Chasing Championships

Rick Sarro Thursday, March 30, 2017 Comments Off on Chasing Championships
Chasing Championships

If we’re not careful, Calcasieu Parish may be on its way to becoming Title Town in Louisiana high school sports.

Barbe has a stranglehold on 5-A baseball. St. Louis High seems to win a soccer crown every year. Sam Houston has trophies for girls softball. And nearby Fairview, Lacassine or Hathaway are always in contention in girls basketball. The Barbe Lady Bucs came close to being on that champions’ list for 5-A basketball, but fell one win short.

Washington Marion added to the championship trophy case with the Class 4-A boys basketball state title, holding back Ellender from Houma 66-58 in a game not decided until the final 30 seconds or so.

The victory for head coach Albert Hartwell and the Charging Indians ended a long, torturous 30 years since the school’s last state title in 1987. It was well deserved after this program has come so close, losing in the championship game many times over that stretch of three decades.

“Unfinished business” was the mantra all season for the Charging Indians, as they sought redemption for a goal that has been so close but so difficult to attain.

Washington Marion’s run to the state title will surely have a secondary benefit for Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana in the business of hosting various state championship tournaments that showcase the region to the rest of Louisiana and add a significant economic impact.

When a local team such as Washington Marion or St. Louis in boys basketball or Barbe in baseball advances to the championship tournament, attendance soars. Burton Coliseum (basketball) and McMurry Park (baseball and softball) have sold-out crowds and jam-packed venues. This has an impact on the LHSAA and will carry a lot of weight when they sit down to decide who ultimately wins the bidding war to host these valuable state tournaments.

The Washington Marion versus Ellender championship game attracted a sellout crowd, with nearly every seat taken at Burton Coliseum. This mega match-up was a driving force in the event’s total attendance mark of 38,390 over the six days of the tournament.

According to Eric Zartler, sales director for the Lake Charles-Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the recently completed boys state tournament had an estimated economic impact of $2.25 million dollars to the region.

That’s a very strong motivation for Lake Charles to compete for and win these events. “We will sit down with Burton Coliseum, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and the city of Lake Charles, who have been great partners with us in bringing in these events, and decide how we will attack the new RFP (requests for proposals) for the 2018 and 2019 championships,” said Zartler. “The new bid is due to the LHSAA office on May 17, and we will make a presentation on June 1 to the LHSAA board of directors, with a goal to bring the boys championships back and make a strong effort to have the girls tournament as well, and keep all the Marsh Madness events in Lake Charles.”

The 43-year-old Zartler has been a driving force behind securing the state championship events for the area over the last five years. He’s a nine-year veteran with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and has been its sales director the last three years. Since 2012, Zartler has been recognized with several national and state awards for his expertise and efforts.

His experience, coupled with his unbridled passion and work ethic, have been invaluable resources in winning these events for the region. He leads a team that’s been able to retain the boys basketball tournament for the past four years, and had the girls tournament for 2014 and 2015 before it moved to Hammond this season. This year will be the sixth year that Sulphur will host the boys state baseball finals.

Topping off that success is Sulphur and McMurray Park’s 16th straight year as home to the Louisiana Girls Fast Pitch 56 Softball tournament. It’s unprecedented for one region to host this huge state event for such a long run. The event will become the Fast Pitch 95 as the tournament increases from 7 classes of teams to 12, encompassing both public and private school divisions.

Lake Charles, Sulphur and Calcasieu Parish have been able to strengthen their bids, which are always for two years, with a very low rental cost for the venue — or in the case of Burton Coliseum, no cost at all to the LHSAA. According to Zartler, this also includes no costs for security and operations at Burton. This means the local bid allows the LHSAA to keep 100 percent of the gate.

Zartler didn’t want to disclose any specific dollar figures that may be included in past or future bids because he didn’t want to tip off competing markets. The exact number of zeros in any financial bid of this nature is important. But according to LHSAA Assistant Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green, the financial package is only one part of their decision making process.

