Inside of Bruin Fieldhouse, there are plenty of storylines to follow, as the West Texas A&M women’s team is the No. 1 seed in the South Division for the fifth straight year and looks to claim a third straight title. The Lady Buffs will have some strong competition from the North side, as both Northeastern State (13-1) and Central Oklahoma (12-2) combined for 25 conference wins.
On the men’s side, Midwestern State is the No. 1 seed in the South and looking for its second straight LSC Championship in Bartlesville. But three other teams had at least nine conference wins from Central Oklahoma, Northeastern State and Tarleton State.
But just like the action will be intense inside the arena, LSC Championship Week is much more than that. The community of Bartlesville and surrounding areas will also be treated the student-athletes and teams this week.
Through the efforts of LSC Commissioner Stan Wagnon, the week in Bartlesville is definitely a lot more than just shooting hoops.
“That is important to our conference,” Wagnon said. “We want this to be more than just basketball games. This is really our best opportunity as a conference to brand ourselves. That means to tell the public who we are and tell our story to the public. It also means to make an impression on our student-athletes and our coaches as to what we believe in and the things we value. That’s why you see so many community activities that we’ll do throughout the week.”
And it’s definitely a busy week for all the teams, which usually arrive on Tuesday afternoon, just in time for the annual awards banquet. Nearly 500 people, made up mostly by players and coaches from the schools, mixed in with about 150-200 locals, gather together to watch as the conference announces honors such as the All-LSC teams, and Player and Coach of the Year awards.
This year, the schedule rotates back to start the tournament with four men’s quarterfinal games on Wednesday. The women will pick things up on Thursday with four games of their own.
“Obviously, we know these teams are here to play basketball,” said Bob Pomeroy, a member of the Bartlesville Sports Commission and former Phillips Petroleum sports marketing executive. “But we also know it’s important for them to have a great experience in our community. And we know they’ve done that in the past and we feel like that will happen again this year.”
When the teams aren’t trading baskets in the gym, some of the activities planned for them include visits to elementary schools, where eight men’s teams will pair up with the eight elementary schools in the area, and a bowling event with the women’s teams and children from the Bartlesville special education department.
“We did that last year and I think the basketball players had just as much fun as the kids,” Pomeroy said. “It was so heart-warming to see the interaction last year. There were probably more group hugs there than the law allows. It was really a special event for everyone. And so I’m excited we’ll be doing that again this year.”
A new addition to the off-court schedule includes teams visiting Woolaroc, a Frank Phillips-themed museum ranch about 10 miles outside of Bartlesville. The working ranch is nearly 4,000 acres includes a huge wildlife preserve with exotic creatures such as buffalo, zebra, elk and American Bison.
“This town and this area have a lot to offer,” Pomeroy said. “And we’re excited about the opportunity to showcase our community in every way we can. I think the kids that go out there will really enjoy themselves.”
While the players are expecting to get quite a treat, the LSC Basketball Championships offer some entertainment for the fans as well. Along with exciting basketball throughout the extended weekend, a big dose of fun should occur on Friday. Not only will there be two games full of laughs from “Rumble,” the mascot of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, but in the upstairs gym above Bruin Fieldhouse, the LSC hosts “Fan Fest.” The free event provides food and drinks, games for the kids and door-prizes for fans of any team. The “Fan Fast” takes place about an hour before the two men’s semifinal games that evening.
“That’s really our way of telling the community of Bartlesville ‘Thanks for let us invade your space for a week,’” Wagnon said. “Really, it’s an outreach effort on our behalf. We’re trying to get people come out there and get more familiar with who we are.”
Other than a few “minor tweaks” along the way, Wagnon said the tournament hasn’t seen many changes since it moved to Bartlesville in 2007. The commissioner said it’s a credit to the city of Bartlesville, the sports commission and all of the volunteers that have helped make the tournament a success from the first day.
“For it to be the first time our conference has played it a neutral site and for it to be the first time their sports commission has put on an event this big . . . for it to go that smooth, it was kind of a surprise,” Wagnon said. “Nothing really has shocked me ever since that first year. To see them have about 300 volunteers the first year and then see it grow to about 370 last year, it doesn’t shock me anymore. The kind of people they have is second to none. I haven’t been shocked to see it get better.”
While Wagnon and Pomeroy are pleased with the efforts of the tournament the first two years, it’s music to their ears when coaches such as Terry Evans of Central Oklahoma and West Texas A&M’s Krista Gerlich, two coaches who have already cut down the Bartlesville nets, speak so highly of the event.
“I love it. I love the tournament and the format. We love Bartlesville, for obvious reasons,” said Gerlich, whose Lady Buffs have won the last two LSC Championships in Bartlesville. “It’s such a great student-athlete experience. They get to go and be together away from their college for a little while. They have to come together. It’s very much like the NCAA-tournament format. You’re playing games back-to-back and don’t have much time to prepare. It gives you a lot of positive energy that you get when you go there and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what the girls work so hard for.”
Evans, whose UCO teams are 4-1 in two years in Bartlesville, including a 2008 LSC Championship, knows a thing or two about tournaments and said this one ranks right at the top.
“I love everything about that tournament. Everything about Bartlesville, the way the people there embrace it,” said Evans, a star guard at the University of Oklahoma from 1988-93. “It reminds me when I played at OU and we used to go to Kansas City for the Big Eight tournament every year. The people look forward to having everyone. That’s how it is in Bartlesville. I think it’s actually better than those Big Eight tournaments. Our kids look forward to it every year. We’ve been to the NCAA tournament five out of seven years, but the conference tournament in Bartlesville is better – a better experience for the student-athlete – than the NCAA tournament and it’s comparable to the Elite Eight, when we got a chance to go there in Springfield (Mass.)”
And when those types of messages get relayed to Pomeroy . . .
“I get cold chills just hearing that,” he said. “I’m glad the coaches said that again because they’ve been kind enough to say to us in the past. We take a lot of pride in what we do. It goes back to the people and volunteers that are willing to help. It allows us the ability to put on a first-class event. That’s what we’re hoping to do again this year.”