With trade­offs, state venue mystique only goes so far

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Sports - Chris Lill­strung Lill­strung can be reached at CLill­strung@NewsHerald.com; on Twit­ter: @CLill­strungNH

There is a dras­tic dif­fer­ence be­tween per­form­ing in com­mu­nity theater and recit­ing the same lines on Broad­way.

The same the­ory ap­plies for high school ath­letes.

Lo­cal venues are where you cut your teeth. But the work is ul­ti­mately — if at all pos­si­ble — about as­pir­ing for and get­ting to the big stage in your sport.

There comes a time, though, when it seems trade­offs are made in or­der to en­sure ath­letes are jus­ti­fi­ably ac­com­mo­dated in be­ing af­forded those dreams. And some­times, those con­ces­sions to make it there — de­spite the best in­ten­tions of all par­ties in­volved — go a lit­tle too far.

Texas foot­ball play­ers can vie for state ti­tles at AT&T Sta­dium. In­di­ana bas­ket­ball play­ers can go to Bankers Life Field­house and com­pete for hard­ware. Ore­gon track and field ath­letes can aim for the iconic Hay­ward Field in Eu­gene.

The Ohio High School Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion also does a won­der­ful job giv­ing ath­letes the big stage for their state fi­nals.

Foot­ball gets one of the best venues in the Buck­eye State — the newly ren­o­vated Tom Ben­son Hall of Fame Sta­dium — and in years past they got Paul Brown Tiger Sta­dium and Ohio Sta­dium.

Golf, bas­ket­ball, wrestling and track and field get to pur­sue Ohio State as well. Ten­nis can eye Ma­son and a venue home to the Western & South­ern Open. Hockey can vie for NHL ice at Na­tion­wide Arena in Colum­bus. Oh yeah, about that: This past week may have en­cap­su­lated what hap­pens when sim­ply too much is go­ing on and high school sports has to some­how fit into that equa­tion.

From March 8-12, Na­tion­wide Arena was busier than even it usu­ally is, play­ing host to:

• Blue Jack­ets home games March 8, 9 and 12

• A Big Ten hockey tour­na­ment semi­fi­nal be­tween Ohio State and Michi­gan on March 10

• WWE “Fast­lane” on March 11

• Amer­i­can Col­le­giate Hockey As­so­ci­a­tion (club hockey) na­tion­als at the Ice Haus next door

In turn, the high school hockey frozen four had to work within the means it’s given — semi­fi­nals March 9 at 10 a.m. (Univer­sity-Toledo St. Fran­cis) and 12:30 p.m. (St. Ig­natius-Dublin Jerome) and the fi­nal at 2 p.m. March 10.

No one is sug­gest­ing high school hockey should get top pri­or­ity here.

But a semi­fi­nal dou­ble­header that starts on a week­day morn­ing in the state cap­i­tal, pre­vent­ing many in­ter­ested par­ties from mak­ing the trek due to aca­demic or work com­mit­ments? It’s an ex­cep­tion to the rule year to year, but still a bit much.

The state fi­nal be­tween St. Ig­natius and Toledo St. Fran­cis went to dou­ble over­time, likely drain­ing at least some of the prep time the arena de­sired for the OSU-Michi­gan game slated for 7 p.m. March 10.

WWE pay-per-view shows have elab­o­rate stage sets sim­i­lar to those seen at con­certs. They typ­i­cally pre­fer to get a good head start for pro­duc­tion sake and didn’t get con­trol of the arena un­til af­ter the Big Ten game and when the changeover was made from host­ing hockey.

Some of the Blue Jack­ets’ staff also has to dou­ble up for high school games, too, for arena op­er­a­tion.

On March 10, es­pe­cially, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble Ohio high school hockey — sim­ply by hav­ing a great state fi­nal — made life a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing for Na­tion­wide, the Blue Jack­ets, the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michi­gan and WWE.

I’m not say­ing they were an­gry at high school hockey, but they couldn’t have been do­ing cart­wheels through the Arena Dis­trict, ei­ther.

The tim­ing — again, not ma­li­ciously — was forced to some ex­tent so hockey could have its shot like ev­ery year on the big ice.

Then there’s the ele­phant in the room. Proud as we are in the high school hockey com­mu­nity of be­ing a niche sport that fights valiantly for progress, Na­tion­wide can be a cav­ern fan-wise for the frozen four. It’s an awe­some cav­ern, but a cav­ern nonethe­less. That’s only made worse when tim­ing doesn’t let peo­ple sup­port the sport.

Purists will ar­gue hockey never should have left the Brook­lyn/Bowl­ing Green state ro­ta­tion. I wouldn’t go that far, but more can be done to give Ohio high school hockey a true re­served spot­light on a de­served big stage.

If it’s on a Blue Jack­ets game day, great. There have been years in which play­ers have min­gled with NHL play­ers — one year, US and St. Ig­natius play­ers chat­ted with Keith Tkachuk and Blues play­ers.

But here’s to hop­ing the Na­tion­wide sched­ule isn’t this packed again be­yond the Blue Jack­ets.

If the goal is to let high school ath­letes know they are a big deal, they should feel like they’re on a big stage with­out what’s next ea­gerly wait­ing in the wings. They shouldn’t feel like they’re in an off-Broad­way show or bet­ter off back in com­mu­nity theater.

CHRIS LILL­STRUNG — THE NEWS-HER­ALD

Na­tion­wide Arena in Colum­bus is shown an hour prior to the March 9 state hockey semi­fi­nal be­tween Univer­sity and Toledo St. Fran­cis.

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