Looking at some long overdue home-court advantage [Commentary]

Quantifying home-field, home-court or home-track advantage can be a very tricky task. I know there's a wealth of statistical information out there on the subject, and if I wanted I could look up the exact point differential between an NFL team's home games and road games over the last 60 years, but I'm not interested in that kind of Internet forum, sports nerd fodder. I like trying to get closer to the heart of the matter, to describe those things that don't like being described, which, depending on your point of view, is either easier or harder than just throwing out statistics. As a writer first and foremost, I think it's harder to describe things like home-field advantage.

I'll admit that I feel a little bit out of my depth attempting to do so, because I never played basketball or football at an organized level, and those two sports are the ones where home-field advantage, at least at a high school level, are very acutely felt. The most important high school sporting event in which I was ever involved, the 1997 Class 1A North regional semifinal boys soccer game (kind of a deflating thought that that's as far as I ever made it), barely filled the football field bleachers at Perryville, so we could have been playing that game anywhere. It was nice to be on our home field, but the crowd was neither big enough nor loud enough to give anyone on my team much of a boost. My other sport was track, and, though I loved it, most regular-season meets were sparsely attended. The only event that really filled out the stands was the state championship meet, and that was always held at a neutral school (McDaniel College, in my case, which then had a terrible concrete track. My aching heels and I are still mad at the MPSSAA for deciding to hold it there).

So, I never got to experience the hair-raising, home-field roar as a basketball or football player, though I've witnessed it plenty of times as an in-depth observer. Football teams certainly benefit from playing on their home field, and I've seen underdogs play well beyond their abilities when spurred on by their fans. Basketball, however, seems to me to the sport in which playing at home has the most advantages. That is partially due to the physical aspect. Even in the bigger, newer Harford County high school gymnasiums (Aberdeen's comes to mind), the fans are right on the court. There's a two-foot wide space between the bottom of the bleachers and sideline, and if you walk down it while the clock is running, you run the risk of becoming involved in the game (or getting knocked down by a player chasing an errant pass).

With home-field advantage being a very important factor in high school basketball, and I've written about this in previous columns, it has always dismayed me that, year after year, the Class 2A boys basketball team from Harford County that advances to the regional finals has had make the two-hour drive to play the District VIII champ, which is invariably Easton or Wicomico. My count may be off, but in my six seasons of covering boys basketball, I've watched four teams travel to the Eastern Shore, only to get dropped one stage shy of the state semifinals (Edgewood in 2009 and 2010, Fallston in 2011, Patterson Mill in 2012). All of those games were played at Easton High School, which, if you've never been there, has a gym that's very much like Havre de Grace's. It's tightly packed, it's hot and it's loud. The home fans, though not vicious, are extremely vocal. There's a distinct home-court advantage there, and, just looking at it on a personal level, it always bugged me that I had to drive halfway across the state to watch the Harford County team lose. At that point, when there's only one or two teams left alive, I want to see the local squad win and go to College Park for the state tournament.

It was while talking to Joppatowne head coach Jermaine Head Sr. after his team's 2A East semifinal round victory over Edgewood on Tuesday night that I realized, for the first time in my experience, the District VIII team, in this case Wicomico, is going to have to make the two-hour trek and play the regional final in Harford County. I was elated, to put it bluntly. Finally, the Harford County team won't have to head down to the lion's den on the other side of the bay. Hopefully Joppatowne can cash in on home-court advantage, and I'll finally be covering a local boys basketball team in the state tournament.

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