especially if the Bullpups make the championship game.

This year’s tournament has a chance to be one of the best since the early days. Manhattan is the defending Class 6A champion and boasts Kansas State signee Christianna Carr, while Olathe South and Shawnee Mission Northwest are expected to make state in 6A. McPherson High is regarded as the top challenger to Bishop Miege in Class 4A Division I, but Hays has come out of nowhere to have a tremendous year and will be in the Bullpups’ sub-state.

Now that fans have had a few days to recharge from the McPherson Invitational, it’s time to get out to the Roundhouse and support the girls as they do the boys. If the Bullpups can make the championship game, it will be a disappointment if the Roundhouse is not filled on Saturday.