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As forty-eight boys basketball teams invade the state capitol of Lincoln this weekend for the Nebraska State High School Basketball Championships, something is going to feel out of place. 

But what could it be? 

It’s not an underdog to root for. Classes C1 and D2 feature teams with losing records. It’s not your traditional power houses. Omaha Central, Wahoo, and Falls City Sacred Heart are all in this weekend’s field in their respective classes. 

But I’m serious! Something is missing! 

Ok, here it goes. The Panhandle is staying home. Really? Yes, really! 

Twenty schools, spread across five classes, and not a single one will be making the six to seven hour trip to one of Lincoln’s fancier high schools, or the Bob Devaney Sports Center, or the house that Tim Miles is trying to build at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

Now, before I dive in, just know that I only peeked back as far as 1978. Forty years! A length of time healthy enough to find trends. Honestly, digging back to 1911, the first season a boys state tournament was played in Nebraska, just seemed a little too overwhelming. 

As for 1978, Gering, Hemingford, and Potter all qualified for the state tournament that season when there were only four classes. From that point forward, a team from the Panhandle has always qualified for the boys state basketball tournament. Sometimes it was just one school, but there has always been someone there, in Lincoln, waving the banner for the western most portion of the Cornhusker state. 

Were the opportunities there this year? Yes. Alliance, Bridgeport, Creek Valley, Mitchell, Scottsbluff, and Sidney all played in district finals this year. Bridgeport was squeezed out by Perkins County, by a single point. Scottsbluff dropped a three point decision to Crete, and Sidney was defeated by Omaha Roncalli, by seven. Close, but not close enough. 

Six chances, one big goose egg. 

Matchups, nerves, and all of the other reasons on why the ball didn’t bounce the way of those six teams can go on forever and ever, but the failsafe that had been there in the past to ensure the Panhandle had gotten at least one team to the state tournament, was no longer in place. 

The way the Class B district championship games had been constructed, got a makeover. When this “makeover” occurred they gave it a name, sub-state. In years past, the Panhandle’s four class B schools made up the western district with the winner earning a spot in the state tourney. 

This season, those districts stayed the same, but the district winners would be subjected to another game along with the next highest eight ranked teams based on the NSAA power points system. They were ordered one through sixteen and paired off, 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, and so on. You get the idea. The winner of those eight games then qualifies for the state tournament. 

Sidney was your B-8 District Champion, which in the past would have punched the Red Raiders ticket to state, but under the new format, is not the case. Sidney still needed one more win to be in the field of eight in Class B, but now Scottsbluff and Alliance had another chance to join the party due to their power point standings. You see the double edged sword I’m describing here. 

In essence, had Alliance, Scottsbluff, and Sidney all pulled off district championship wins this year, the Class B Tournament field would have been comprised of three Panhandle teams. THREE! You better get the D-fib ready for someone in Lincoln! Could anyone ever fathom that many Panhandle squads taking over one class at the state tournament. 

This year’s results though mean that no one in the Panhandle’s Class B district are making state, but could we see a year when all four schools including Gering decide to carpool past Lake Mac, underneath the archway in Kearney, and down Vine St. in Lincoln, most definitely. 

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Just like class B, classes C1 and C2 are most likely headed towards a new postseason basketball format as early as next season. The postseason known as sub-state. Classes D1 and D2 may need a little more convincing before it ever happens.

Imagine seeing Chadron, Gordon-Rushville, and Mitchell in the boys or girls state basketball tournaments or state volleyball tournament all in the same year. 

On the other side of that, be prepared for years like this when there isn’t a single Panhandle team to be seen in the Star City. 

Is this the new normal? Is the Panhandle being shut out from the state’s biggest stage? To answer simply, no. 

Will there continue to be years in which the Panhandle gets shut out of a state tournament regardless of which sport it is? Probably. Very unlikely, but yes it’s still a possibility. 

Welcome to the new process of earning your way to state. 

But the day will come, regardless of sport, when the stars will align, if only once, when the Panhandle will take over Lincoln. 

Every team will go through cycles. There will be up and down years. Unfortunately, this was the unperfect storm for boys basketball in the Panhandle. 

As for 1911, the year of the very first boys state basketball tournament, thanks to Sidney, the Panhandle wasn’t shut out!

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