Depending on which part of Iowa you're in, Class 1-A boys' basketball could belong in a science book. "It's almost like survival of the fittest," says Dunkerton coach Dan Knebel. The state's most selective team event begins today at Wells Fargo Arena as the Iowa high school boys' basketball tournament tips off. Class 1-A consists of 159 teams this season, and they have been whittled down to eight for action in Des Moines. No other Iowa sport for boys or girls allows a smaller percentage of squads to play on the biggest stage. "There's a lot of teams and a lot of good basketball," Boyden-Hull coach Bill Francis said. "We play the regular season to get ready for tournament time, and that's our focus every year. They understand what the big picture is." It's a far cry from the 777 schools the Iowa High School Athletic Association had playing basketball in a single-class format in 1923, but still the most rigorous journey to a trophy the state offers. Last summer's switch to five classes by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union spread things out for the girls' basketball tournament. The next closest boys' sport to 1-A hoops is 1-A baseball, where eight state teams emerge from a field of 144. "1-A has 159 schools, so the sheer numbers perhaps makes it more difficult because of an increased number of pre-state tournament games," IHSAA information director Bud Legg said. "Different styles of basketball are played in various regions of Iowa, and the state tournament gets to showcase those." The strongest have survived. Last season's top three finishers -- Boyden-Hull, Danville and Storm Lake St. Mary's -- are all back for another turn. "If you lose you're done," Storm Lake St. Mary's senior Luke Lenhart said. "That's the mentality you have to have, and I think it's helped us." Qualifiers in 1-A won three district games and one substate game to arrive on today's quarterfinals schedule. No teams forced to win four district games advanced to Wells Fargo Arena. The state qualifiers in Class 4-A each won two games to emerge from the 48-team class. "Personally, I think making it in any class is a difficult task and one that should be celebrated," Legg said. "Each of the classes has several quality teams and individuals and very good coaches, meaning you have to be ready each night, and perhaps catch a break." Boyden-Hull (22-3) is making its ninth appearance since 2000, becoming as much of a sure thing as possible in a class where 5.03 percent of teams make it to state. "Our kids walk into tournament time, and they're used to going there," Francis said. "They expect that come March, Boyden-Hull is playing in the state tournament. They don't understand the challenge." That attitude is an invaluable commodity to teams such as Dunkerton, Lawton-Bronson and Murray. All three squads were ranked in the Associated Press top 10 and possessed just one loss before being eliminated in the substate finals. Des Moines proved one step too far. "At the end of the day, you hope the best eight teams get there, and we ended up just short of that," Knebel said. "We recognize the need to test ourselves as best we can, and once you get to the tournament it's a little bit of who you draw, where and when." The gargantuan 1-A can prove too big for some of Iowa's small fish. Diagonal was tied for the lowest enrollment of any school fielding a basketball team this season -- 24 students in grades 9-11, according to Iowa's Basic Educational Data Survey. Thirteen boys are listed on the basketball roster. "I don't think they really realize how small they are, because it's all they've ever known," Diagonal coach Matt Warren said. "We just try to get back, make improvements and we're really going to try and make it someday." Schools in 1-A had enrollments as high as 159 according to BEDS, something Warren and the Maroons can't spend any time worrying about. They went from 1-19 last year to 11-11 this season with only six boys in the school not on the team. "You've got to improve your players, because the ones in your school are the ones you've got," Warren said. Brad Wilkening can understand that. Storm Lake St. Mary's didn't make the state tournament for 99 years, and now the coach has seen his Panthers qualify for the third straight time. "I've got two all-staters, so that makes it a little simpler," Wilkening said. "We're fortunate enough right now that our name is being mentioned with these other teams." Lenhart is one of those all-staters, averaging 24.7 points per game for St. Mary's. This week, though, he's just another small-town star in a crowd full of them. "There are more games to play, more things to be prepared for, but to make the tournament three out of my four years is definitely special," Lenhart said. "Just knowing that we can go down and play at Wells Fargo in front of our fans -- there's no other way I'd want to end my career." For all the teams and all the success on hand for the 1-A tournament, just one squad will end its season with seven straight postseason victories and the trophy. Quarterfinal games begin at 10:30 a.m., today. The Class 1-A championship game is set for 6:05 p.m. on Friday.
A closer look
Amount of teams in the largest class for other sports in Iowa:
Baseball: 144; Golf: 133; Football: 66; Soccer: 54; Girls' basketball: 115
Note: Totals from latest season by IHSAA
Class-by-class tourney outlook
CLASS 4-A Sophomore Daniel Tillo of Sioux City North is the top scorer (22.9) and rebounder (12.2) in the 4-A field ... No team may match up well with defending champs Iowa City West, but Dowling Catholic will bring an athletic group of physical seniors, like Iowa football recruit Jon Wisnieski ... Curtis Clark is 23-0 with the top seed in his first season coaching Bettendorf ... Dubuque Senior's top returning scorer, Josh Weeber, ruptured his Achilles tendon last summer, but has played in every game for the Rams. CLASS 3-A Top-ranked Vinton-Shellsburg is having a dream season at 24-0 and is making its first state visit since 1996 ... Davenport Assumption is just 4-0 against 3-A opponents ... Northern Iowa-bound forward Klint Carlson and Waverly-Shell Rock have reeled off 17 straight wins in 2013 ... Defending champion Mount Pleasant graduated four seniors, but reloaded. Leading scorer and rebounder Faith Pope transferred from Ottumwa ... Six players for Dallas Center-Grimes score between 7 and 11 points per game. CLASS 2-A Sheldon will make its first state appearance since 1977 after beating No. 4 Western Christian in the substate finals ... No. 1 West Fork pulled coach Frank Schnoes out of retirement. Senior star Payton Plagge has helped make it pay off with an undefeated run ... The lowest scoring team in the tournament is Dike-New Hartford, at 51.2 points per game ... Three games this season for Nodaway Valley were decided by less than 10 points. Two were in the postseason. The third was against quarterfinal opponent Carroll Kuemper. CLASS 1-A The steamroller that is No. 1 Danville won its four playoff games by an average of 39 points ... Title-holders Boyden-Hull shared the Siouxland Conference title with qualifiers MOC-FV (3-A) and Sheldon (2-A) ... North Tama and Riverside of Oakland are each making their debut appearances. The old Oakland High qualified in 1985-86, but didn't have Ricky Williams and his 26.9 points and 14.6 rebounds per game ... Storm Lake St. Mary's starts five seniors who have a career record of 100-4.