The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 31, 2014

Courrier: Mankato, MSU should host top prep hoops

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Target Center hosts an annual high-school basketball event called the Timberwolves Showcase, bringing teams from out of state to take on some of Minnesota’s best.

For the last four years, Maple River has hosted the Hardwood Classic, annually getting some top Class AA programs to play two early-season games at Mapleton.

Just a couple weeks ago, Owatonna hosted a metro-outstate event, with five games pitting some top local teams against other top programs from the Twin Cites.

Why can’t Mankato or Minnesota State host such an event?

We have the facilities to host a day of top-notch high-school basketball. The local basketball fans have to be tired of watching the same teams play each other every season. Why wouldn’t this be a good idea? Ryan Swanson, the activities director at Owatonna, said the local booster club did most of the work, having planned it a year in advance. He said it’s not easy to find top-level teams that want to use up a nonconference game or a home date to play in this kind of event, but the atmosphere at the Owatonna gym was terrific, even playoff-like for a bunch of teams that have high expectations.

All five games were exciting, with the highlight being the boys game between Waseca and Minneapolis Washburn, which Waseca won in overtime. Owatonna’s boys lost 67-62 to Eden Prairie, and the Owatonna girls took their first loss, 61-57 to Shakopee. New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, which hopes to win another girls’ state title, got a good game from Washburn, winning 87-77.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Swanson said. “It was a packed gym most of the day. About halftime of one game, then fans from the next game would start showing up.”

The crowds might not be that big at Mapleton, but Maple River coach Chad Ostermann said a couple thousand fans show up each year to watch four varsity and four junior-varsity games over two days. He’s always looking for good competition, having taken his team to similar events in Wisconsin the last two years.

“We always try to get the best AA teams we can,” he said. “Some teams run into scheduling problems with their conference, but it’s a fun event.”

There have been a few teams that have ended up in the state tournament after playing at the Hardwood Classic. Last year, Hayfield and Litchfield both played at Mapleton and ended up playing in the final eight of AA. This year, defending state champion Minnehaha Academy played in the Hardwood Classic, as did Mayer Lutheran and Jackson County Central, two teams that have good records this season.

Ostermann said he already has a commitment from Jordan, a team with some good younger players, for next year.

The bottom line is that both of these schools hosted events that were outside of the comfort zone, scheduling quality teams that showcase the best of high-school basketball. Mankato or Minnesota State could do the same thing.

It might take the cooperation from the three Mankato high-schools, but you’d think a facility such as Bresnan Arena, and the chance for a high-quality game against an unfamiliar opponent might be enough to lure a metro school — or maybe one from Iowa, Wisconsin or South Dakota — down to Mankato, where maybe a kid gets seen by a college coach. Or maybe you can bring in teams who have players that have already committed to Minnesota State so the locals can get a look at the future Mavericks. Not sure how this can get started, but surely there are basketball fans in Mankato who would be interested in watching top-level high school basketball at Bresnan Arena.

Certainly, it can happen. It works in other towns.

Why not Mankato?