Jared Lankford: Standing-room only creates issues in Pierce City

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In February 2003, an article appeared in the Neosho Daily News explaining a potential problem with the Wildcats and Kickapoo basketball teams as they prepared to clash for the district basketball tournament championship.

The game had received area-wide attention, and for good reason.

The Chiefs served as that year’s host, and the game featured two teams ranked in the top five in the state.

History would reveal that there were five division one hoops athletes, nine total college commits and two players of three who played in the European Professional League, with the other seeing time in the NBA.

In fact, Kickapoo finished that season ranked 12th nationally by the USA Today.

Additionally, Neosho had upset the Chiefs the previous year in the district championship at Joplin, a factual narrative that was constantly used to pump up interest in the title tilt.

According to the article in the paper, an appeal had been made to Kickapoo administration to consider moving to the contest to Southwest Missouri State University to handle what was expected to be a large contingency of fans that would easily overflow the gym’s capacity. 

The article said the appeal was denied, as district officials believed the gym could hold the crowd, and fans were urged to arrive early if they wanted a seat.

I tooled to Springfield and arrived in line two hours before the tipoff. Even at that early hour, I was 100 feet away from the door, in a four-person deep line, at one of three different entry points.

An announcement was made that before we could enter, we would have to be counted. The Springfield Fire Marshal had arrived to ensure that the gym would not exceed its posted capacity.

The gym filled quickly, several announcements were made that no seat-saving was allowed, and people were to squeeze together in order to reach maximum occupancy.  

The gym was closed 30 minutes prior to tipoff by the fire marshal, as it had reached its maximum occupancy.

There were reports of numerous fans being turned away. Kickapoo offered an option of letting people sit in its cafeteria and watch the game on closed-circuit television, but that was an insult to Neosho fans who had driven an hour to cheer on their Wildcats.

In the end there were hurt feelings, several red faces and blame to go around.

On Saturday, I was reminded of that 2003 event while covering the Class 2, District 12 championships at Pierce City.

With Pierce City, Sarcoxie and Purdy all having teams reach the finals, I knew that seating would be a premium — and it was.

The entire east side of the gym was a sea of hometown, green-clad, rabid Eagles and Lady Eagles fans. Since both the boys and girls teams were playing for championships, it made sense for them to be given a whole side of the gym to occupy.

Sarcoxie traveled well for the girls championship and Purdy’s fan support is always second to none. 

Just like the rains that pounded the area over the weekend flooded the streams, creeks and rivers, the fans flooded the gym to capacity and beyond. 

Fans were asked by the public address announcer to squeeze together, and that opened the cat calls of the games needing to be moved to a larger facility.

The problem reached a bigger issue for the boys championship, as game officials stated the contest could not begin until the baseline areas were clear of spectators.

The grumblings toward Pierce City, its administration and its seemingly insufficient seating were easy to hear and spot before, during and after the game.

But, those that had complaints were not looking at the whole picture. To place all the entirety of blame on Pierce City is a misguided application of frustration.

First, the original schedule for the district tournaments had the girls championship slated for Friday and the boys title game for Saturday.

Potential ice accumulation on Wednesday, along with a warning from the National Weather Service canceled all action at Pierce City and pushed the whole schedule back.

Per MSHSAA guidelines, any change to the district format must have both teams’ consent. That meant every team in the tournament agreed to the new schedule of games, including the championship evening slated times.

There could have been options on the table, such as spacing out the games and allowing more time between them, emptying the gym and charging a second admission to see the second championship game, or finding a larger facility.

In that district of Pierce City, Purdy, Sarcoxie, Thomas Jefferson, College Heights, Jasper, McAuley Catholic and Southwest, only one could have handled the overflow crowd — Southwest.

The problem is, Washburn is a difficult host site sell for a district tournament since it is well over an hour drive for half of the teams. 

Secondly, the schools all agreed to play at Pierce City and all knew about the gym’s seating — which is on par with Class 2 schools its size. Maybe one day, the voters of Pierce City will authorize the district to build a new and bigger facility. 

Hindsight is always 20-20, but to put blame on the Pierce City district for not moving the games is one that does not contain merit.

These concerns could have and should have been addressed months ago when district host site selection occurred. 

The crowd that attended Saturday was rewarded with two great games, and the atmosphere was as electric as one would expect with a crowd of that magnitude. 

In Springfield, 15 years ago, I watched both Neosho fans and the basketball team get run out of the gym. 

On Saturday, only one fan demanded money back for being told there was only standing room available for the game, but that person eventually decided to stay and watch.

I’m sure next year this subject will be discussed further by the participating schools, but any decision made, just like any criticism, must be shared by the whole.

Jared Lankford is the sports editor of the Cassville Democrat. He may be reached at 417-847-2160 or sports@cassville-democrat.com

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