After witnessing the least competitive first round of Batavia Lions Club tournament basketball that I, a loyal supporter of the tournament for over two decades, have seen, there is one overarching takeaway from Tuesday’s action — something needs to change.
Three 30-point victories, another by 18 points, the first round of this year’s Pete Arras Memorial Basketball Tournament did not live up to the long, illustrious 41-year history of what was once considered one of the most prestigious holiday tournaments in all of Section V. Instead, it dishonored the great legacy of the tournament, which has centered around competitive basketball, with the top teams from the local area meeting to put on a show in front of a packed house at Genesee Community College since the late Pete Arras established the tournament in 1982.
Although the service provided by the Batavia Lions at this year’s tournament was, as always, outstanding, and all volunteers should be commended for their hard work in providing a welcoming atmosphere at the college, there was simply something missing from Tuesday night’s proceedings — quality, competitive basketball.
For the first 36 years of the event’s existence, the Lions assembled a four-team tournament, with Batavia High School and Batavia-Notre Dame High School as the featured programs, while others rotated through over the years. But in 2018, the Lions decided to transition to an eight-team field, separating the two featured programs into large and small-school divisions while surrounding them with other teams from Genesee County and elsewhere throughout the GLOW region.
Historically, over the past three eight-team tournaments, with the 2020 tourney being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the small-school division has been relatively competitive every year, with mainstays Elba, Oakfield-Alabama and Notre Dame providing competitive basketball, for the most part, each season. However, the large-school division has been much less competitive.
In the first year that the tournament transitioned to an eight-team field, during the 2018-19 season, Elba, Mt. Morris, Oakfield-Alabama and Notre Dame put on a good show in the small-school division, with O-A taking home a first-round overtime victory over ND to advance to meet Elba in the championship game. Elba defeated Mt. Morris by a 10-point margin in the opening round before ousting rival O-A by an eight-point margin of victory in an exciting title game. Le Roy and Attica enjoyed a competitive five-point game in the first round of the large-school division, while Batavia rolled past Roy-Hart by nearly a 50-point margin in the other first-round matchup before moving past Attica by a 20-point margin in the final.
In 2019, Elba outlasted Notre Dame by a two-point margin in an exciting small-school division title game after moving past Oakfield-Alabama by a four-point margin in the first round. Notre Dame defeated Perry by a six-point margin in the opening round. Attica advanced to the large-school division final for the second straight year with a five-point win over Roy-Hart in the first round before falling to Batavia by a slim two-point margin in an exciting championship game. Batavia defeated Le Roy by a 37-point margin in the opening round.
The tournament was canceled for the 2020 season but picked back up last year when Attica shocked Batavia, 50-48, in the opening round before falling to Le Roy by a 24-point margin in the large-school division’s championship game. Oakfield-Alabama defeated Elba, 60-44, in the first round of the small-school division before defeating Notre Dame by a nine-point margin in the title game. Notre Dame beat Alexander by 15 points in the first round.
On Tuesday night, Oakfield-Alabama, Notre Dame and Batavia moved past Elba, Medina and Roy-Hart, respectively, achieving first-round victories by margins of 30 points or more. Le Roy ousted Attica in the opening round by 18 points. It was an all-time low in terms of first-round competition for the longstanding holiday tournament.
Established in 1982, the Batavia Lions Club’s Pete Arras Memorial Holiday Tournament has been one of the premier events in all of Section V for three decades. Featuring two of the most storied programs in the area, Batavia and Notre Dame, the Lions Club tourney has routinely been the place to be for Genesee County basketball fans in late December.
In 1982, the first annual Lions Club Tournament was held, as Byron-Bergen joined ND, BHS and Albion as its original members. Batavia nor ND made it out of the first round that year, with the Bees winning the first-ever title over Albion. Byron-Bergen won the tournament’s championship in its first three years of existence.
It took until 1985 for the Blue Devils to meet the Irish in the final game, when ND handled Batavia 65-52. Two years later, it was Batavia’s turn to break through with their first Lions Club title. The Devils edged the Irish in overtime, 61-53, in the 1989 title game, which was their first-ever Lions Club Tournament championship. After their first title win, the Blue Devils would go on to win 15 of the next 21 tournament titles and held a streak of eight-straight championships until their first-round loss to University Prep of Rochester in 2014. Prior to that defeat, Batavia’s most recent loss in a tournament game came in 2003.
