If you're a high school basketball fan, late-December is one of the most wonderful times of the year.
It is holiday basketball tournament season at various gyms across the state of Illinois.
At Pontiac, St. Charles North and West Aurora will participate in the country's oldest high school Christmas tournament.
Founded in 1926 by Don "Cash" Seaton, the 82nd Pontiac Holiday Tournament truly has been a "money" maker for the north-central Illinois school.
The list of past participants includes Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Brandon Paul, Kenny Battle, Bruce Douglas, Walter Downing, Dave Robisch, Audie Matthews, Bobby Simmons, Alondo Tucker, Bob Bender, and 1972 MVP John Bryant (West Aurora).
This year's tourney field is loaded with talent, headed by 3-time defending Class 4A state champion Simeon and 2-time Pontiac Tournament MVP Jabari Parker, and second-seeded Peoria Manual.
Simeon and Peoria Manual have combined to capture 19 of the last 27 tourney titles at Pontiac.
Making his 37th consecutive appearance at Pontiac, West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman's Blackhawks are the No. 3 seed and will open tourney play against Lockport at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec 27.
St. Charles North, which faces Waukegan at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 27, made its first trip to Pontiac last year as the North Stars finished 1-2.
"It gets national recognition as one of the top holiday tournaments," said North Stars coach Tom Poulin, whose team lost a 51-50 decision to Waukegan on Dec. 9. "I don't think there's a better experience for our kids. It's something they'll never forget. It's like a sectional finals atmosphere for every game."
Unlike some tourneys, each team is promised only 2 games at Pontiac.
"We were really happy to get a third game last year," said Poulin. "Our goal is to play as many games as possible."
Senior guard Quinten Payne, who leads the North Stars in scoring, watched his older brother, Cully, earn first-team, all-tournament honors at Pontiac in 2008 while playing at Schaumburg.
A year ago, the North Stars doubled their fun and played in the Jacobs Holiday Tournament before heading to Pontiac. This time around, St. Charles North opted out of the Jacobs tourney.
"We wanted to do both but the Jacobs tournament overlaps with Pontiac this year," said Poulin. "We loved everything about that tournament, too."
At Pontiac, the 16 teams receive Royal-like treatment, including hotel accommodations, three meals per day, and game uniform laundry service.
"You can just focus on basketball," said Poulin.
While Pontiac may be the state's oldest holiday tourneys, one would be hard-pressed to surpass the historical nature of the 52nd annual Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
The star-studded list of former Proviso West participants includes Mark Aguirre, Hersey Hawkins, Isiah Thomas, Corey Maggette, Kevin Garnett, Jeff Hornacek, Juwan Howard, Doc Rivers, Evan Turner, Shannon Brown, Dee Brown, Michael Finley, Jon Scheyer, Randy Brown, Jim Brewer, and Marcus Liberty.
This year's expanded field of 32 teams includes first-time entrant St. Charles East, led by Purdue-bound sharpshooting guard Kendall Stephens.
"We talk about two things all the time -- conference and state," said Saints coach Patrick Woods, whose team opens play against Von Steuben at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26. "There's not a better test of getting ready for state."
Founded by Walt Sawosko in 1961, the Proviso West tourney is America's largest holiday high school hoops event conducted under one roof.
Woods carries fond memories of his early visits to Proviso West.
"I used to go to that tournament with my grade-school coach (now-Morton coach Tony Martinucci)," said Woods. "He used to pile us all in a moving van. It's probably illegal at this point. We'd pile into the back and close the door. We'd hang onto the ropes because it was pitch-black in there.
"It was the best thing he ever did for us," added Woods. "We saw a lot of great players in that span of time -- guys like Marcus Liberty and Lavertis Robinson (of King)."
In addition to the Saints, the field at the 6-day, 61-game Proviso West tourney includes Wheaton Academy, Oswego, New Trier, Benet Academy, Proviso East, Morton, Glenbard East, Hinsdale Central, Morgan Park, St. Joseph, Rockford Auburn, and Crespi Carmelite (Calif.) -- the first-ever, non-Illinois entry.
All teams are guaranteed to play 3 games, with a maximum of 5.
"If you win the first two, you're guaranteed being in the main gym the whole time," said Woods. "That's kind of another goal for us. Our hope is that we're playing at 7 or 8 o'clock as the tournament progresses."
With a first-round win, the Saints will face either Stevenson or Hinsdale Central on Dec. 27.
"It's a great test so I'm really looking forward to it," said Woods.
At East Aurora, Geneva will put its 9-1 record on the line Dec. 26-29 against an 8-team field that includes unbeaten Neuqua Valley, defending Class 3A state champion Peoria Central, Aurora Central Catholic, and Pleasure Ridge Park (Ky.).
"I think the field is even stronger than it was before," said Vikings coach Phil Ralston, whose team opens against Neuqua Valley (10-0) on Dec. 26.
"I know it's only an eight-team field but it's a buzzsaw -- it's an absolute buzzsaw," added Ralston. "You could probably go 0-4 or 1-3 and play really well. Last year, we finished 2-2 and we felt pretty good about ourselves after that. And that was with playing that Kentucky team and playing Peoria."
Ralston realizes there will be no easy wins at East Aurora.
"You hope you can find one game when you get into a tournament like this where you feel like you're confident so that maybe this can springboard us into us another game," said the coach. "There's none of those games there."
Then there's the challenge of playing 4 games in as many days.
"Your preparation has to be absolutely perfect in your approach to each game and the kids have to be mentally focused," said Ralston, whose team has been led by senior center Connor Chapman and 6-6 sophomore Nate Navigato.
Meanwhile, Batavia will head to the 38th annual Elgin Holiday Tournament (Dec. 26-29), where the Bulldogs will open against Harlan at 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 26.
The 16-team field at Elgin includes top-seeded Larkin, Rockford East, Dundee-Crown, Buffalo Grove, Glenbard North, Hoffman Estates, Rockford Guilford, and Centennial-Las Vegas (Nev.), which features two players already committed to attend Stanford in 2013.
For Ralston, spending the holiday season diagraming plays and encouraging players only seems natural.
"I've probably spent 20 years now not having two weeks off unlike most of my colleagues," said Ralston. "My family has had to make an adjustment to it. We do try to do some holiday traditions with our family and that's important.
"When you have tournaments like this, it kind of helps make the break more fun, at least for me," added the coach. "If I didn't have basketball in my life during the winter, I couldn't live in this weather."
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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