Story by Mike Marzolf, Great Bend Tribune
It has been THE tournament since he was a youngster growing up in Hutchinson. The national tournament. He didn't miss many of them.
Craig Fletchall grew up on the NJCAA National Tournament. He could tell you the years he missed it and why. It was a yearly ritual for him and his father, Glenn.
Monday, after 18 years of coaching in the junior college ranks and nearly 50 years after attending his first NJCAA National Tournament, he will get to coach his first game in that very tournament he couldn't wait to go to as a kid.
"It's just a great feeling," Fletchall said. "You start to wonder if it is going to happen or not. I'm not sure how many more years I'm going to be doing this. So, to finally get a chance to coach at the national tournament is really, really special. I truly feel very blessed."
His Barton Cougars drew the No. 16 seed in the tournament and will open play Monday at 10am against Tyler Junior College, the No. 17 seed. The winner of that game gets top-ranked and unbeaten Indian Hills in the second round on Tuesday afternoon.
It's a tournament he has been going to since he was about six or seven years old.
"My parents used to get me out of school for the week," Fletchall recalls." It was Tuesday through Saturday and they would get me out of school from Tuesday on that week so I could go watch.
"There were several tournaments that I would not miss a single game. I would get there for that first game in the morning and stay until the last game at night."
He can vividly tell you when he didn't get to go one year. But that didn't keep him from keeping track of what was going on.
"I had the chicken pox when I was eight and I couldn't go," Fletchall said. "I sat and I listened to every single game on the radio."
He can even remember when you actually had to camp out to get tickets. Back when they would setup tents in the parking and people would take turns camping in those tents to be in line when tickets went on sale.
From that first trip at a young age, Fletchall made every tournament, sans that chicken pox event, until he was through his sophomore year in college at Hutchinson.
He will tell you about the time Spud Webb dunked on Yvon Joseph in the title game. That is 5-7 Spud Webb dunking on 6-11 Yvon Joseph in the 1982 title game. Webb's Midland College team won that game over the No. 1 ranked Miami-Dade team, 93-88. Both players would have NBA careers.
"I was in the front row," Fletchall said. "It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It was the best basketball game I think I have ever watched. I remember it went double overtime."
That was the last time he was able to go to just about every game for a while. He went off to Wichita State and Fort Hays to finish college then found himself back in Hutchinson as the coach at Hutchinson Trinity.
Then the tournament again became a part of his life. The teams would use the gym at Trinity to practice. It was then he realized his true ambition was to be a junior college coach and coach in the NJCAA National Tournament.
"It was interesting to see how the teams went about things in different ways," Fletchall said. "I remember one year San Jacinto came in for a shoot-around it was like 'wow'. They went at it hard. It was full-court up and down and in your face. They had Walter Berry on that team."
Then later Arizona Western came in with their flip-flops on and maybe shoot some free throws. That San Jac team demolished everyone that year."
From Trinity, where his team won a state title, he went on to a couple more high school stops before landing at Cowley as an assistant coach for three seasons. That was followed by his first head coaching job in the Jayhawk Conference at Neosho County where he spent five seasons before taking over at Barton in 2005.
Three times his teams have made it to the Region VI Finals - once at Neosho and twice at Barton. Each time he missed that chance to coach at NJCAA Tournament.
"Those were hard losses," Fletchall said shaking his head. "Three times being right there on the verge of making it."
Then came Monday morning and the announcement his Cougars were headed to Hutch.
"That was pretty emotional," Fletchall said. "I have juco in my blood. To make it after this long, wow, that is a great feeling. I wanted to get there by winning the region, but I'm not going to complain about it too much."
Now he becomes a part of the NJCAA Tournament. The same tournament he would chase down players as a kid and get autographs. The same tournament he would pick his own all tournament teams. The same tournament he didn't want to end as a child when he would stay around until all the festivities ended on that final night.
That same tournament he and his father spent so much time together at.
His father has since passed, but Coach Fletchall will have a very special guest at the tournament.
His mother, Mary, will be in attendance. She is 94. He got to break the news to her Monday that he was coming home to coach on 'the big stage.'
"There might have been some tears shed during that phone call," Fletchall said. "She didn't know we had made it when I called her. That was a special moment. Really special."
His brother Randy will be flying in from Phoenix to attend the tournament as well.
It has been a long journey to complete the full circle and get to coach in THE tournament. It may not be the final time he coaches in it. Who knows, maybe there will be a national title and perhaps more NJCAA National Tournaments in the future.
But there will be only one first time coaching on the sidelines of the Sports Arena the national tournament.
That will take place Monday at 10 am.
Complete Tournament information can be found at the official tournament website located at www.njcaahutchtourney.com