Hoosiers are a little happier these days. Varsity girls and boys basketball are now in full swing. Decades ago, the happy feelings peaked with excitement during the LaPorte County Sectional. Every community wanted to see its team win, or to see David topple Goliath, but it was about communities meeting in one place and watching basketball together as much as anything. As the winner advanced to the Regional, everyone hoped they’d represent LaPorte County well.
As schools consolidated and then class basketball created four divisions, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) scattered area teams far and wide. Last season, the seven LaPorte County boys’ teams played in six different Sectional tournaments. Marquette traveled 55 miles to play its Sectional games. And they got nothing on New Prairie’s girls, who traveled 95 miles—one way—to play in the Rensselaer Sectional. We lost something sacred. Basketball has been a great unifier, the common thread of the Hoosier tapestry, a reason to get together and celebrate. And the past may shed light on an opportunity to come together again.
In 1922, LaCrosse High School won the first LaPorte County Basketball Tournament. The county tourney was a major social event that brought people together for one exciting week of basketball. In 1962, three schools consolidated to create South Central. Other schools soon followed and the tournament field dwindled. In 1965, the tournament ended.
Throughout Indiana, county basketball tournaments have existed for a century. Usually held midseason, it generates Hoosier hoopla. It is as big, and sometimes bigger, than the Sectional itself. In Marion County for instance, sixteen teams compete in the county tourney. LaPorte’s old county tourney only included the rural township-run schools. The city schools weren’t discriminated, but rather the county tourney served as a conference tournament of sorts (the LaPorte County Conference was never formally created, rather it just came to be, but that’s another story).
I called the athletic directors of the 7 IHSAA member schools that sit in LaPorte County: Michigan City, Marquette, LaPorte, New Prairie, Westville, South Central, and LaCrosse. I asked each one what they thought of the idea of creating a LaPorte County Tourney. My first call went out to Michigan City’s Craig Shaman.
Shaman pointed out challenges and the potential for such a tournament. “It’s a great idea in general,” he said. “Consider me interested.” In discussing it further, that is. He reiterated that he’d have to talk to his principal, head coaches, and the other schools first. Nobody was pressed for a commitment and nobody offered one.
Ryan Kruszka from South Central previously coached baseball in Indianapolis. “The Marion County Tourney was exciting,” he said. “It would be cool up here to do it. We would be interested if everybody else (the other schools) is involved.”
Josh Goeringer of Westville pointed out the biggest challenge to overcome: “Hardest thing will be scheduling.” But he added, “It’s worth a conversation with the other county schools. It’s worth getting the ball rolling and see what happens.”
Dave Amor in LaCrosse pointed out, “It would get a decent draw of people. Sounds interesting.” He acknowledged the scheduling challenge, but added, “It would make my scheduling a little easier. I’d have two guaranteed games in one spot.” A man who finds the silver lining—gotta appreciate that.
I was off to the races when I encountered a hurdle. Mark Yates at New Prairie said probably not, due to their participation in the Bi-County Tourney (somebody really should tell the tournament organizers that its participants come from four counties), but he left the window open. He is the interim athletic director and didn’t think it fair to bind the next A.D. to a commitment. Fair enough, I said. Always the optimist, I marked him down as a maybe.
I reached out for a different perspective and called the Michigan City Chamber of Commerce and caught President Mary Jo Orlowski. After providing her a little history and background, she jumped right in. Economically it would be “absolutely impactful.” She said, “Even though they’re competing, it would bring the communities together, be unified as one participating in this tourney. Everyone could have fun. We support the concept. We would want to hear more details of what comes, of course.”
With renewed encouragement, I contacted Marquette’s Katie Collignon who promptly responded via e-mail: “Marquette would definitely be interested in playing in the tournament! I love the history of the region and think it is important to carry on traditions. I think it would be great for not only the community, but our student athletes as well.” I liked her enthusiasm and she echoed a sentiment expressed by Orlowski: If it’s good for the kids, explore further.
Ed Gilliland at LaPorte High School indicated that changing schedules would mean ending existing relationships with other schools. There is that and relationships get built over time, but he didn’t reject the idea altogether. “I have some reservations,” he wrote via e-mail, “and would need to see specifics on how this tournament would be conducted.”
Specifics, of course! The devil is always in the details and I offered none. The format and details would depend on how the participating schools chose to conduct the tournament. Far be it for me to dictate such demands. I suggested 8 teams participate and every team be guaranteed 2 games with the winners playing a third, championship game. Beyond that, there are too many options for me to describe in these pages. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader.
I challenge you to imagine a week dedicated not only to local basketball, but to all of the kids who learn, participate, and compete at every school. Then, imagine a Saturday night gym filled to the rafters with residents from every corner of the county waiting to see who will be crowned Kings and Queens of LaPorte County Basketball. Thrilling, isn’t it?
Matt Werner is the author of three books about local sports history—Season of Upsets: Farm boys, city kids, Hoosier basketball & the dawn of the 1950s; How Sweet It Is: the 1966 Elston Red Devils; and A White Sox Life: From Hoosier farm boy to 42 years in Major League Baseball.