Green says the city’s ability to make the visiting teams feel welcome with certain amenities and good organization, along with a large and effective base of volunteers, goes a long way in determining who will be hosting the tournaments.

“I think what the LHSAA is looking for is a community who embraces the event,” Zartler noted. “And we do that.

“They are looking for a facility that is championship quality and gives the student athletes a championship atmosphere, and we do that. I don’t know of any other community that comes together like this one — from our elected officials to our volunteers. It’s amazing to see the number of people who want to help. Our team host coordinators (who numbered 28 last year and now 48 this year) wrote the book on how to welcome these teams and offer them a championship experience.”

The recent internal and external improvements to Burton Coliseum have added a shine and pizzazz to that championship experience Zartler mentioned. Team banners from the rafters, improved concessions, merchandise sales, courtside presentation and an impressive light and music show before each game stood out.

Every state championship event, from basketball to baseball and girls softball, has a lot of moving parts and details both big and small that must be planned for and handled daily. In the case of the boys basketball tournament, going from 28 to 48 teams (the state increased from 7 to 12 divisions between select and non-select) meant 36 games over 6 days. That’s something Zartler said was a challenge. But they own it.

“Between paid staff, coliseum personnel, tourism folks, police jury workers and our volunteers, it takes around 150 people to work each game,” says Zartler.

There was a bit of an identity dilemma for this year’s boys and girls basketball tournaments, as many media members continued to call the events the Top 28 instead of Top 48. Habits and traditions are hard to change. Meanwhile local organizers will continue to push the “Marsh Madness” brand name, which is a clever play on our unique locale and the national “madness” about post-season basketball.

Calcasieu Parish will no doubt continue to be a strong contender and present the LHSAA attractive proposals to host the state’s premier post-season tournaments.

I don’t know of any baseball or softball complex that can match the layout, amenities and location of Sulphur’s expansive facilities. A total of 16 years of success is hard to beat.

Burton Coliseum, with its perfect — not too big, not too small — size and scope, parking and ease of location puts it at the forefront for both the boys and girls basketball events.

Blanford-Green admitted her staff would prefer to remain in one location at one venue to work back to back tournaments over two weeks for the boys and girls instead of packing up and moving, as they were forced to do from Hammond to Lake Charles.

The Lake Charles-Sulphur-Westlake I-10 corridor continues to add hundreds of hotel rooms, restaurant choices, entertainment and shopping options along with manageable traffic flows and limited congestion. These are all things the LHSAA should be aware of and deem important.

With that in mind, competition awaits.

The business of securing these week-long state athletic events is fierce and competitive. The $2.2 million dollar impact on our region from basketball and the estimated $1.5 million brought in from girls softball are enough to garner attention from competing cities.

“With an eye toward the basketball events, Alexandria just invested a lot of money into the Rapides Coliseum for its renovation. Lafayette did the same for the CajunDome. They’re going to be big competitors. Of course, Shreveport, with its Century Link Center, is in the mix. And you can never count out some of the other cities, like Hammond, who took the girls tournament away from us two years ago. Baton Rouge could possibly submit a big bid,” said Zartler.

By his accounts, Zartler feels the most challenging competitive bids will come from the I-49 corridor of Lafayette, Alexandria and Shreveport. All three of those markets could use an economic spark of any kind, and a $1- to $2-million-dollar week-long impact would provide some much-needed financial help. Lafayette’s oil and gas economy has been battered. Alexandria has no real growth engines, and Shreveport’s gaming business and revenues are reportedly down 30 to 40 percent.

Lake Charles, Sulphur, Calcasieu Parish and its ally at the Convention and Visitors Bureau have a proven game plan and their execution has been nearly flawless. They intend to continue their chase for championships, and are most happy when teams walk away with titles, trophies and memories that will last a lifetime.

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