T he Negaunee Invitational Tournament has meant a lot to the people of Negaunee, and the entire UP for that matter. Starting in 1964, the tournament has had around 100 teams from all around the Midwest attend each year, providing a chance for everyone from the weekend warriors to the most polished basketball players to compete against one another.
Now, after a five-year hiatus, the springtime tradition is making its return to Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium thanks to Randy Carlson, head coach of the Negaunee Softball team.
Carlson had been looking for ways to fundraise for his softball program, which like many softball and baseball programs in the UP is not funded by the Negaunee school district. As anyone who has done any fundraising knows, after some time it begins to feel like you are constantly asking people for money, which can make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Carlson was no exception, so he came up with a plan. Bring back the NIT, which would not only bring in money for the program, but would provide the community with something that they will be able to participate in themselves.
“It was kind of a win-win,” he said. “It would be something a lot of people would enjoy in the community, but it would also benefit our program. If we can make money for the program, and provide a service for the people of the community, that is a great situation.”
This year’s NIT will begin on March 8, and will feature five different divisions: Classes B, C, D, a Women’s division, and a 45 and older division. Class B will be an open division, where any team that thinks it can compete at the highest level will play.
Class C will include people that participated in high school basketball, but not collegiate basketball which Carlson said will consist mainly of high-school age or slightly older players.
Class D will be more for the average type of player, where any sort of experience is not necessary. This division will be more for fun, and will mainly consist of older players.
The women’s division is more wide open, but teams will only be allowed two girls with Division II experience or higher. Carlson referenced years in the past where players from Michigan Tech or Northern Michigan would come to the tournament and provide lopsided scores, so by limiting the number of collegiate players, he hopes to see better competition.
Finally, the 45 and over division will feature anyone who is over the age of 45, as to not exclude the older generation of players.
What is missing from this year’s tournament is Class A, which in the past consisted of teams from all over the Midwest, and typically was the highest level of competition at the tournament.
Carlson noted that Class A sometimes had to pay teams to come up and play, which limits the feasibility of having the teams come from outside of the local area. Combined with the rise of Pro-Am tournaments around the country, Carlson was unsure as to how well having the additional class would work, but he plans on re-evaluating after the tournament concludes.
“Eventually, I would like to grow it to have more classes,” he said. “The big thing is that this year is going to be a feeling-out process. When the NIT was going strong, the city leagues were a lot more popular, every town had one. Those leagues are shrinking a lot, so we want to see what happens and how many teams we get, and how the community responds.”
Returning this year is the 3-point contest, something that has been quite popular over the years. There was previously a dunk contest to accompany the 3-point contest, but Carlson said it will not be included in this year’s events.
“When they did the NIT in the past, they always had the 3-point and dunk contests, but I am thinking this year we are not going to do a dunk contest,” he said. “Depending on the types of teams and talent that we draw up here, but as we grow over time it could be a possibility down the road.”
The return of the NIT goes further than just financial backing for other sports, however. Being around for half of a century has turned the tournament into a tradition that people have loved taking part in, and some have missed out since the disbanding of the event. By bringing the NIT back, Carlson hopes to bring back some good memories of the past, while keeping the reputation of the tournament at the level it was in the previous years.
“I’ve had some responses from the younger kids, who were talking about how they used to watch the NIT when they were kids,” he said. “They said that they were really excited that it was coming back because they never got a chance to play in it. They grew up watching it, and could not wait until they were old enough to play, and then it went away. From that aspect, there is a lot of nostalgia, and a lot of people that are excited for it to come back. The big thing is that the tournament has had such a good reputation, it is so well respected, I do not want to do anything that would give it a bad name.”
The tournament does not have a firm deadline to enter, but the sooner the rosters are submitted, the sooner Carlson and his volunteers can begin to assemble the layouts. Carlson said he hopes to have teams submitted by February 15, to help get things settled well before the start date.
The cost to enter is $125 per team, but each team will receive a $25 coupon from a sponsoring Negaunee business upon submitting their money. Classes C, D and the Women’s division will play on the weekend of March 8, while Class B and the 45 and up division will play on the following weekend.
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