The year was 1976, and Gary Ernst was a fresh-faced coach at Chandler High who’d taken his young Wolves’ deep into the big-school boys basketball state tournament.
The format was three games in three days to conclude the bracket (quarterfinals-semifinals-championship).
Not only did Chandler successfully navigate the brutal, three-day run, but the first game against Phoenix East high school went to four overtimes.
This week, Ernst, who’s about to take Mountain View through what the Toros – and seven other schools – hope is a similar run to championship, recalled not making a single substitution in that quarterfinal game until there was one minute left in the fourth overtime because one of his starters fouled out.
“Five kids played entire game until one fouled out,” he said. “They were even better the next night (against Tucson Sahuaro in the semifinals) and the third night against (winning the championship against Tucson Rincon). It didn’t make sense for me to sub as long as the kids were sharp and playing well. I would have subbed in second quarter if knew it was going four overtimes.”
The desire to use bigger venues – Wells Fargo Arena and Jobing.com Arena – and scheduling conflicts were the biggest reason why this year’s Division I boys tournament is three games in three days, and, given the talent and depth of the eight teams remaining, it could turn the final three days of this week into a hybrid of depth and survival of the fittest (ie. which kids can stay relatively healthy and recover from the previous day).
Managing minutes and health while playing “elimination” games could be a tricky proposition, but, as Ernst did nearly 40 years ago, most agree there’s not much each team can do other than whatever it takes to win this game is what matters.
Most teams reach this point of the playoffs because they have some depth, but while most coaches said they won’t be expanding their bench minutes other than during a blowout (which appears unlikely given these matchups), contributions from kids not in the starting lineup can become more pivotal to allow starters to rest for a few minutes without losing control of the scoreboard.
“It’s playing five guys if you have to because it’s survive and advance,” Gilbert coach Jay Caserio said. “I don’t think you’re putting any new stuff in, it’s do what you do best. It’s tough and you try to stick to a similar routine that you’ve been doing. I don’t think you change or add things.”
The other difficult aspect to this final stretch run, is the short turnaround doesn’t allow time to prepare for the next opponent’s tendencies or scouting. Most of the eight teams have played each other at least once or have at least seen them on film while scouting a different team, but there becomes a quandary of how much – if any – info. gets relayed to the kids in short order.
Gilbert, for example, presents a different style of play and matchups than, say, Perry or Corona del Sol.
“That puts an emphasis on teams to at least look ahead in very small ways,” said longtime Dobson coach Rick McConnell, who was part of a similar stretch of three consecutive tournament games in the early 1980s when he worked with his father at Saguaro. “I think everyone is pretty familiar with each other - obviously some more than others – but we have an idea of who everyone is. Sometimes it’s just letting (players) go and do whatever you do well is good enough and let them play out what they do best and adjust on the fly.”
In trying to juggle all this, most teams used the 5- to 6-day break between last week’s early round games and this week’s flurry of a finish to scale back. Practices were intense but shorter, and, while the emphasis was strictly on each team’s next respective opponent, sneaking peeks ahead to what may come the following day was a commonality by coaches to at least give their kids one or two key things to remember without flooding their brains in a 12-hour turnaround.
“It’s uncharted water for all of us,” Hamilton coach Kevin Hartwig said. “It’s hard to know how much to go. You don’t have time to look ahead. I think everyone knows what next opponent would be, but you know what’s out there. In the back of our minds you try to strategize because if you get to the next opponent there’s no real time to prepare, even though I think everyone is trying to anyway.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.