From High School to College Basketball, March Madness is Something to Behold
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff, NFHS Chief Executive Officer
The college version of March Madness concludes this coming weekend with the NCAA men’s basketball semifinals and finals from New Orleans and the corresponding women’s championships in Minneapolis. To the knowledgeable high school sports historian, however, the original March Madness has played out this month with the conclusion of state high school basketball tournaments in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
Long before CBS began referring to the NCAA basketball tournament as March Madness, the term – in one form or another – was used in association with state high school basketball tournaments.
In 1939, one year before he became the first full-time executive director of the NFHS, H. V. Porter, director of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) at the time, used the March Madness term in reference to the annual IHSA state basketball tournament. And by the 1960s, March Madness had become a common term associated with state high school basketball tournaments.
In his 2018 book “Association Work,” former IHSA Assistant Executive Director Scott Johnson uncovered new information about the origin of March Madness. Since Mr. Porter never actually claimed to have coined “March Madness,” Johnson’s research led him to a new source.
According to Johnson, the first mention of the term “March Madness” in association with basketball was made by Bob Stranahan, sports editor of the New Castle (Indiana) Courier-Times in 1931. Several other mentions occurred later in that decade, including a 1938 Associated Press report that appeared in the Evansville (Indiana) Courier with an all-caps headline declaring “MARCH MADNESS HERE.”
Although there were references to the term prior to Mr. Porter’s mention in 1939, the first NFHS executive director certainly deserves credit for popularizing it and, through his extensive writings, forever linking the term to high school basketball.
And for that early momentum that Mr. Porter gave to the sport of basketball, we say “thanks.” While those tournaments in Mr. Porter’s days were only for boys, the passage of Title IX in 1972 created opportunities for girls, too. And, this year, some states have celebrated the 50th anniversary of those state tournaments.
Today, state championships not only for basketball, but also wrestling, swimming and ice hockey, as well as other activities such as drama, debate, speech and music, are a central part of the electricity that surrounds this time of year.
While simply participating in high school sports and performing arts is most desired by high school students, state championships represent the pinnacle of achievement offered by state high school associations. “Going to state” is the icing on the cake. And this year was extra special.
After two years of cancelled or interrupted or shortened state championships due to the pandemic, all states were back in action with winter championships and events – and the fans were back as well. In some states, attendance has even surpassed pre-pandemic numbers.
In girls and boys state basketball championships alone, more than 500 teams were crowned state champions. And perhaps some of the players on these teams will be able to experience the “March Madness Double” like some of the participants in this year’s NCAA championships.
In the men’s tournament, Duke University’s Wendell Moore Jr. won two North Carolina High School Athletic Association state titles at Cox Mill High School in Concord, North Carolina.
Christian Braun of the University of Kansas won three straight Kansas State High School Activities Association state titles at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, while Dajuan Harris Jr. helped Rock Bridge High School to the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 5 state championship and Mitch Lightfoot won an Arizona Interscholastic Association state title as a junior at Gilbert Christian High School.
Leaky Black of the University of North Carolina was a member of the 2018 state championship team at Cox Mill High School, and Caleb Love was on track to lead Christian Brothers College High School of St. Louis to the 2020 state title before the pandemic shut down the Missouri State High School Activities Association state championship. Also, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie helped Archbishop Wood High School of Warminster, Pennsylvania, to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state title.
In the women’s NCAA tournament, South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson helped Fort Myers (Florida) High School to three Florida High School Athletic Association state championships, while Zia Cooke won two Ohio High School Athletic Association state titles at Rogers High School in Toledo.
Christyn Williams of the University of Connecticut led Central Arkansas Christian High School of Little Rock to the Class 4A Arkansas Activities Association state title as a senior, while Evina Westbrook helped South Salem High School of Salem, Oregon, to two Class 6A Oregon School Activities Association state championships.
Olivia Cochran of the University of Louisville helped Carver High School of Columbus, Georgia, to a Georgia High School Association state title, while Sydni Schetnan led Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Washington High School to a South Dakota High School Activities Association state championship.
Stanford’s Lexie Hull of Central Valley High School in Spokane, Washington, won two Washington Interscholastic Activities Association state titles, and Cameron Brink won two Oregon School Activities Association state championships at Southridge High School in Beaverton.
From high school to college basketball, the Madness of March is something to behold.
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her fourth year as chief executive officer of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.