Every year at high school basketball tournament time, the same old tired argument rears its ugly head: Public school vs. private school.
The battle lines between the two sides are well-drawn, and there's almost nothing anyone can say to change someone's point of view on the subject. Minds on both sides were made up long ago.
So I'm not going to address that particular issue in this space.
What I will say, however, is that fans who have been watching the tournaments over the decades -- like myself -- have seen a dramatic transformation in demographics take place when it comes to small-school basketball in the state of Ohio.
And I love it.
For those who think small-school hoops should be reserved only for undersized teams playing slow-down basketball and launching long jump shots all game -- mixed in with countless trips to the foul line -- well, times have changed -- for the better. The small-school game has evolved into a fast-paced, athletic, play-above-the-rim venture in the mold of its big-school counterparts, which has elevated the small-school game to another level entirely.
Small-school hoops in Ohio have changed as the state's -- the country's -- demographics have changed. In other words, the Division IV level of basketball isn't just for the suburbs and outlying rural communities anymore. It's all-inclusive, and I think it's great for the game. It offers contrasting styles, tactics and strategies, and for someone who has attended the state basketball tournament for several decades, it's a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, there are those who don't like the direction that Ohio small-school basketball has taken, and it comes off as close-minded and ugly.
The Division IV state champion the last two years was Berlin Hiland, a tiny school in the middle of Amish country.
Hiland, a public school, won two consecutive state titles in impressive fashion, featuring a tall, athletic lineup with versatile players who could run the floor, bury NBA-range 3-pointers, and drive and dunk. Their three best players stood 6-foot-7, 6-6 and 6-4. Division IV opponents had little chance against this very-atypical small school from farm country.
Fast-forward the film to this season. Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph is tearing through the Division IV tournaments much like Berlin Hiland did the previous two years, only now there's a problem in the eyes of too many people:
First, St. Joseph is a private school. Second, it's an inner-city school. Third, it used to be a big school -- the operative phrase being "used to."
So now we get to hear how it's not fair, that the players on St. Joseph's team are too big, too fast and too athletic for the Division IV level.
So were Berlin Hiland's players the last two years, but nobody said a word. In fact, one of the Hawks' best players transferred to Hiland as a junior for those two state-championship seasons.
Again, not a peep.
I saw those Hiland teams play in person, and I was blown away at how big they were, how skilled they were, how versatile they were, even how they dunked like a Division I college team. In the state title game last year, Hiland dismantled Jackson Center 68-36.
That's a 32-point victory in the state championship game over the undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the state. I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it myself.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching those thoroughbreds from Hiland glide up and down the floor, and I am looking forward to getting a look at St. Joseph this year. The Vikings have reached the regional finals, and a win Friday night at the Canton Memorial Fieldhouse would advance them to the state final four in Columbus next week.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: There is a wide gulf here between perception and reality.
The perception is that St. Joe is a ringer in Division IV, that it's not really a Division IV team and it has no business taking the floor against vastly outmanned opponents. Yet the exact same thing was true with Berlin Hiland the previous two seasons, as stated above, but apparently that was OK.
What fuels this perception is the fact that, before merging with all-girls school Villa Angela Academy in 1990, then all-boys St. Joseph was a member of the big-school division in Ohio basketball. That, plus the fact that St. Joe has one of the richest basketball traditions in all of Ohio, winning the Division I state title in 1991 and capturing Division II state championships in 1992, 1994 and 1995.
Because of the merger with the girls school, however, VASJ's boys enrollment steadily declined over the years, dropping to Division III and now to Division IV. Even so, the Division II title in 1995 remains the Vikings' last state championship in boys basketball.
Zero state titles in 17 seasons hardly makes St. Joseph the scourge of Ohio, yet the hysterical reaction of some to the Vikings' success thus far this year would have you believe that the OHSAA let the Miami Heat into the Division IV field.
Here's the reality: athletes today in general are bigger, faster and stronger across the board in all sports. Eventually this was going to find its way to Division IV basketball. Combine that with changing demographics, where a level of basketball long reserved for teams right out of central casting for "Hoosiers" is becoming more culturally diverse all the time, and you have a sea-change that some are not comfortable with at all, which is very unfortunate. This should be celebrated, not condemned.
Even with all that said, St. Joe isn't the first urban team to wreak havoc in Ohio small-school basketball. Columbus Wehrle, a small private school that has since closed down, wreaked havoc throughout the 1980s and featured future Ohio State stars such as Jerry Francis and Lawrence Funderburke. Wehrle won four small-school state titles between 1986 and 1990 before closing its doors after the 1991 season.
Then there's Dayton Jefferson, a small public school that won the Division IV state title in 2010 behind 6-foot-10 behemoth Adreian Payne, who now plays basketball at Michigan State. Dayton Jefferson also won state titles in 1979 and 1998.
But to say that those teams have an unfair athletic advantage over a Division IV tournament field is to sell a lot of other great teams extremely short. I have seen some awfully talented small-school teams at state that could have held their own with almost anyone at any level, such as Bobby Hoying's St. Henry teams that won back-to-back state championships in 1990 and 1991.
It's just that when a team like Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph does come along, the knee-jerk reaction is that it doesn't belong at the small-school level because it doesn't look the part -- in every way.
And that attitude is far more unfair than anything the Vikings can do on a basketball floor.