Since El Dorado hosted the 6A State Tournament 10 years ago, no other school from Union County has hosted one of the pinnacle events in Arkansas high school basketball.
That changed last week with the announcement by the Arkansas Activities Association that Junction City had successfully bid to host the 2A State Tournament.
“When we built the gym, we wanted to give our kids an opportunity to not only play in something that was nice, but also give them an opportunity to showcase their community,” said Junction City boys basketball coach Kendall Hutcheson, who is also the school’s athletic director. “They would be able to stay at home and play in front of their people in some big games, and just make sure that our kids had the same opportunities that other kids did.”
Three years ago, Junction City hosted the regional tournament in its first run at hosting a postseason tournament.
“We held the regionals one time just to try to run a tournament and get used to the logistics of everything,” Hutcheson said. “Last year with the COVID situation, we didn’t think it was a good fit and a good time. This year, it just felt like it was the right time to give our kids a chance to do this. In my 14 years here, we’ve played south of Little Rock one year, and that was at Hampton.”
Traveling across the state has been the norm for Junction City when they have reached the state tournament, but should the Dragons qualify, they will be sleeping in their own beds.
“Everything else has been two years at Carlisle, after that we’re looking at 3 1/2-plus and most of those years it’s been 4 1/2-plus as far as travel for our kids. Sleeping in a hotel room and a lot of fans being limited and not being able to travel that far, so we just thought it was time to get it down here in Junction and showcase what we have.”
Having to travel also has a tendency to disturb routines that one wouldn’t normally think of.
“If that opportunity comes, you’d much rather sleep in your own bed and be able to eat what you’re used to eating,” Hutcheson said. “I know something simple for our kids, whenever we go to the state tournament, regional tournament or even Christmas tournaments, it’s like, ‘Coach, we’ve got to go eat again? Didn’t we just eat?’ A lot of our kids don’t eat three times a day.
“They’ll eat something for supper and eat something for lunch but never eat breakfast. It just seems like they say, ‘It feels like all we do is just play basketball and eat.’ When you get to stay at home, you keep your normal routine and simple things like that seem like they wouldn’t be a big deal to us, but it makes a difference in the kids’ routine, so I’m excited about the opportunity to play at home.”
Fans that may not get the opportunity to come to the state tournament in person could get the chance to see all of the games thanks to streaming.
“We’re talking about that and what that entails,” Hutcheson said. “I believe last year they tried to stream most of the games through their (AAA’s) app. We have the Dragon Sports Network down here, and we’re going to be trying to work with the AAA and see if we can broadcast the games and stream them through their app. That’s the plan right now is we’re going to try and do every game.”
Hutcheson said he is looking forward to the challenge hosting the state tournament brings.
“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s going to be a lot of work, but at the same time, we have great facilities here and people from other parts of the state don’t realize that and don’t know what we have,” Hutcheson said.
“We think it will be a great opportunity to bring a bunch of people to our campus and to bring some people to south Arkansas that would never come here except for this reason, so we’re excited about that.”
Outside of Hampton hosting in 2014, the state tournament hasn’t been in south Arkansas, and Hutcheson thought that was a key in Junction City’s presentation.
“I think talking to them about what El Dorado has, what the surrounding area has and just the fact that state basketball hasn’t been down this way in a long time,” Hutcheson said. “I told the AAA it wasn’t their fault it hasn’t been here in a long time. I don’t think many people have bid on it. Honestly, I think a lot of times the gyms down south are a little older, so as schools down here start building their gyms, I think you’re going to see it down here more often.”
Although it’s been eight years since Hampton hosted the state tournament, Hutcheson said the lasting impact could have played a role in the tournament getting to Junction City.
“I don’t know. I’d be curious to find out myself,” Hutcheson said. “I don’t think it hurt us because Hampton did a good job. They put on a quality tournament.
“There was not a negative connotation with a tournament in the south after they did it. They did it right, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that helped us a little bit. I don’t think the AAA wants to have it on the Missouri border every year, but at the same time, if nobody is bidding on it from down south, then it’s kind of hard for them to have a chance to host it.
“This year, we were the only ones from down here that were bidding on it, and that’s the way it usually is. I don’t know if it helped or hurt us, but I think it helped us more than it hurt us.”
Now the biggest question for Junction City will be can they qualify and have home-court advantage?
That won’t be answered until next month, but Hutcheson said the Dragons have a tough task in front of them.
“The region that we’re up against is a very tough region,” Hutcheson said. “Last year was the first year since I’ve been here that we did not make the state tournament. We didn’t play very well and Magnet Cove was a very good, solid team and they got us. For us, we’re going to have to be really focused. You’ve got Dierks over there, you’ve got Magnet Cove and Cutter Morning Star, who some people picked to win that conference that year. Caddo Hills is always tough. It’s definitely no easy task, and with the regional at Dierks, we will definitely be focused on that.”
And with the regional tournament several weeks away, Hutcheson said the state tournament will not be discussed until it needs to be.
“As far as the kids having pressure or anything, we’re not going to talk about state until it’s time,” Hutcheson said. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time. If we start looking ahead to that and home-court advantage for state and all of that, it’s like I told the kids, ‘I’ve tried to do my job and got you what we wanted, now lets do our job and make sure we get there.’ That’s what our focus is now is to get better every day, get better every game. If we do, then it will take care of itself.”
Three years ago when Junction City hosted the regional tournament, the Dragons won it as a No. 3 seed.
The thought of Junction City potentially making a run should they qualify is certainly something for prognosticators to ponder, but Hutcheson is simply focused on the Dragons improving each day.
“I hadn’t even thought about that,” Hutcheson said. “I couldn’t tell you what years we won regional or not. I can tell you the years we’ve lost in the state championship game. It’s one of those things that I really do think that this bunch is pretty good about not looking ahead. I think what we have to concentrate on is making sure that we’re playing our best game every game, and we’ve had some games where we just haven’t showed up and played as well as we could.
“It seems like when we’re played really great competition, we’ve played really great, but there’s some games where it’s been sloppy and we got sucked into that. We’ve got to make sure that we play our style and not get sucked into that sloppy play. Every day when we finish practice, I’ve got my things that I write down that we’ve got to work on that I didn’t like what I saw, and the next thing is we hit them.
“Right now, I’m hoping that list gets shorter and shorter. It seems like sometimes I’m writing the same thing down over and over again and it gets frustrating. We’ve just got to get ourselves tuned up and make sure that we fix our weaknesses and start tightening things up a bit. I think if we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a great position and have a chance to possibly play on our home floor.
“I just hope that we concentrate on handling business to make sure we get a chance to play at home because I don’t think it will be quite as fun if we’re sitting down here getting this tournament ready for everybody else.”