Class Divide: 20 Years of Class Basketball

Margie Astrike held up a state title victory sign during the awards ceremony after the Southridge Raiders girls basketball team claimed its first state title by defeating Bluffton 62-57 in the state’s first Class 2A state championship on March 14, 1998. Herald file photo by Aris Economopoulos.

Story by Hendrix Magley

April 29, 1996. 
A date that will forever be remembered in Indiana history — for some, maybe infamy is the better word for it. 

On that date, the Indiana High School Athletic Association Board of Directors approved a proposal by a 12-5 vote that recommended a multiple-class tournament format for a wide array of sports. While this new class system would affect the majority of prep sports, none of them quite felt the impact that high school basketball did. 

Members of the Southridge Raiders’ girls basketball team celebrated their Class 2A state championship on the floor of Market Square Arena following the final buzzer March 14, 1998. The Raiders never trailed in the game and won the school’s first state team title by beating the Bluffton Tigers 62-57. Herald file photo by Aris Economopoulos.

Southridge athletic director Brett Bardwell can remember the atmosphere like it was yesterday, but it’s been 20 years since Huntingburg Memorial Gymnasium has felt the kind of vibe it did during the historic sectional that was held every year inside the gymnasium.

It was an unofficial holiday in Dubois County — schools would let out early on Friday afternoons to prepare for the sectional, traffic would line up and down U.S. 231 from Jasper to Huntingburg as fans from all four county schools would make the haul to Memorial Gym to see who was truly the best in the county. 

“It was a huge, social and cultural event for our county and there was just a certain electricity in the air,” Bardwell said. “It didn’t matter what the teams’ records were, it didn’t matter what the matchups were, it was going to be sold-out no matter what,” Bardwell said. “It was such a big deal to win a sectional then — not that it isn’t now, but unfortunately when they went to the class system we lost a lot in our county.” 

A pair of other schools such as Crawford County and Perry Central joined all four Dubois County high schools — Jasper, Southridge, Forest Park and Northeast Dubois — at the gala that was annually held in Huntingburg every March. Since the beginning of the class system in 1997-98, Southridge has hosted many more sectional, regional and even some semistate tournaments at the gym but the atmosphere has never quite returned to that level. 
“I mean, that place would be stacked to the rafters,” former Southridge girls basketball coach Stan Roesner said. 
When the single-class system was in place, affectionately referred to by native Hoosiers as ‘Hoosier Hysteria’, sectionals were based off of geographic location which led to big city schools (for example, Jasper) matched up in the same sectional with schools with a much smaller enrollment (Northeast Dubois). This system remained popular because of the widespread belief that any school could be named state champion, no matter how big or small (The movie ‘Hoosiers’, anyone?).

Forest Park senior Matt Gilmore, left, guided Ranger players and fans as the crowd rode the “roller coaster” one last time during the March 26, 2005, pep session at Buechler Arena in Ferdinand in celebration of the Ranger’s Class 2A state title.  Herald file photo by Andrew Otto.

However, as smaller schools began to consolidate with larger schools the likelihood of a school with a miniscule enrollment advancing past the Warren Central and Castle’s of the state became significantly smaller. In 1996, the decision was made that Indiana would go to a system similar to many other states where schools would be separated into four classes based off of enrollment size and success factor. This meant that the historic sectional of Jasper, Southridge, Forest Park and Northeast Dubois would be no more as all four schools are different class sizes with the Wildcats a member of Class 4A, Raiders in 3A, Rangers in 2A and Jeeps in 1A. 

Roesner was the coach of the Raider girls basketball squad that was named the first Class 2A girls basketball champion in state history after finishing the season with a 22-6 record and defeating Bluffton 62-57 in the championship game thanks to Kara Meyer’s 28-point outing. 

That doesn’t change the fact that to this day, Roesner wishes his team had the chance to make their state championship run under the old system.

“My first reaction and my reaction today is the same — I was not for it,” Roesner said. “I know people told me through the years, ‘Well, look what your team did.’ But I grew up in the one-class system, I wanted a chance to play the bigger schools, I wanted our kids to feel the rivalries we had fought all those years. I know some people told me that maybe we wouldn’t have won in single-class and maybe we wouldn’t have. We might not even advanced out of sectional. Maybe I’m just old school but just growing up and watching my boys go through it just wasn’t the same.”

Forest Park’s Brandon Hopf, left, gave his cousin a playful scratch on his goatee following the Class 2A state championship game March 25, 2006. Herald file photo by Dave Weatherwax.

Phil Gardner was the president of the IHSAA board of directors at the time the decision to switch to the class system was made and he can still very clearly remember how the state of Indiana felt at the time. Many people still feel that same way. 

