Good burial weather graced southeastern Indiana last week.
Daytime highs mild enough to keep the soil diggable followed
periods of hard rain. They make caskets in Batesville, a company
town of 4,700 people that sits astride Interstate 74 some 45
miles northwest of Cincinnati. The Batesville Casket Company
turns out anticorrosive Monoseal metal caskets and
top-of-the-line cremation urns, if that happens to be your
preference. Company officials call caskets and urns "at-need"
products, as distinct from "pre-need" services like burial
insurance, which one of Batesville Casket's affiliates would be
pleased to sell you too.
Lest you think Batesville exists only to make death and its
prospect a little more peaceable, we would like to set you
straight. We would like to set you facing due north, in fact, on
I-74 last Saturday morning, right about 9:15 a.m. That's when a
police-escorted caravan of 105 cars and trucks, having just
pulled out of the Batesville High parking lot, fell in behind
the team bus as the 25-1, third-in-the-state Bulldogs made their
way to the New Castle regional of the Indiana high school
basketball tournament. No one who saw the caravan's loud
blue-and-white war paint or heard its gaudy Klaxons would have
described it as funereal. But others might regard it as a
symbolic cortege, and therein lies a story.
For 87 years including this one, high school boys' teams from
across the state have gathered for an all-comers postseason
basketball tournament. From 56-student New Harmony High in the
utopian settlement of the same name, to sprawling Ben Davis High
in suburban Indianapolis, with its largest-in-the-state
enrollment of 2,798; from schools with picturesque handles like
Turkey Run (enrollment 164) and Rising Sun (252), to
consolidated districts that go by neologisms like Tri-West
Hendricks (301) and Jac-Cen-Del (228), the eyes of March are on
the tournament. In the process, 382 teams are winnowed down to
64 sectional winners, who advance to 16 regionals, who send 16
teams to the four semistates (that's SEM-eye-states, for your
information, Mrs. Bruce Willis) that determine the final four to
converge on Indy's RCA Dome on March 22.
Over the years schoolboy hoops has done as much as anything else
to define the character of Indiana, but starting next season the
Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) will stage
multiple state tournaments, one for each of four enrollment
classifications. To some that development is unspeakably sad. As
people across the state came to terms with the implications of
the change, there was something autumnal in the early spring air
last week. No longer will only a dozen boys have the honor of
calling themselves state champs. No longer will Batesville,
whose enrollment of 589 will barely qualify it for the
second-highest of the four new classes, be able to contemplate
challenging the Ben Davises and Fort Wayne Northrops in the
postseason. No longer will the plug of an Indianapolis
skyscraper and the socket of a downstate granite quarry connect
and electrify the state for four weeks each spring. No longer
will schools big and small, most within an hour's drive of each
other, meet in the 64 score-settling sectionals. No longer will
every schoolboy player in Indiana shoot at the same goal.
Every Batesville Bulldog can tell you how, in 1954, tiny Milan
High, enrollment 161, beat out mighty Muncie Central for the
state title when Bobby Plump, a 5'10" kid who learned to shoot
in a hayloft, splashed a jump shot into the net. And each
Bulldog knows that only one school of fewer than 800 students
has won the state since then, and that was in 1986 in the movie
Hoosiers. But so powerful is the Milan mystique, and so
pervasive is the backlash toward the IHSAA's decision to tinker
with Hoosier Hysteria, that misty-eyed media types polled before
the start of this year's tournament actually picked Batesville
to win it.
The Bulldogs knew that was a sentimental prognostication. But
last week they also knew that if they hadn't blown a 10-point
lead with four minutes to play against Kokomo High in January,
they and not New Castle High, whose 9,325-seat field house is
the largest high school gym in the world, would have been
unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state. They had felt the sting
of losing the regional semifinal to New Castle in New Castle
last March, when an off-balance, wrong-handed, 35-foot heave
banked in at the horn. But they were fully aware, too, that back
in 1994, when half of their current players were freshmen, they
had overcome New Castle's huge home court advantage and beaten
the Trojans in the regional final.
Of course the Bulldogs would have a better chance of winning one
of four state titles in the new class system than of pulling off
another Miracle of Milan. Yet to a man they sneer at the change.
"I'd rather lose a game like this to a team like this than win
some other state title against somebody else," said Michael
Menser, Batesville's star, after the Bulldogs were eliminated a
year ago. Menser is a senior now, a 5'10", 145-pound point guard
who wanted to play for Indiana, only to discover that the
Hoosiers felt he was too small to play for them. He has signed
with Indiana State, but not without remarking on the similarity
between how he and his team are regarded. "People have told me
I'm too small to play Division I ball," he says. "Well, I don't
want to be categorized as small. And our team doesn't want to be
categorized as small, either."
The April decision by the IHSAA board, later ratified by a
majority of the state's high school principals, is supposed to
spread happiness by spreading more postseason hardware--300%
more hardware, to be exact. Yet the change is opposed by clear
majorities of the state's players and coaches, according to the
IHSAA's own polling. So Indiana is left with one of those rare,
go-figure cases in which the adults in charge want standards
lowered, and the kids want the bar left right where it is; a
case in which educators are saying winning is important enough
to rewrite the rules, and students are saying, No, there's
something more important.
