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Rob Morris
Rob Morris

FROM CHAOS TO ORDER: OSSAA Works Hard to Manage Spring Schedules

May 30, 2018

Each year between early April and mid-May, the academic and athletic landscape across the state of Oklahoma changes. Tens of thousands of students travel from border-to-border to participate in hundreds of academic, athletic, and extracurricular competitions at hundreds of locations all across the state. Champions are crowned and celebrated. Tears are shed. Trophies and medals are awarded. Team photos are taken. Stories are written. The excitement winds down and the stadium lights empty as the crowds depart. 

Van Shea Iven, Director of Media Relations for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), says the sheer number of students involved make the challenge of organizing and executing these events hard to understate.

“We’ve got over a hundred thousand kids that participate in athletics,” said Iven, “And we’ve got over a hundred thousand kids that participate in non-athletic events like speech and debate, music, the Academic Bowl and one-act plays.”

For the most part, each of those events goes off without any major problems. You might have the occasional issue with officials being late or trophies being sent to the wrong place. There are always parents who complain that something or someone, somewhere, is unfair. But the end result of every academic or musical competition, golf or tennis tournament, baseball or softball playoff game, track meet, soccer match, etc., etc., is this: everyone goes home with an amazing set of memories that will last a lifetime.

It should come as no surprise that these things do not happen by accident. The staff of the OSSAA logs a staggering number of hours in preparation for every event that students across the state participate in with one overriding principle:

“Priority one is the kids,” said Iven. “We want the kids to have great memories of their experience at the state tournaments.”

One of the key factors in keeping kids as that top priority is making sure that the teams all have a fair chance of making the state tournament, something that is easier said than done. The athletic associations in many states simply group the teams by geographical location. On the surface that may seem fair, but what happens when the two or three best teams in the state in a given sport are all from the same city or area? This happens almost every year in Moore where softball rules the turf and the three high school teams are often among the state’s best. 

Amy Cassell, OSSAA Assistant Director, says the organization is committed to making sure the state’s best teams have a fair path to the state tournament in every sport. Cassell is in charge of the state softball playoffs, a big deal in a state know for excellence in the sport.

“There are 80 tournaments going on in the first round,” said Cassell, “Plus the eight district tournaments in class 6A. That’s 88 tournaments for which the OSSAA has to make sure all details are taken care of.”

Among the details Cassell handles is keeping track of the ranks in every classification so that she can create a slate of district and regional tournaments that will result in the best teams reaching the state tournament. She accomplishes this task by using a system of maps with rubber bands stretched between push pins to represent the teams and best-possible match-ups for the playoffs. Sometimes those matchups require more than just one rubber band.

“I’ve been known to string together as many as four rubber bands in order to find a competitive balance,” said Cassell. “That means that sometimes these teams end up traveling to meet in the middle of a geographical region.”

Sometimes those rubber bands get stretched to a dangerous point and pins are launched across the office. Cassell jokingly notes that she’s considered wearing safety glasses during softball season.

“There’s one pin that’s actually stuck in the ceiling after it came loose and was launched there by a stretched rubber band,” said Cassell. “I don’t climb up there to take it down because it reminds me that I need to think and rethink these match-ups to get them right. 

Todd Dilbeck, the Assistant Director in charge of Spring and Fall Baseball and Officials, also uses the rubber band and stick pin method. As challenging as softball can be, Dilbeck’s maps are even more complex.

“We have 144 district tournaments,” said Dilbeck. “That’s just the opening round of the spring baseball playoffs and doesn’t include the regional or state tournaments.” Dilbeck says that creating playoff matchups in softball and baseball depend heavily on rankings given by coaches in most of the classifications.

“In 4A, 5A, and 6A we have districts and so the rankings for playoffs sort of works itself out there,” said Dilbeck. “You have to trust the coaches rankings in Class A and B and in 2A and 3A and that covers a large number of teams, 92 and 91 in Class A and B respectively.” Dilbeck checks and double-checks scores, rankings, and school facilities as he works toward determining the opening district pairings and which schools can host tournaments. “We have the schools go online and fill out an entry form that tells us whether or not they can host a tournament,” said Dilbeck. “There are so many variables that come into play including field dimensions and whether or not they have lights. They have to have lights to be able to host a tournament.”

