Mid America Classic reaches milestone

By Steve Sell
January 29, 2020

There will be a touch of gray when the Mid America Classic opens on Thursday at the Roundhouse.

It’s the 25th  edition of the tournament, which means silver is the anniversary color.

I happened to be on the committee when the tournament was formed for 1996 play and the original concept was a McPherson County tournament with a couple of other teams brought in to round out the field.

It was McPherson High, along with county schools Canton-Galva, Inman, Moundridge and Smoky Valley, while Little River has kids from county town Windom, though technically it’s in Rice County.

Great Bend and Hesston were the schools chosen to complete the field.

MHS was, in 1996, one year removed from beginning a three-year title run in Class 5A. Little River was in the midst of its amazing run that included 91 straight victories, while Moundridge, at least for the first two years, was on the outside looking in before Laurie Legend led the Wildcats to the title in Year 3 as Laurie Koehn fueled a Wildcat championship.

It wasn’t until Year 4 that McPherson High finally broke through, defeating Moundridge in the finals.

The crowds back then were off the charts. I remember the 1996 championship game between McPherson and Little River – or Goliath vs. David – that the doors allegedly were closed because the Roundhouse was bursting at the seams, maybe the last great crowd to attend a game.

Little River, with Nicky Ramage, the Prose twins, Hilarie Raleigh and Betsy Cordell among others, won that game and then repeated that success the following year, beating the Bullpups by double digits in both games. And again, MHS was the 5A state champion in 1997, which tells you just how good that Little River team was. I would have taken the Redskins against any team in any class, they were that good under the guidance of the great Shane Cordell.

Maybe one of the most exciting championship games took pace in 2000 in Koehn’s swan song, as the Bullpups won a crazy 54-53 overtime game played before well over 2,000 fans as the entire town of Moundridge shut down as its crowd seemed as loud as Bullpup Nation.

There was one more showdown between the Bullpups and Wildcats, that coming in 2003 in the infamous slowdown game, won 28-23 by the Bullpups.

But starting in 2004, some of what I would call the “neatness” of the tournament began to wear off. Little River and Moundridge were at the end of their amazing runs, while Canton-Galva, Smoky Valley and Inman were becoming consistent first-round victims.

In fact after 2004, Canton-Galva realized it could no longer compete at the high level required and went to a tournament that was more realistic for a school its size. As much as the atmosphere and camaraderie of bringing the area schools together – almost like a basketball version of All Schools Day – the time had come for changes. Smoky Valley also decided that 2004 was it and moved on.

Inman followed suit in 2005. Moundridge stuck it out through 2006, then left, and Little River was the last small school to exit in 2007, even though Cordell led them to the championship game that year.

That’s when the tournament philosophy changed and the lookout was for schools, no matter the size, with high-quality basketball pedigrees. St. John had turned into a small-school power and even won the Classic in 2009. The move also was made to bring in Kansas City and Wichita schools.

I understood the move and accepted it. But I still longed for those early years of the county coming together as one. We were just fortunate that in those early years schools like Moundridge and Little River were experiencing a basketball renaissance.

McPherson and Olathe South later became the dominant schools and the tournament is still one of the very best around. The McPherson Optimist Club does a great job of running the tournament and just like the boys’ tournament the week before, I’d put it up against any in the state.

There appears to be four really solid teams, with three excellent ones on one side of the bracket. McPherson is the top team in Class 5A, Shawnee Mission Northwest is No. 3 in 6A and barely beat possible semifinal opponent Olathe South earlier this year. And never count out Manhattan.

So enjoy three great days of basketball. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to see the golden anniversary in 2045, though by then I’ll definitely be in my twilight years.