When it comes to the state tournament, the pinnacle experience for any high school sport, several Minnesota football coaches welcome the idea of a more excessive celebration.
From a tournament selection show to a high-profile site reserved for quarterfinal games, coaches desire ways to make their sport more special before it reaches U.S. Bank Stadium for the semifinals and Prep Bowl.
“Football dominates the regular season but as the playoffs go on, football doesn’t have the same feel the other sports do,” Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi said. “In other sports, the state tournament is more of a high point.”
With Class 6A quarterfinals starting Friday night, followed by the Saturday semifinals for Class 5A through Nine-Man, the state tournament is just two victories away. But the thrill of the pursuit isn’t met with a matching sense of pageantry. Not when all but eight of the 56 state tournament quarterfinal games are played at a high school stadium.
“We know these are important games but when you’re playing at a neutral high school site, the kids look around and wonder, ‘We’re in the state tournament?’ ” Minnetonka coach Dave Nelson said.
Of course, football is landlocked in ways other sports are not. More qualifying teams, larger rosters and the inability to play three tournament games in as many days means no chance for a concentrated burst of attention.
With no hotel to provide a place for a losing team to mourn together and no consolation bracket, players whose teams lose in the quarterfinals walk off an unremarkable field and are done.
The potential for adverse weather also means less fanfare. Paid attendance in the state tournament quarterfinals last season was 22,626, a 38 percent drop from the previous year. Cold and snow played a huge role.
“If we’re calling it the state tournament, we have to come up with something to create more excitement,” Lombardi said.
No proposals are drafted. No discussions planned. But that hasn’t stopped coaches, particularly those in charge of Class 6A schools, from brainstorming.
First, the venue. One idea is to move all four quarterfinal games to a premium location such as the Vikings’ Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center. The 6,000-seat turf stadium will host three quarterfinal games this season (one 6A game and a Class 5A doubleheader). This after hosting two regular season games and selling out each one.
Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen, whose team played one of those regular season games, questioned whether TCO Stadium provided adequate seating for a state tournament setting. But he’s all in on a destination venue. His Panthers played state quarterfinal games at the Metrodome in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, two quarterfinal games were played there on consecutive nights.
“We loved it,” Vossen said.
Edina’s Derrin Lamker, who coached Osseo at the time, said, “I’d love to see the final eight get more hype, whether that means four games in a day or a couple games on back-to-back nights.”
Second, television coverage. Channel 45 televises only the two-day Prep Bowl on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. But help is on the way this year. School Space Media will livestream all state tournament quarterfinals and semifinals free of charge.
Lombardi would love to see an NCAA basketball-inspired tournament selection show as another way to engage fans.
“Football in general needs help,” Lombardi said.