Grand Haven’s Korie Schmidt never got to experience the drama and excitement of the pinnacle of high school basketball in the state, otherwise known as March Madness.
It’s where players and coaches have the opportunity to shine their brightest on the biggest stage — in post-season tournaments.
Schmidt played her final prep season of hoops with the Buccaneers in 2006, when the sport was still played in the fall. The following year, the Michigan High School Athletic Association lost its final appeal in the United States Supreme Court over a gender equity lawsuit spearheaded by a pair of Grand Rapids volleyball mothers.
Their group, called Communities for Equity, claimed the Association was discriminating against girls by having certain sports — namely volleyball and basketball — in opposite seasons than most of the country and from the college level. As a result, they argued, athletes such as Schmidt were missing out on March Madness, and scholarship opportunities in their respective sports.
Starting in the fall of 2007, volleyball — which is the most popular female sport in Michigan based on participation with more than 20,000 athletes — was played in the fall for the first time, while basketball — with more than 17,000 female participants — had its inaugural season in the winter and shared the stage with the boys. Other sports affected by the lawsuit were girls golf moving to fall and boys to spring; and girls tennis and boys tennis also swapped to their current alignment in the spring and fall, respectively.
The unprecedented changes sparked a firestorm of strong opinions from coaches, athletic directors and athletes alike. Many still hold those strong feelings today.
"Those ladies that started this only cared about their daughters getting scholarships," said Spring Lake Athletic Director Cavin Morhardt. "They didn't care about my kids, the kids at Spring Lake or any kids in the future.
“To try to fix something that wasn’t broken, it’s hard to say there’s any positives from it all.”
Now, six years later, the results have been a mixed bag. There have been some success stories, such as a believed improvement in the quality of play in volleyball, but also lingering cases of frustration, with overall participation and fan attendance figures plummeting.
GAMES FIGHTING FOR FANS
Schmidt, who is now the freshman girls basketball coach at Grand Haven, is somewhat split on the issue.
"When I heard it was getting switched, I didn't like the idea," she admitted. "My thought was that it wasn't a big deal as far as exposure for female athletes, and if you were a good athlete, you would get scouted.
"But now that I have continued to coach at Grand Haven, I don't mind the switch and like the longer basketball season."
An issue that Schmidt and other coaches in the state have noticed is the abundance of empty seats at girls’ games throughout the regular season. It was an issue when the games were played in the fall as well, she said.
"Although we are the team that won state last year... we still don't get the support from the student body. Tuesday night home games are usually pretty dead as far as the amount of fans in the stands. I think that's the most frustrating part as far as my own opinion as well as what I hear from the girls from time to time. Guys’ games are normally always packed, whether they are 2-18 on the season or 18-2. I don't think it's a matter of sharing the stage with the boys because even when I played, the stands weren't packed for us and they were for the boys.
“We get more fans now than we did when we played in the fall. But more so when we play before the guys than when we play after."
A problem is an abundance of games and fans’ reluctance to attend as many as four nights a week. Fans are also pulled in different directions on Tuesdays when boys and girls varsity games are typically split, with one at home and another on the road.
Mohrhardt said at a Tuesday tripleheader in mid-February this year featuring Spring Lake's girls freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams against rival Ludington, the games produced just $256 in ticket sales.
"That's not enough to even cover the refs," he said.
Paying referees is one thing, but finding enough quality officials to work four or more games a week is an issue area athletic directors have fretted over since the season changes were made, Mohrhardt said.
“That and scheduling has been tough,” he said. “We’re still trying to work through some things, but we’re getting it close to getting it right. When you have 6-8 teams vying for a gym with that many nights of competition, that continues to be a problem.”
QUALITY OF PLAY DWINDLING?
Grand Valley State women’s basketball coach Janell Burgess grew up in Iowa, where girls basketball has always been in the winter. But when she started to recruit in Michigan as an assistant with Missouri State in 2000, she loved the idea of girls basketball being showcased in the fall.
"I don't believe people truly understand the negative effect (moving to winter) has had on the sport," Burgess said.