After Batavia’s first-round loss in ’14, they fell again to University Prep in the ’15 championship game but then strung together two titles in a row in ’16 and ’17 before the tournament transitioned to eight teams in ’18, due in part to the Blue Devils’ dominance over two decades of tournament history.
After being knocked off in consecutive years by outsider U Prep in ’14 and ’15, then returning to the mountaintop in ’16 and ’17, Batavia took home titles in the first two years of the eight-team tournament, before Attica ended its run last season. That defeat finished a stretch in which the Blue Devils claimed 14 of 16 Lions Club tournament championships. The tournament’s other featured team, Notre Dame, last won the tournament title in 1996, when the field consisted of four teams.
As the tournament moves forward, changes need to be made to establish a competitive playing field for all teams involved. As the Lions Club decided when transitioning to an eight-team field, which I believe was the correct course of action considering Batavia’s dominance, again, new ideas need to be considered.
The ever-changing landscape of high school sports continues to change rapidly, much due to the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic left on society, particularly, in this case, high school athletics. Since the one-year hiatus of the tournament, which was accompanied by a shutdown of all athletics for a time during the 2020 high school campaign, teams that were once perennial contenders have struggled to achieve consistent competitiveness, while others have gone by the wayside altogether.
Coaches have come and gone more frequently than ever, fewer three-sport athletes grace the playing surfaces at their respective schools, and other harmful byproducts of the worldwide pandemic have struck high school athletics significantly.
With things continuing to work themselves out year after year, it’s time the tournament committee begins to look at things year-to-year rather than establishing a longstanding structure or field for the event moving forward. After all, it seems everyone is living year-to-year, if not day-to-day, nowadays.
For example, this season, with a few of the teams included in the 2022 field in rebuild mode, it may have behooved the Lions Club to seek a more suitable structure for this year’s tournament to accommodate those teams that weren’t necessarily at the level of others included in the field. An idea to consider may have been, rather than creating a traditional tournament structure, to instead construct a showcase-type event, with two games in each division, without a championship round, in order to ensure more competitive matchups for the crowd on hand at GCC.
To explain further, with Oakfield-Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Elba vs. Medina potentially being much more competitive matchups within this year’s small-school division, perhaps the event would have been better off doing away with the championship round. Instead, the Lions Club could have awarded four ‘showcase champions’ for four separate games, two apiece within each division, taking place across two nights at the college.
Another option would have been to seek out more competitive teams this season rather than welcoming back the same programs that have been involved with the tournament for several seasons.
Although I understand the Lions Club’s need to involve local teams, as the Genesee County Community is the heart of their mission, for the sake of the tournament, it may have been a more conducive structure to look outside the regular field and welcome in programs that are higher on the Section V food chain this season. That would have allowed for higher-quality first-round matchups and, thusly, competitive championship games.
The GLOW region is a hotbed for small-school Section V Boys Basketball. And it seems, on the surface, that it wouldn’t be challenging to seek out eight quality teams each season that would be willing to showcase their talents in front of the widespread GLOW region community at the Pete Arras Memorial Tournament.
If they chose to expand their search beyond the regular schools that have been welcomed into the fold over the years, it seems that would be more than doable for the Lions Club. And why not? With the slim crowd at the first round on Tuesday night, there is little doubt that more fans would flock to the college to watch competitive basketball rather than an abundance of familiar faces take the court.
It should be an honor to play in the Batavia Lions Club Tournament, not a given right, which would lead to a more decisive selection process and, thus, a more competitive tournament for all involved to enjoy.
All this is not to downgrade the service of the Batavia Lions Club and the many volunteers who head to the college every year and provide excellent service to the community while producing a welcoming atmosphere. But more can be done when it comes to the selection of teams set to participate in the event from year to year. On that front, something needs to change.
(Alex Brasky is the regional sports editor for the Batavia Daily News and Livingston County News. He can be reached via email at [email protected].)