I don’t think the casual McPherson High basketball fan can fully understand the pressure the Bullpup boys are under every year in the first round of the McPherson Invitational.
Because MHS fans expect the team to win its opener since it’s generally the higher seed, they often stay away in droves on Thursday in anticipation for Friday’s semifinals and Saturday’s finals.
That makes for a different home atmosphere than what the Bullpups are accustomed to. Normally they play before the largest crowds and most-knowledgeable fans in Kansas and draw emotional energy off the Red and White faithful.
The last few years, though, the tournament has been so balanced and improved that first-round Bullpup victories haven’t been a lead-pipe cinch and the margins have shrunk.
Last year in the first round, for example, the Bullpups needed double-overtime to outlast Shawnee Mission East, which was their opponent again Thursday. While this year’s final margin was 14, 69-55, I can tell you that MHS fans were a bit squeamish until midway through the fourth quarter.
In 2015, the Bullpups played a mediocre Hutchinson team, but since it used to be one of the state’s best rivalries the Salthawks played well beyond the norm by their standards and lost by just 13.
And don’t remind MHS coach Kurt Kinnamon of 2014. Entering the tournament flying high at 8-0, the Bullpups were woodshedded by No. 8 seed Wichita North, which didn’t even have Connor Frankamp, who had graduated the year before.
You have to go back to 2012, in fact, to find an easy MHS first-round win as the Bullpups took care of Maize by a comfortable 67-43.
MHS fans get a basketball high by living vicariously through our 16-, 17 and 18-year-olds. I mean, have you seen how fired up some fans get when the officials make a call they don’t agree with? I would venture some fans go home and have a hard time sleeping after a loss, which of course hasn’t happened much in recent years.
I know the players have to feel it. I think it’s remarkable how they play with the weight of the tournament on their shoulders. After all an MHS first-round loss and the Roundhouse turns into a ghost town, as it did in 2014. Attendance tanks and out-of-town teams go home wondering where the great crowds are that they have heard about for so many years. With so many of the schools not bringing good crowds, the financial success of the Invitational depends on the Bullpups’ success.
To me, one of the highlights of the tournament is the electricity generated in the Roundhouse. Even as an old-dog sports writer such as myself, the adrenaline flows when the stands are packed, the crowd is loud and the building literally shakes. It also makes me nostalgic, because this tournament has had the best players in Kansas history take part, going back to Lucius Allen, Nino Samuel, Darnell Valentine, Antoine Carr and Aubrey Sherrod, and later Frankamp and Perry Ellis. Of course, we can’t forget all the McPherson greats and all those historic teams, including 13 state title teams.
So that exhale heard at the final buzzer last night was that of McPherson fans who were relieved that the Bullpups will play in tonight’s 8:15 spotlight game against No. 1-seed Maize. And the stands will be packed, the crowd will be loud and the building will shake like always.