“It was met with a lot of pushback and a lot of concern because it was breaking the rich tradition that had made Indiana special,” Gardner said. “It had been that way for so many years, so that change was drastic. But basically what it came down to was small schools having more of an opportunity to get (to the championship).” 

When bringing up single-class basketball in the state of Indiana, the first team that comes to everyone’s mind is the 1954 Milan high school team that played the role of David as they defeated the much larger Goliath, Muncie Central, 32-30 in the state championship game. The fictional Hickory Huskers in the 1986 film “Hoosiers” were based on that Milan team.

And even though a few Dubois County teams made Milan-like runs of their own (Mike Archer and Terry Friedman helped Northeast Dubois reach the semistate in 1977, Southridge made it to the final four in 1985 and 1986), statistics showed that the likelihood of one of these teams making a deep run toward a state title against the powerhouses from cities such as Indianapolis, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Muncie and other large towns was very low.

Alan Matheis has seen both sides of the spectrum. Matheis was the long-tenured coach of the Jeeps’ boys basketball team before switching to coach the Northeast Dubois girls basketball team during the first year of the multi-class system. His tenure as the girls coach included trips to the IHSAA Class 1A state finals in 2012 and 2005 — a jaunt that the Jeep girls had never made prior to the multi-class system.

Matheis said the biggest positive of the switch to the new system was that some schools began to see success that a lot of them had never seen before.

“You would have some schools like Vincennes Lincoln and Bedford North Lawrence where they would maybe win 25 out of 26 sectionals,” Matheis said. “Nowadays, some of these smaller schools can feel the enthusiasm of that type of success.”

Before class basketball began, the Forest Park’s boys basketball team had only won two sectionals and had never moved farther than the regional tournament.

The Northeast Dubois girls basketball team finished runner-ups to Tri-Central in the Class 1A state finals on March 5, 2005. The Jeeps lost 47-46 to the three-time state champions. Herald file photo by David Pierini.

Since 1997, Forest Park has won nine Class 2A sectional championships, five regional championships, three semistate titles and has brought two Class 2A state championship trophies back to Ferdinand.

Tom Beach, who was the head coach of the Rangers from 1999 to 2009 and was an assistant under head coach Denny Doutaz before that, said that while he hates the term “fair” he feels that’s the best way to describe the four-class system.

“For a school such as Tecumseh to be expected to compete with a school like Castle that has about 5,000 students — it’s just not apples-to-apples and in a team sport that makes a big difference,” said Beach, whose 2005 and 2006 Ranger teams, led by Brandon and Clint Hopf, were back-to-back state champions. “I think the biggest positive has been that the smaller schools, the Northeast Duboises and Forest Parks of the world, have gotten to taste success in the tournament and have gotten to go to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. I see the positives in having that type of success.” 

While Beach sees the positives in the new system, he also understands why people were upset to see the classic Hoosier Hysteria tournament style go to the wayside. 

“There were a lot of heated games because you’d have all the local blood in the same sectional,” Beach said. “People from Huntingburg, Jasper, Ferdinand and Dubois would all work together during the week and then go to the game Friday night competing against one another.”

High school basketball still, and likely always, will draw big crowds, especially when any of the county rivals meet or whenever a star player comes to visit (for example, when New Albany superstar and Indiana University recruit Romeo Langford came to play Jasper in 2017). 

But when it comes to the postseason, there’s a certain aura lacking during sectional time that was a guarantee in the single-class days. It’s not to say that sectional games will never see big crowds, but unlike the old days, athletic directors are more concerned with the draws and what teams will be playing than they were before. 

“The sectional (during single-class) would sell out every night, but now you have to be concerned about who’s playing who and what kind of crowd you’re going to get,” Bardwell said. “You have to worry about your attendance now. Back then, the matchups didn’t matter — even if your team had lost or wasn’t in it, people still wanted to be there to see what happened.”

Northeast Dubois’ Taylor Borden, center, sang a Justin Bieber song with teammates to help calm their nerves before the start of the Class 1A state championship game against Canterbury in Terre Haute on March 3, 2012. The Jeeps lost 64-54. Herald file photo by Krista Hall.

At the end of the day, the changes were made to provide more schools and more athletes with chances to experience new tournaments and newfound success that for some, wasn’t possible against the bigger programs. 

“I’m a lifelong educator and I always thought that my primary responsibility as an educator was to provide an opportunity for kids, and I thought going to this system would provide more of those,” Gardner said. “I remember going to the football state finals and I’d go there and I’d see 10 different communities representing 10 different schools and they’d all be there experiencing that, so I thought, ‘This can’t be all bad.’ If it means kids get more opportunities, then it’s a good thing.” 

Beach added, “When it first happened there were feelings all over the board, I guess is a good way to put it.  Basketball in Indiana just brings out people’s feelings, no matter what happens.”

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