Plump now lives in Indianapolis, where he sells insurance and
runs Plump's Last Shot restaurant and fights class basketball
through his lobbying group, Friends of Hoosier Hysteria. He
counts such state icons as Steve Alford, George McGinnis and
John Wooden among his coreligionists. "Certain coaches and
principals want a so-called 'state championship' on their
resumes, and that's the overriding reason for the change," says
Plump. "The IHSAA board and the high school principals say
they're doing it for the kids. But the kids don't want it. And
they're doing the kids a great disservice. Tell them again and
again that they can't compete, and pretty soon they'll begin
Plump and other anticlass activists point out that Turkey Run
beat Center Grove High, a suburban Indianapolis school more than
nine times its size, for last year's state title in girls'
softball, one of three other sports that will be affected by the
change to the class system. And they point instructively at
Kentucky, which with Delaware and Hawaii will still be playing
an open basketball tournament next season. A year ago little
Paintsville (Ky.) High, a school with 299 students, won the
boys' title, beating a succession of bigger schools along the
way. "My gut says they're going to have to go back," says Mel
Siefert, Batesville's 34-year-old coach, who is optimistic that
IHSAA officials will realize the mistake they have made.
Batesville sits not 15 miles from Milan, in the very same
county--Ripley County, believe it or not. When he drives down to
Aurora to visit a friend, Menser always stops for a sundae at
the Milan Dairy Queen, which is hardly a Plump jump shot from
the water tower that still bears the legend STATE CHAMPS 1954.
There's no DQ in downtown Batesville. It's lined with
storefronts evoking the German settlers who arrived in the 19th
century, attracted to the forests of hardwood that made for
sturdy caskets. Not far from Feltz's Restaurant, Schmidt's
Bakery, Nolte's Pharmacy, Fullenkamp Sporting Goods and the
Pizza Haus is Telles's Barber Shop, where the regulars offer up
sports-talk radio unplugged. Last week there was unanimity on
one point: Batesville had its best shot in three years of
winning the New Castle regional, god willing the creeks don't
rise and 6'5" forward Aaron Ertel gets his stroke back.
Siefert's six seniors, groomed over a quadrennial, inspired that
kind of easy confidence. "They know the game," said Siefert, who
teaches three government classes every day, launders the
Bulldogs' uniforms himself and over the summer supervises the
community pool, where Menser works as a lifeguard. "They love
the game. With them you don't really need to teach. You just
need to remind."
On Saturday morning there's no need to remind his team of what
happened in the 1996 regional at New Castle, but Siefert does so
anyway. "I still ache from last year," he tells the Bulldogs
before they take the floor for their 12:30 p.m. semifinal
against Connersville. Fortunately Ertel has his stroke back. He
bottoms out his first two three-pointers as Batesville eases to
a 57-39 victory. After the game comes hopeful word from Indy:
Ben Davis is gone, beaten by Indianapolis Cathedral.
In the regionals, semistates and final four, the semifinal and
final games are played on the same Saturday, because principals
are petrified at what might take place if their students were
left overnight in some distant town. At 2 p.m. the Bulldogs make
the mile ride to the Best Western to rest up until the eight
o'clock rematch with New Castle, which was an easy 56-37 victor
over Winchester in the other semifinal.
As the bus pulls out into traffic, a cry issues from the back:
"Hey! Someone flipped us off!"
"They're just letting you know you're Number 1," Siefert says.
New Castle's field house is an intimidating place, where every
citizen of Batesville could fit nearly two times over. And at
least a quarter of the town is settled in by the time the
Bulldogs return for the regional final and Siefert delivers his
pregame talk. "They say success is where opportunity meets
preparation," he tells his players. "You've prepared for this
all year. It's an opportunity nobody has ever had at Batesville,
to beat the Number 1 team in the state."
A local paper has called Batesville's defense "stickier than the
floor of a movie theatre," and against New Castle it is
magnificent. So is Menser, whose NBA-distance three-pointer at
the first-quarter horn gives the Bulldogs a 16-8 lead. They're
ahead 23-17 at the half. But the Trojans are bigger and deeper,
and by the end of the third quarter they have sprung for a
string of threes and moved narrowly in front. Batesville is
tiring noticeably. With 1:42 to play and New Castle up 46-45,
Menser drives into the lane and draws a foul, only to pull up
with a cramp.
In Indiana in March there's drama in every charley horse. Two
years ago Indianapolis Cathedral might have won a state title if
three players hadn't cramped up in overtime of the team's
regional final against eventual champion Ben Davis. Next year's
regionals will involve only one game per day because of the
smaller number of schools in each draw. So you could say the
IHSAA has jeopardized yet another tradition, Saturday-night
cramps, which have been as much a part of the tournament as
buzzer beaters and sectional upsets.
Perhaps the cramp causes Menser to sink only one of two free
throws. Then again, the cramp may be no hindrance at all, for he
will force overtime by dropping in two more free throws with
five seconds to play and add a three-pointer and a couple of
more foul shots in the extra four-minute OT. But the Bulldogs
have no one capable of challenging Joey Gaw, New Castle's 6'8"
center, whose putback basket and defensive stop in the final
half minute assure the hosts a 61-58 victory.
Menser finishes with 22 points. He is the finest player on the
floor. He and his teammates are only a slightly larger gene pool
away from a trip to the semistate. Thus it occurs to someone to
ask, as someone asked last year, whether a school like New
Castle shouldn't pick on someone its own size.
"Right now it hurts real bad," says Menser. "It's the second
year this has happened. But do you think class basketball could
match the atmosphere here tonight? I guarantee you, when I look
back at it, I'll rather have gone out right here, this way. This
is what it's all about. And they're killing it."
That's the word from Batesville. They're killing it. Hoosier
Hysteria is at-need.