Spectators at the Ralph Miller Classic last week may have wondered why the tournament would include a team from an international studies school in St. Louis. But Chanute was exactly the place the team wanted to be.
Over the summer, third-year head coach James Washington at Soldan International Studies High School, and Teron Sharp, district athletic director over 11 public high schools in River City, met with some of their school’s staff members and decided Chanute would be a perfect place for their basketball players to compete in a winter tournament.
Washington and Sharp chose Chanute and the 48th annual Ralph Miller Classic for the first time for myriad reasons.
“We were looking for a tournament away from St. Louis to play a different kind of competition,” Washington said on Saturday before the third-place game. “We kind of faced some adversity on the road. A lot of these kids haven’t experienced it, going away, sit in a hotel, stuff like that. So we are trying to get them used to that – kind of similar to what it is in college.”
Washington and his team, however, have been traveling all around the nation to experience how it feels to be a college basketball player. In the last three years, Soldan, a Class 4 Missouri magnet school, has trundled to Chicago, Memphis and Little Rock to play in winter tournaments.
All this traveling for the Tigers turned into a 19-12 season and a trip to the district championship versus Trinity Catholic High School last season.
But Washington said the decision to come to Chanute made by him, the school’s principal Thomas Cason, and Sharp – a Soldan graduate and the school’s all-time leading scorer for girls basketball – was based upon variation and the willingness to be thrust into a perceived incongruous setting.
“That rural area, a lot of these boys haven’t seen farmland and none of that, so I thought it would just be a little different experience for it not being a big city – flatland, we talked about it.”
On about a six-hour charter bus drive from St. Louis to Chanute last week, Soldan athletes marveled over the flatlands on their way to the Holiday Inn Express, where the team laid their heads over the weekend.
The first game Soldan played was against Goddard High School – a contest that ended up a 65-44 blowout behind All-Public-High-League power forward Elijah Bishop’s 20 points as well as Phil March’s and All-PHL Honorable Mention Dylan Martin’s 16 points apiece.
In the Shawnee Mission South game on Friday, however, the Tigers fell short 61-36, when March and Martin scored only seven. Soldan ultimately competed in the third-place game, and lost 66-57 to Emporia High School on Saturday. Javonte Robinson had a team-high of 10 points.
To Washington, the one lesson his team learned was how to counter the zone defense.
“We don’t see a lot of zone in St. Louis. Most teams play man-to-man full-court pressure, but here, I kind of had the feeling, someone told me, ‘Coach, you’re probably going to see a lot of zone up there,’ and both teams (Goddard and Shawnee Mission South) played a zone the entire game,” Washington noted. “And our kids, we got to learn to really be effective against the zone defense.”
Shawnee Mission South played stringent defense on Soldan Friday, and Washington said the Raiders operated so well defensively that he wanted his team to exemplify this kind of defensive effort while using the zone strategy on other teams moving forward.
But you don’t play basketball 24-7 when in a new town. In the middle of the Ralph Miller tournament, Washington said the highlights of staying in Chanute were the hospitality of all the people, eating breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express, and watching “Bad Boys for Life” at the Chanute Roxy 4 Cinema on Saturday.
Bishop, who didn’t play in the final game because of a nagging lower back, said he enjoyed the endearing qualities of Chanute, too, including the accommodations, friendliness and generosity of the Blue Comet faithful.
“I’m from St. Louis, so I see a lot of lights, buildings, but the people here are unbelievable. They are welcoming. The vibe here is crazy – they like you, they welcome you in open arms. I just like it,” Bishop said. “The hospitality is overwhelming.”
While Bishop is an All-PHL player, Washington graduated Sumner High School in St. Louis before he attended the University of Arkansas to play football. He went on to coach professional basketball in Germany, where his teams competed versus the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, the former Dallas Mavericks superstar and NBA champion.