E-TC, District 127 forced into non-traditional draw

Ewen-Trout Creek's Jake Witt slams it home in Monday night's game against Wakefield-Marenisco at Ewen. He had this right-handed jam and a two-handed dunk, which was called a charge. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe)

BESSEMER — The MHSAA Class D District 127 basketball tournaments will have a different look this year.

While the western U.P. district has been held at a single site each year, there will be multiple venues in this year’s postseason tournament. 

Bessemer is the host of the boys district coming up in March. In the past, that would have meant all five tournament games would be held at the House of Noise. This year, Bessemer will only host games it is playing in with other district teams hosting other contests. The same is true for girls tournament host Crystal Falls Forest Park.

The setup is similar to how Wisconsin tournaments are held with single games held at different schools throughout the state. But teams there earn home games as the higher seed based on their regular-season performance hosts each playoff game. 

In a non-traditional draw, like 127 in Michigan this year, home-court advantage is determined just like the matchups, via random draw. The team on the top part of each bracket hosts each game. Therefore the team with the worst record in the district could host the team with the best record.

About four years ago, the U.P. Athletic Committee made the decision to switch to a non-traditional draw, but the changeover didn’t happen until this season. That’s because athletic directors didn’t know about it, nor were they consulted, E-TC A.D. Shawn Brown said.

John Johnson of the MHSAA said the U.P. Athletic Committee required four districts in the peninsula be nontraditional, including local districts 127 and 94, which Ironwood competes in. Those are changed for the same reasons across Michigan.

“In our most remote parts of the state, it’s to balance travel, to eliminate having several teams making a long drive to one site,” Johnson said. “In other parts of the state, the NT draw helps with tournament administration when we have six or more teams in a district and it makes opening night logistics easier on all parties involved.”

Brown said athletic directors of the four most western schools — Bessemer, Wakefield-Marenisco, E-TC and Watersmeet — are especially in favor of staying with the traditional district format of a single site.

“We want to keep the traditional district,” he said. 

Even if that means going to Republic-Michigamme in Marquette County like last year.

“My biggest beef with it is you don’t get the tournament atmosphere,” E-TC boys coach Brad Besonen said. “Even though it was in Republic last year, the atmosphere was great there. You didn’t quite have the crowd because it was so far away, especially from the Range where you get a lot of people to come watch the games when they’re closer, but it was a great atmosphere.”

The Republic fans ended up rooting for E-TC last year; the E-TC fan bus even picked up Republic fans on their way to regionals the following week.

“It’s one of those ones like you see at the NCAA tournament, you get the underdog playing well against the favorite, the casual fans that just came to watch or are watching another team, start rooting for the underdog and it just creates a wild, crazy atmosphere,” Besonen said. “You only get one team that makes it to regionals, so you get one team that gets to experience it (both games are held in Negaunee for regionals).”

Brown imagined how big the crowd would have been in Bessemer in March for the boys semifinals with three area teams playing there on a Wednesday night. Instead, the games will be at two different sites.

“There’s not going to be that environment we all know about with the districts,” he said. “I think it’s a travesty for the students, the players and the fans.”

Now that some are switching to non-traditional districts, is seeding next?

A statewide proposal to seed Michigan tournaments similar to Wisconsin based on regular-season results failed last year, but further study was encouraged at the time. 

The MHSAA Representative Council is expected to make a decision at a spring meeting. 

In its study, the association found the majority of athletic directors favor seeding and they favor a system that seeds the top two district teams and then continues to select the rest of the teams by random draw. The majority also favors picking those two top teams via an objective ranking system, not with a vote by coaches as Wisconsin does. It also found declining support for seeding the further it got from Michigan’s population centers.

With the current non-traditional setup, the home team in each game may or may not have earned home-court advantage. In a traditional district, everyone plays at one site.

“I feel like if it’s non-traditional, I’d like it to be seeded,” Besonen said. “I don’t like that you just luckily get to host a game against a team that is maybe not as good as you. Or maybe you beat them twice and they’re a pretty good team and then you’ve earned nothing by beating them twice. So I don’t like that aspect at all. It is nice because you’re probably not going to be going like we did last year to Republic.”

What might solve the travel problem that has forced 127 to become a non-traditional district might include the following changes, according to Brown: Ontonagon returns to 127, Republic-Michigamme going back to the Copper Country district in place of Ontonagon and Crystal Falls Forest Park returns to a district with neighboring North Dickinson.

District 127 teams travel an average of 70 miles for a district game. No other district in the U.P. has an average over 55 miles, he said.

They are preparing a proposal to the U.P. Athletic Committee, and it must also be approved by the MHSAA. It most likely won’t be in time to change this season’s tournament.

Here’s how this season’s playoffs will look after the results of the random draw just conducted:

In the first round of the boys tournament, Ewen-Trout Creek will host Crystal Falls Forest Park and Watersmeet will host Wakefield-Marenisco. Both are on Monday, March 5 at 6:30 p.m. CST. Neither are at tournament host Bessemer.

Semifinals are Wednesday, March 7 at 6:30 p.m. CST. The E-TC/CFFP winner will play Bessemer in Bessemer. The Watersmeet/W-M winner will host Republic-Michigamme in the other semi. The final will be hosted by whoever wins the semifinal in Bessemer and it will be held Friday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m.

On the girls side, there will be no first-round games at tournament host Forest Park. E-TC hosts Republic-Michigamme and Watersmeet plays at home against Bessemer, both on Monday, Feb. 26, both at 6:30 p.m. CST.

Forest Park will host a semifinal, the winner of E-TC/R-M. The Bessemer-Watersmeet winner will host Wakefield-Marenisco in the other semi. Both are Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. CST.

The final will be hosted by the winner of the Forest Park semifinal on Friday, March 1 at 6:30 p.m. CST.