First, she said, college coaches lost "a tremendous advantage" of being able to scout high school players at any time when they played in the fall, because college seasons had not yet started. Burgess also felt that girls teams across the state lost a lot of good coaches who were forced to choose between coaching girls or boys, because it would be impossible to do both in the winter.
"When they played in the fall, I would see coaches from all the major programs at schools in Michigan, the Tennessees, the UConns," Burgess said. "The number of times I see those big-time programs now on the recruiting trail are very small."
With their seasons now clashing, Burgess said she and staff still travel to high school games to recruit, but it forces them to extend their already busy schedules to catch the action. In turn, they rely more and more on AAU and other summertime travel teams to evaluate talent.
THE NUMBERS ARE DROPPING
The Association’s spokesman, John Johnson, said participation numbers in every sport for males and females as well as athletic scholarship totals have dropped since the season switch went into effect.
“We continue to hear complaints from schools concerning the girls’ seasons on a weekly basis,” Johnson said.
In 2005, a year before the season’s switch, athletic participation for girls in Michigan stood at 127,890. It jumped up to more than 130,000 in both 2006 and 2007, but has plummeted ever since. Last year, the figure was at 124,724.
Johnson said the season switch has played a role, forcing athletes into tough decisions on which sports to play, but another factor is Michigan’s overall population drop, with more people moving to the southern region of the country.
Johnson said the current seasons are “set in stone” for the near future and if a party were to fight to move girls basketball and volleyball back to the fall and winter, different courts would have to become involved.
“If anything were to change, legally it would have to be launched in a different jurisdiction,” Johnson said. “Someone on the east side of the state would have to file suit, and challenge the decision by the western (Michigan) courts.”
Even as participation drops, Johnson said Michigan still ranks in the top 10 in the United States with nearly 300,000 boys and girls participating in high school athletics.
“The schools are doing the best they can do (to encourage participation),” he said. “I have to give the schools high marks.”
Johnson noted that some sports such as cross country have shown strong participation increases during the past six years.
A majority of area volleyball coaches also seem to be pleased with playing in the fall, as they no longer have to play second fiddle to boys basketball in the winter.
Grand Haven coach Aaron Smaka said he was initially worried that girls would become burned out on the sport, as it gave them more opportunities to play club volleyball from winter through the summer and gain exposure for potential scholarships.
“What we’ve seen is the overall level of play has increased across the board,” he said. “The kids that are putting in the extra time in the sport are naturally going to be better.”
Since 2008, Grand Haven has produced 11 student-athletes who have gone on to play college volleyball, a significant number considering the program never had anymore than two in a year from 1999 to 2007.
Fruitport graduate Jackie Geile, who won a state title with the Trojans in the winter of 2005 and later played the sport at Taylor University in the fall, said she likes where the sport is at currently.
“Overall, the switch has benefitted more than it hurt,” she said. “Yes, some athletes had to choose between the two sports, but that will happen regardless of the time of year you play. Not everyone can be satisfied all the time. And I obviously love the fact that my sisters have the opportunity to play.”
Geile’s younger sisters, Samantha and Breanna, both played in the fall at Fruitport, and now are both playing collegiately at Madonna University in Livonia.
“With all that said, though, I think they would have succeeded regardless,” Geile said. “I’m thankful for the switch.”
TALENT BREEDS SUCCESS
One thing is certain: Grand Haven fans did not hold back last March when the Bucs’ varsity girls basketball team completed a dream season with the program’s first Class A state championship at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Bucs’ supporters soaked up March Madness and showed tremendous support throughout the tournament run. It was so good that Grand Haven Athletic Director Robin Bye said he was notified by Association officials that Grand Haven fans outnumbered every other school at the semifinals and finals — combined.
It’s impossible to determine if that fanatical following would have happened in the fall, but as Schmidt believes, talent is talent and it’s appreciated no matter the season.
“I don’t think that success has anything to do with the change in seasons, but has to do with the talent we have had come through the program and the commitment and dedication of our coaching staff as well as players,” Schmidt said. “The girls that have gone through our program that have went to college to play ball would have been recognized and played college even if they played in the fall, because they are great athletes and put the time in that it took to make them great.”