NHSI Tournament Gives High School Teams A Spotlight

For some, college basketball doesn’t matter until March Madness—a clever, effective marketing slogan because it’s somewhat true—takes hold. Heck, in early March, Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby told USA Today, “The regular season in college basketball is exceedingly irrelevant.”

I vehemently disagree with Mr. Bowlsby, as my kids can tell you when I wake them up yelling at the television. Growing up in North Carolina, college hoops always has been about much more than the tournament for me. College basketball is about the only other sporting passion I have besides baseball, and I watch (and care about) plenty of regular season games. But I seem to be in the minority.

I’m also a fan of tournament baseball. Major League Baseball’s postseason is virtually a tournament now with 10 teams, and pros get plenty of tournament play in the World Baseball Classic and other international events. That can lead to more upsets, such as the Netherlands (World Cup) and Canada (Pan American Games) winning their first senior-level international events in 2011.

We’re used to it at the college level, both with in-season tournaments that don’t crown a champion (like East Carolina’s Keith LeClair Classic) and with conference tourneys that decide league representatives for the NCAA tournament. That event has taken a quantum leap forward, generating greater fan interest and more money for the NCAA, which now makes millions of dollars off the tournament including the College World Series.

Tournament baseball is the March Madness of Japan with its national high school tournament, known simply as “Koshien.” It’s almost a mashup of the Little League World Series and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with 60,000 fans filling a big league ballpark for two weeks in a row every August.

Time To Go National

High school baseball in the United States has plenty of local, state and regional tournaments, but none at the national level. There have been attempts, with such well-regarded events as the Big League Dugout Tournament, organized by Horizon High of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Southern California’s National Classic, but the high school tournaments that have gained the most traction are the ones that don’t have anything to do with actual high schools.

Showcases and summer travel teams play a lot of tournaments, and there are national and “world” championships for high school-aged players. The summer travel-ball circuit serves its purpose in giving players more exposure and playing opportunities, but make no mistake—it’s motivated by money.

I’m sure USA Baseball would like to make money with its new National High School Invitational, presented by the Town of Cary, N.C., and Baseball America. But this should be the first national high school baseball tournament that sticks, in part because it’s based on high schools, not travel-ball teams.

This year’s 16-team event, scheduled for March 28-31 at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex in Cary, has 10 teams that ranked among the BA preseason High School Top 25. While several of these are private schools that can recruit, these aren’t super-teams that come together for a week or weekend for a tournament. The players practice, go to classes, eat lunch and hit the weight room together. Texas’ Carroll High team has players from its local district in Corpus Christi, as do the other public schools in the field.

High school baseball should benefit from the exposure. Because of USA Baseball’s affiliation with MLB, several tournament games will stream live thanks to MLB Advanced Media. Scouts will flock to the event even after the injury to the field’s top prospect, Harvard-Westlake High righthander Lucas Giolito. For players who aren’t being heavily recruited yet or who aren’t on scouts’ radar, now is their chance.

It also should benefit from having an event to showcase its athletes. The NHSI will give these players a chance to see what it’s like to play in front of lots of scouts, on a field of professional quality and with national attention. And for many of them, the NHSI will be the pinnacle of their athletic careers.

You have to be invited to the NHSI to participate, so while the winner earns a nice trophy, it’s not a national championship. We give a title to the No. 1 team on our Top 25 at the end of the season, but the time commitment and money it would require to have an actual national prep championship precludes a true, end-of-season event. I’m not sure the U.S. sports landscape needs its own “Koshien.”

Assistant editor Nathan Rode has worked tirelessly to help organize the event; it wouldn’t have happened without him. He helped pick the teams, helped USA Baseball with some of the logistics and has been there at every step of the way from idea to reality. Baseball America gets to have its name on the NHSI and that should be good for us. But it really should be Nathan’s name. This is his event.

When it happens, it will be a great thing for Nathan, and I’ll be there to see if he sheds a tear or two. But I’ll also be there to see high school baseball get some well-deserved time in the spotlight.