Paul Valencia: Making trip to state got a little bit harder

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

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As we head into Class 4A and 3A bi-district tournaments for boys and girls this week, just a reminder that the teams that advance do not go directly to the state tournament.

They must first pass through the regionals.

And not like last year’s regionals, which really were state tournament games. This time, we really mean regionals.

If you recall, last year the 4A and 3A boys and girls state championships were still at the Tacoma Dome, but there was one fewer day on the schedule. Instead of 16-team brackets in the dome, only eight teams made it there.

It was a cost-saving move. Instead of two weeks, using four days for the 4A and then four days for the 3A tournaments, the WIAA could get both tourneys done in one three-day stretch.

The previous week, 16 teams got together at various locations throughout the state to determine the eight teams that advanced to the Tacoma Dome.

Last year, all 16 of those teams were considered state tournament teams. It is listed in the record books as a state tournament appearance.

Not so this year.

You see, enough people complained that playing in half-empty high school gymnasiums did not have the “feel” for state.

To be fair, not all of the games were in empty gyms. Some of the regional clashes were played before standing-room-only crowds. But then there were others that could have been played in libraries.

I think I counted less than 10 students in the stands when the Prairie girls won in the round of 16 last year. Pretty much everyone figured the Falcons would roll -- they did -- and it was a long drive to Auburn Mountainview High School for one game on a Friday. The students waited until the next week, the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday games at the Tacoma Dome, to make their presence known.

Understandable, in fact.

The Evergreen boys and girls teams both played their round-of-16 games in the Richland. Not exactly the destination choice for anybody not from the Tri-Cities.

So both the Evergreen boys and girls did make it state last year, but when they both lost in Richland, it sure did not feel like they made it to state. They did not make it to the dome.

The WIAA listened to those complaints, even asked coaches, players and media for feedback on the new structure. Then came back with a new system. And a new name. These are regional games, with a shot to make it to state.

Also last season, three of the 12 state champions (6 classifications for boys and girls) actually lost state tournament games. There were two chances for the top seeds to advance from the Round of 16 to the elite eight. Three of those Friday night losers turned around and won on Saturday to make it to the dome, then won three in a row at the dome to win the championship.

A lot of coaches hated the idea of a team losing a game in the state tournament but still being able to take home the first-place trophy.

So this year, the regionals are one-and-done. Win and you’re in. Lose and go home.

This means that the teams that do make it to the Tacoma Dome will be considered state tournament competitors -- and they will have earned it.

It also means there might be some hard feelings. There are going to be teams that make it to the round of 16 -- a state tournament team for years until now -- and will not be able to claim they made it.

But that’s just for the record books.

In a player’s heart, he or she will know that being in the Sweet 16 in special. Even if it isn’t the dome.

For many teams, the Sweet 16 would be quite an accomplishment, no matter where it is played.

Paul Valencia covers high school sports for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4557 or e-mail at paul.valencia@columbian.com