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Brent C. Wagner: Evaluators are watching everything to determine sportsmanship champions

March 9, 2019

After eight hours of watching all of the first-round games of the Class C-2 boys state basketball tournament on Thursday, let me say congratulations to those eight communities, because in my opinion you did a good job of supporting your team and didn’t eliminate yourself from contention to win the sportsmanship award.

If you’ve watched enough games at state, you’ve probably had that moment when you got the feeling that in one moment a school’s behavior was so bad that it had just lost the award.

So good job, Sutton, Yutan, Ponca, Bridgeport, BRLD (Bancroft-Rosalie and Lyons Decatur), Howells-Dodge, Centennial and Wakefield.

To learn more about the sportsmanship award and how the process works to determine the winner, I spent the day observing the volunteer evaluators. While it was a small sample size, I left thinking that sportsmanship at high school basketball games was better than I expected. And I felt the same way after watching some Class A and B games Friday.

Most of the Class C-2 schools had really big crowds with students and adults. The gym at Lincoln Northeast was full. I’ll leave the debate on whether the crowds are too big to be playing state tournament games at high schools, or if they need to add one day to the tournament and only play games at the Devaney Sports Center and Pinnacle Bank Arena, to someone else.

And I sympathize with the 20 people who were in line waiting for the women’s restroom. But there is something special about being someplace where so many people want to be there that they ask you to squeeze in closer, so more people can see it, and that’s what they did on Thursday at Lincoln Northeast. Small towns love high school basketball.

Packed house for Class C2 Quarterfinals: Centennial vs Wakefield #nebprepspic.twitter.com/Fg07k5K2Dh — Kevin Sjuts (@kevinsjuts) March 8, 2019

Many of the student sections had a theme — Howells-Dodge’s was Christmas — and there wasn’t an extreme amount of yelling or pointing at the game officials.

What I learned is that there is a very specific and structured system used to determine the sportsmanship award, and the evaluators are very focused on their work.

Most years there are three evaluators for each class, and they watch all eight games played in the class over three days. Most of them are current or former school administrators or teachers.

The evaluators for Class C-2 this week are Jack Tarr, the athletic director at Malcolm; Damen Kugel, the principal at Bruning-Davenport; and Ray Godtel, a retired coach who lives in Lincoln. Tarr even kept judging one year after he tripped on the bleachers at the state games and broke a bone in his leg.

The Nebraska Coaches Association is usually looking for more evaluators to help.

During each game the judges split up and observe from a different part of the crowd. They can award points to schools just for having a band, cheerleaders and mascot. Some of the schools didn’t bring a band or cheerleaders.

“See how much the bands add to the atmosphere. I love it,” Tarr said.

They listen for both positive and negative cheers. They like when students are creative.

During halftime the evaluators discuss what they saw, and that’s good because they each keep their own score for each school. Only one judge had been in a spot to observe that fans in one student section had turned their backs on the opponent during introductions.

And for a negative cheer, you can get deducted points for the same cheer several times, so they compare notes.

After the game each evaluator uses a form to come up with a total score for each school.

There is also a small part of the total score determined by the host site, for things that the evaluators may not see. At the girls tournament a fan chased after a game official in a hallway, and that’s a deduction. Some schools aren’t respectful to the ticket staff.

Fans rushing the court after the game brings automatic elimination, and that happened one year to the school moments away from being the winner. Another school lost the award on the last day when a student made an obscene gesture to a camera on live TV.

The points are not cumulative, but an average for how many days a team plays in the tournament. And teams do get some points for advancing in the tournament, knowing that the intensity picks up each day.

“I think there are some states that do this but it’s more of, this school kind of looked good,” said Darin Boysen, who helps run the award for the Nebraska Coaches Association. “This is systematic, intentional, there is a scoring process. The math has to come out.”