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MHSAA moves football championships, changes format for basketball tournament

Published 10:35 am Tuesday, July 22, 2014

By David Brandt

The Associated Press

JACKSON — The Mississippi High School Activities Association on Monday made official the major change that had been planned for years, and hinted at and speculated on for months — its football and basketball championships are undergoing renovations.

The MHSAA announced several changes to its postseason venues, including moving the football championships from Jackson to the campus stadiums at Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

MHSAA executive director Don Hinton said the football championships will be played at Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium in 2014 and 2016 and at Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2015 and 2017.

The football championships have been played at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson since 1992. Hinton said the biggest reason for the switch is the move gives the MHSAA a chance to host its games at Southeastern Conference-quality stadiums.

“It’s about giving the experience for our student-athletes to be able to play in those facilities,” Hinton said.

Hinton added that the MHSAA’s plan was modeled after Alabama, which rotates its championship games between Auburn University and the University of Alabama. The move has been in the planning stages since 2011, Hinton said.

“We looked at what the Alabama High School Athletic Association did as far as rotating their football championships at Auburn and Alabama. We looked at the logistics of it as far as hosting their state football championships when they are not hosting the Iron Bowl. For us, it’s all about our students, whether it’s athletics or an activity like dance or band. We want the best facilities and venues possible.” Hinton said.

Hinton said the six championship games combined to draw about 25,000 fans in 2012 before a steep decline in 2013, which was largely attributed to unseasonably cold weather. He hopes the six games can draw at least 30,000 at the campus sites.

St. Aloysius football head coach BJ Smithhart said that while playing in the college stadiums will provide a first-class venue, it’s playing for a championship that’s truly special.

St. Al reached the Class 1A semifinals last season in its deepest postseason run since reaching the Class B championship game in 1981. No Warren County team has played for a state title in football since Warren Central in 1994.

“We’ll play anywhere if you make it that far. We’re just happy to get there,” Smithhart said. “That’s a long ways away. But I think it’s special no matter what stadium you play in.”

Southern Miss will host the Mississippi-Alabama Football Classic in 2015 and 2017. It will be the first time in the event’s 27-year history that the game will be played in Mississippi.

The game will be played at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., in 2014 and 2016.

“We really feel like it’s a great opportunity for the University of Southern Mississippi to showcase their facilities and bring these terrific athletes every other year to their facility,” Hinton said.

Football wasn’t the only sport whose championship got a facelift.

The state’s basketball tournament for both boys and girls will be expanded to include the quarterfinals, which bumps the total number of games from 36 to 84. Most games will be played at the Mississippi Coliseum, but the boys’ quarterfinals will be hosted by Jackson State.

Some early talk had the boys and girls tournaments being split to different cities with more modern arenas like Southaven, Tupelo or Biloxi. Warren Central boys coach Bruce Robinson said he was glad to see all of the games remain in Jackson. The state tournament has been played there for nearly 50 years.

“It means something to get to Jackson and the Big House,” Robinson said, referring to the Mississippi Coliseum. “That really resonates with basketball players. You have people that have gone for 40 years and been sitting in the same seats every year. The Coliseum still has that mystique. People still want to play in the Coliseum.”

The bigger change might be the format of the tournament itself.

The North and South State tournaments have been eliminated. Instead, a total of 24 teams in Class 5A and 6A, and 32 in Classes 1A through 4A will advance from the division tournaments to the state tournament.

The rounds prior to the quarterfinals will be similar to the football playoffs or some postseason college tournaments, where schools host single-elimination games. Higher-seeded teams will host playoff games.

Hinton said issues with attendance and site selection led to the decision to shake things up.

“We’ve always had site selection issues with the North and South State Tournaments. We’ve always had travel and expense issues, like when the host team loses on the first night, there are two teams that may have traveled a long distance playing (in front of a sparse crowd),” Hinton said. “Our basketball coaches have talked for a long time and have been passionate about expanding the state tournament. This has been in the works for three years. We are really excited about it.”

Robinson was one of those coaches who liked the idea. With more teams advancing to Jackson, he feels like the new system rewards teams for winning their division tournament and makes the road to the Coliseum a bit easier.

“As far as the teams go, in 5A and 6A if you win your (division) tournament then you only have to win one more game to get to the Coliseum,” Robinson said.

Vicksburg Post sports writer Ernest Bowker contributed to this report.