When Tokay beat Lodi 48-47 in the Flames' brand new gymnasium last Jan. 9, it was the largest crowd for a prep basketball game I had ever seen in this city.
The atmosphere at The Inferno II was electric. Tokay Bleacher Creatures filled one whole side and Flame Fanatics filled the other. And just about everyone in town who had anything to do with high school sports was there.
The spirit shown by the fans was terrific and the building shook with spirited screams on every possession. It didn't matter that both teams were having below-average seasons up to that point.
People still cheered and bled either red and white or purple and gold. It was the ultimate small-town rivalry. The players loved the energy and fed off of it. Even the head coaches had a spring in their step on the sidelines.
When it was over, everyone in The Inferno was drained and happy. It was a great game. It also put a nice chunk of change into Lodi's athletic department coffers with the paid attendance at the gate.
Sadly, I have not seen a capacity crowd for any sporting event since. Every game I attend, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of empty seats. Even attendance at some of the biggest matchups number in just the low hundreds, if even that.
So, instead of the usual resolutions that everyone makes (and mostly breaks) in the coming New Year, here is a challenge to the local community to help benefit the prep athletic programs for 2010.
Let's fill the stadiums, gymnasiums, fields, pools and diamonds for every prep sporting event that is held in this city. It can be any game in any sport against any team. And make sure you bring your cash for the admission fee and if there is none, consider donating a few cents at the gate.
High school sports are in peril. Athletic department budgets are being slashed left and right. The more the people in our city go to the contests, the more money that is collected at the ticket gate. This helps support the sports programs at Lodi, Tokay, Galt, Liberty Ranch and Elliot Christian high schools as well as Lodi Academy.
Yes, we are in an economic downturn. We can't really afford things like we used to. But if we make an effort to ensure all high school games are either sold out or as much to capacity as possible, we can help build better teams and facilities with the revenue generated from the fan support.
Then maybe we can stop the exodus of our city's best athletes, male or female, to more expensive private high schools with better funded athletic programs and huge fan bases. Keeping the local talent at home would help the high schools in Lodi and Galt field more championship caliber teams in many sports. That would increase attendance even more.
Maybe it is a naive idea to issue such a challenge. It could be nothing more than a pipe dream in this cyber-technology age of such distractions as the Internet, Ipods, cell phones, XBox and Wii. But one thing I have consistently seen in Lodi over the years is that this city has great parents who support their students and athletes.
I believe in this city and the people who live here. I believe Lodi has the potential fan base to lead a new trend that will put more people in the seats and rescue our prep athletic programs from financial disaster in the process.
So the next time someone decides they want to spend a few bucks at an expensive restaurant, take in the latest movie at the cineplex or even make a donation to a charity of their choice, why not go to a high school game instead?
That's the challenge for our community in 2010.
After all, what better investment can we make than that of the futures of our children?