A December staple for 16 Wabash Valley high schools is beginning next week and this year, the stands are set to be full again after having a restricted crowd last year. Here, we hear from the director of the tournament herself as she discusses her thoughts on the history of the classic and what her favorite parts of the tournament are. This year, the First Financial Wabash Valley Classic Tournament will begin on Monday, December 27th, with the first game at 10 AM and will wrap up with the championship game on Thursday December 30th at 7:30 PM.
Ticia Wright, Director of First Financial Wabash Valley Classic Tournament
Q:When did this tournament start?
A:Many of our fans may not realize that the original Wabash Valley Tournament began in 1916 – 105 years ago! It looked very different then – 157 different schools were represented from Indiana and 31 schools from Illinois. 188 schools played over a 2-week period. During that time, upsets were the rule, not the exception – and those upsets made the tournament very popular with the fans.
Over the years, the tournament declined in popularity and after the 1972 final, it ended. In 1991, Northview, Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South and West Vigo wanted to play an additional game in Hulman Center (it was an IHSAA post-season tournament site). They partnered with Wabash Valley Pizza Hut, Inc. and the Pizza Hut Shootout was launched.
In 2000, that four-game shootout would eventually lead to the Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic. 12 teams played that first year and in 2001, a 16 team Tournament was established that we still follow today.
In 2015, First Financial Bank took over as the Tournament Sponsor and the Tournament became the First Financial Bank Wabash Valley Classic.
Q:On average, how many people attend each year’s tournament?
A:I would say on average, we see anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 fans each day of the Tournament. They may not all be there for every game, every day, but ticket sales represent how many tickets sold for each day. There have been years previously that those numbers have been higher. There have been years when fans have not been able to enter the gymnasium due to fire code capacity regulations. Really, it all depends on how the bracket shakes out, what teams advance and the match-ups. After Day One, the later games in the day, on each side of the bracket, are played between the undefeated teams and those games usually draw bigger crowds.
Q:Have you ever had distant schools request to be included in the tournament? If so, what was the farthest school?
A:We always have teams interested in participating in this Tournament from all over Indiana and Eastern Illinois. We have a list to draw from if we should have an opening for a team. We have had teams from northern Indiana play, as well as teams from the Evansville and Indianapolis areas. We try to be mindful of travel for our participating teams and their fan base. We don’t want to burden teams or fans with multiple hours in a bus, or car to and from Terre Haute, nor do we want them to have to make the decision to assume the expense of staying in a hotel for multiple nights. We like to keep our participating schools to within no more than a 2-hour drive.
Q:What are some of your favorite aspects of the Classic?
A:By far, the atmosphere! When that gymnasium is full, our fans are cheering for their teams and our student-athletes are giving their all on the court to represent their school, their fan base and their community – it just doesn’t get any better than that! Anyone who is a fan of high school basketball, especially prior to the class system currently in place by the IHSAA, this Tournament is made for you.
Q:What is the most challenging task for you as a Director?
A:Every year, I want to make sure we provide our 16 schools with a great experience. I want all of our fans to enjoy these four days. And, I want our student athletes to compete and have fun. Making sure 16 teams have an enjoyable experience, through 28 games over four days can be challenging. I truly appreciate each and every team, and especially every student athlete that participates in this Tournament. Every year, we have teams that come and lose every game they play and that’s hard. It’s difficult to believe I have met my own expectation of making sure those schools, those fans and those student athletes have had the same experience as the Championship team. It’s unrealistic to believe they have. We need all of our teams to make this Tournament successful. They all play an important role in that success, regardless of record. I want them all to know they are appreciated.
Q:Do you make all of the decisions for the Classic?
A:Absolutely not! We have a Tournament Committee that is represented by all three Vigo County High Schools, the Vigo County School Corporation Administration and First Financial Bank. There is no one person who makes decisions concerning the Tournament. We meet as a group to discuss issues of importance to the integrity of the Tournament. I believe we have good stewards in charge of this Tournament as we all want what is best for the student-athletes, the fans and the communities they represent.
Q:How is it decided which team plays who and when?
A:We do a blind draw every year, the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, at a Pairings Luncheon held at that year’s Host School. We invite all 16 participating teams to be represented by their Athletic Director and the Head Coach. The names are written on ping pong balls, placed in a tumbler and drawn out one at a time, in order of the Day One games. The past few years, we have live streamed the Pairings Luncheon. The Tournament has been accused in previous years of “rigging” the draw so that we will have the potential of a Terre Haute North versus Terre Haute South Championship game. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is as transparent of a process as we can possible do. It is truly the luck of the draw. It is such a relief to me as the Tournament Director when Terre Haute South and Terre Haute North end up on the same side of the bracket which eliminates the possibility of a North versus South Championship final, but I trust this process and however the draw turns out because it is equal and fair.
Q:Will you be rooting for any team specifically?
A:I have lived in Terre Haute since 1995. My husband was born and raised here and graduated from Terre Haute South. Both of my children graduated from there. My roots run deep with Terre Haute South for sure. But honestly, I do not have a favorite in this Tournament – I really don’t. It’s hard for me to want anyone to lose and I genuinely love to see the smaller schools come in and do well during these four days. That’s the essence of this Tournament and what I believe makes it so popular. I believe our fans want to see the underdog pull off the upset. Those are the games that make this Tournament what it is, dating all the way back to 1916. I am first and foremost a fan of good high school basketball and I believe all of our 16 participating teams provide that to our fans every year.
Q:Who do you think benefits the most from this tournament? In what ways?
A:When First Financial took over as the Tournament Sponsor in 2015, we were fortunate to inherit an outstanding, successful Tournament. First Financial looks for ways to support the communities we serve throughout our footprint. We have branches in many of the communities represented in this Tournament. We are especially committed to supporting the families in those communities. First Financial viewed this as an opportunity to serve student athletes and the schools they represent. Over a four-day period, 16 schools, their student athletes and fans, come together to support that same mission. After necessary expenses are paid, the rest of the money from this Tournament is distributed to the 16 schools who participate.
I believe everyone who is involved with this Tournament: student athletes, student managers, coaches, parents and fans benefit from the Tournament in some way. Certainly, financially, the athletic programs of our 16 participating schools benefit the most from the funds raised. I hope our student-athletes see this Tournament as an investment in them. Without those players, this Tournament doesn’t exist. We’re all there in the stands cheering for their success, both on and off the basketball court.
Q:Is there anything you would like to see different about the tournament?
A:I believe this is the best holiday Tournament in the State of Indiana. And I can make that statement because of the teams who participate, all 16 of them. As a Committee, we are always looking for ways to improve the experience for the participating schools, their student athletes, their fans and all attendees. It’s hard to improve on something that is already great but we always get together as a Committee to discuss what we did right and what we would like to improve on for future Tournaments.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the First Financial Bank Wabash Valley Tournament! This Tournament has been special to me long before First Financial became the sponsor and I was fortunate enough to serve as the Tournament Director. A lot of hard work goes into it by many dedicated individuals. I know personally, even after 28 games, I am sad to see it come to an end and find myself already looking forward to next year. I want to wish all our teams and student-athletes the best of luck beginning December 27th and am looking forward to four great days of high school basketball!
Fans can follow the Tournament on Twitter @wvclassic, or on our newly launched website, www.wabashvalleyclassic.net