The tension continues to ratchet up as the regular seasons wind down in softball and baseball, Cassell and Dilbeck have to pay close attention not just to the overall team records of teams which are ranked, they also have to be aware of which teams are playing well and which are losing momentum as the playoffs approach. The OSSAA officials have to pay close attention because match-ups and locations may have to be changed at the last minute, which can create confusion. While it is challenging, neither feel that the task is a burden.

“I don’t really see it as being trouble at all,” said Dilbeck. “I see it as being fair for these kids who may only get one shot at something like this in life.”

Cassell takes time to find a spot where she can watch the teams arrive on the first day of the state tournament at Hall of Fame stadium. It’s her way of reminding herself why she works as hard as she does.

“Seeing the faces of those faces and the sheer delight of those kids walking in and having this opportunity,” said Cassell. “This is the reason that all of us at the OSSAA do what we do, so that these kids will have this kind of opportunity and experience this kind of excitement.”

Golf and tennis are two other spring sports that require a significant commitment when it comes to staging district, regional, and state tournaments. David Glover is the Assistant Director in charge of Golf and Tennis. 

“It takes 49 golf courses to run our golf playoffs for 2A to 6A, girls and boys,” said Glover. “Thankfully there are 49 courses in Oklahoma that are willing to do that.”

Glover points out that there are some courses like those in Kingfisher and Boiling Springs that are willing to host multiple tournaments, which helps greatly. He relies on coaches not just for team rankings, but also to turn in rosters of players who’ll be playing in the tournaments. Sometimes those coaches miss the deadlines to submit those rosters, but Glover is quick to note that the OSSAA is willing to work around those problems.

“Inevitably we’ll have coaches that, for whatever reason, didn’t get their kids registered in time,” said Glover. “They call wondering if they can still get them in and of course we do our best to never deny a kid a chance to play in the playoffs if they want to play. We’re not ever going to keep any kid from participating.”

For Glover, one of the challenges is securing the state’s best venues for those state events. Courses like Karsten Creek, Muskogee Country Club, and Hillcrest Country Club in Bartlesville are always willing to step up as hosts. Glover says Karsten Creek is a great venue and a gracious host, running a preview tournament in the fall to cover green fees for the state tourney in the spring. But sometimes the weather and scheduling cause problems. 

“This year Karsten Creek is hosting the NCAA men’s and women’s national championship tournaments,” said Glover. “Last year I got a call from them four days ahead of the state tournament telling me, ‘We’re flooded and we’re not going to be able to host this year.’ “

In spite of the problems, Glover believes kids still get a chance to play on some of the best courses in the state. The pursuit of the “best available venue” is something that drives Cassell and Dilbeck as well.

“Playing at Hall of Fame Stadium is such a remarkable opportunity for our kids,” said Cassell. “It’s literally the crown jewel of softball and these girls grow up watching the best softball players in college and the world play on this field. We are so fortunate that the folks who run Hall of Fame are just the kindest and most accommodating group of people we know.”

This year’s state baseball tournament will be held at the Bricktown Ballpark, Oral Roberts University, and Dolese Park. Dilbeck understands that those venues will be the home of lifelong memories for the kids that get to play there. “We just want kids, parents, and coaches to leave having had a great experience,” said Dilbeck, “That the games have been held at venues that are the best places to play in Oklahoma.”

At the end of the day, everyone at the OSSAA agrees that all the hard work is directed toward one outcome.

“What’s tough about that is you’re always going to have a happy group and a sad group walking away because only one team gets to win it all,” said Dilbeck. “It’s great memories and that’s what we want them to experience.”

Glover said, “I’m a kid person and I do this for the kids. We want everybody involved with every tournament, kids, coaches, parents, school officials to leave the end of the day feeling like it was a first-class deal, that it was run well, that the trophies were nice, and the award ceremonies are nice.”

“It's not as easy to see when your team is not on the gold ball side of the outcome, when you're on the silver ball side of the outcome,” said Cassell.  “But I think that in time kids and parents come to understand that there's something special about just being able to participate at that level. For all of us at the OSSAA, being able to provide the platform for them to have these experiences is what makes it all worthwhile.”

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