Host officials busy prepping as Girls Top 28 Tournament returns to Hammond _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN OUBRE -- Parkview's Skyler Goodwin drives the ball up court while defended by University High's Kaila Anderson on Friday night at Parkview.

There was a familiar tone to the meeting held on the second floor of the University Center at Southeastern Louisiana University last Wednesday morning.

Passes distributed — check.

Review of pretournament promotions — check.

Plans for ticket distribution — check.

Update on facilities preparations — check.

Host committee chairman Guy Recotta quickly got down to business reviewing final plans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls Top 28 tournament that begins Tuesday with four semifinals games at the University Center.

Planning for the tournament is nothing new for the Hammond steering committee. Hammond hosted the girls tourney from 2001-08 and again in 2010-11. But that was five years ago.

You’d think the return to Hammond would be like slipping into a pair of comfortable sneakers. Instead, it’s more like breaking in new shoes.

“We’re excited to have the tournament back in Hammond,” Recotta said. “Now obviously things have changed. There’s new leadership at the LHSAA, and we’ve had to get to know them and what their expectations are.

“Rhonda (Blanford-Green, new LHSAA assistant executive director) has come in with some ideas that will change things up. She’s got a different approach and take on what needs to be done, and we’re learning. We believe we’re ready.”

Echoes of the past

The LHSAA moved away from separate boys and girls tournaments to combined regional/finals tournaments in 2012-13. Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles hosted the boys and girls tourneys the last two years.

Hammond was among the regional semifinalist sites in 2012-13. Arguably, SLU’s University Center is best know as a Girls Top 28 venue. The area’s roots in girls basketball go back decades, thanks to the strong tradition of girls basketball in Livingston and Tangipahoa Parishes. That’s a key factor for the organizers.

“When I was in high school at Hammond High, girls basketball was the main draw,” Recotta said. “People always came to see the girls play more than boys. That was just how it was. We always heard about the teams in Livingston, like Albany.”

After a four-year run in Monroe, Hammond won the bid to host the tourney for the first time in 2001. It turned out to be the perfect combination of star power and proximity.

“I think the thing all of us remember are the years with Seimone (Augustus),” Recotta said. “We set attendance records for the University Center. It seats 7,500 and her senior year we had 7,700 in here. It was amazing.”

Augustus led Capitol to back-to-back Class 4A state titles in 2001-02. The tournament drew a record attendance of 24,906 in 2001 and then shattered that with 28,323. Southern Lab and Capitol played in back-to-back title games in 2002.

Usually, fans leave after their teams play, but in this case more kept coming in. The tourney consistently drew 20,000 or more during its 2000s run.

Here and now

Blanford-Green says the LHSAA is in “game mode” these days preparing for the Girls Top 28 that runs through Saturday and the Boys Top 28 set for March 8-12 at Burton in Lake Charles. And she loves it.

“The phones are ringing and people are calling,” Blanford-Green said. “I like that they’re excited about the events we’re having.”

Blanford-Green credits the Hammond organizers for their enthusiasm.

“I like their passion and commitment,” Blanford-Green said. “This is not a case where you had a group that bid on the boys tournament and said and ‘We’ll take the girls too.’ Having a group that wants to focus on a girls event the way they do definitely raises the bar.”

Both the organizers and Blanford-Green are wading through a maze of plans and procedures to get to Tuesday.

There are some basic facts to note, starting with a list of five defending state champions — Class 3A University, 2A North Caddo, 1A North Central, Class B Lacassine and Class C Summerfield.

There are Cinderella stories. Two Baton Rouge teams, 3A Parkview Baptist and 2A Madison Prep, make their tourney debuts. So does 2A Red River of Coushatta. There’s tradition with two Livingston Parish teams, Class B Holden and 5A Denham Springs.

Three unbeaten teams, Lacassine (34-0), 3A Jewel Sumner (33-0) and 1A Merryville (31-0), are in the mix.

Skyler Goodwin of Parkview Baptist and Kaila Anderson of University are just two of the top players to watch in 3A. Sumner’s duo of Bre’Ashlee Jones and Diamond Brooks are other 3A stars.

North Caddo of 2A has its duo of Jasmine Thomas and Sumer Williams.

Florien coach Dwain Strother cracked the 1,000 wins barrier last month and enters the tourney with 1,012 victories.

There’s even an Augustus, Madison Prep’s Alexis, a distant relative of the former Capitol star.

“We’re thrilled to have it back,” Recotta said of the tourney.