For the last few years, Dick Knar has been pining away … for Torrey Pines.
The Mundelein boys basketball coach has made a tradition of taking his teams to tournaments in California for the holidays. With each trip, he kept hearing more and more about the invitation-only, nationally renowned Torrey Pines Holiday Classic in the San Diego area.
A whopping 72 teams are invited to Torrey Pines, some of which are nationally ranked and stocked with multiple Division I recruits. They hail mostly from the western United States, but some come from other areas, even Canada.
"You see the teams and the players in this tournament and it's like the 'Who's Who' of high school basketball," Knar said. "I mean, it's a really, really good tournament."
Knar became determined to get his team there one day.
The coveted invitation finally came, and the Mustangs, who returned from their four-game Torrey Pines debut last week, certainly made the most of it.
Mundelein was the only team from the Midwest in this year's field. The Mustangs were also playing in the 16-team top division, which included many nationally ranked teams.
Yet, Mundelein fit right in, finishing the tournament with a 2-2 record as senior forward Sean O'Brien, who averaged nearly a triple-double, landed on the all-tournament team.
The Mustangs are now 8-6.
"When we made our nonconference schedule, we made it as tough as possible because we wanted every game to be a dogfight so that we would be prepared for conference and for the (state) tournament," Knar said. "We got a dogfight in every game at Torrey Pines.
"Against the kind of teams that were out there, we learned how to play together on every possession, both offensively and defensively. Those teams force you to do that because they're just so fast and good that you've always got to be working together. I feel like after that experience, now we're really ready for the second half of the season."
Mundelein tipped off the tournament on Dec. 26 with a 65-58 victory over El Cerrito, a team out of California.
"It was the best game we had played up to that point," Knar said. "We just pressured them. They had three Division I players, a 6-7 kid, and some really good athletes. But I don't think they were used to being pressured like that."
The next day, the Mustangs ran up against another loaded team from California. Sheldon, from the Sacramento area, boasted three more Division I superstars, including San Diego State-bound Dakarai Allen, who was named the most valuable player for the top division at Torrey Pines.
Sheldon ran past Mundelein 82-68 on its way to winning the overall tournament championship two days later.
"Sean (O'Brien) had a great tournament, but he played really, really well against Sheldon," Knar said. "He had a ton of points, plus 19 rebounds and I think he was one assist shy of a triple-double. It was amazing because that was a really good team."
The Mustangs rebounded the next day for an 81-72 victory over another California power, Bishop O'Dowd from Oakland. Ivan Rabb, a 6-foot-11 center from O'Dowd, is rated the second-best player nationally in the sophomore class and drew a crowd of major Division I scouts for every game he played.
But it was Mundelein reserve guard Derek Parola who stole the headlines in that game as he rolled up 15 points on a flurry of 3-pointers. He hit four 3-pointers in seven possessions.
"Derek came through huge in that game," Knar said. "He was the unsung hero for sure. We were down at the time and he hit a three and he took another and you could just see his confidence."
Finally, on the last day of the tournament, Mundelein lost to the Army/Navy prep school out of Carlsbad, Calif. in the fifth-place game. Again, the Mustangs were up against multiple Division I players, including a 6-foot-7 forward who had committed to Oregon State.
"I think we just ran out of gas," Knar said. "You've got to be at such a high level all the time there. And with four games in four days, we just looked a bit spent.
"But my message to the kids was not to look at it that we were ending on a downer. We had just finished a major, tough national tournament and we were pretty tough. We played hard, and I thought we showed a lot."
On the bench:
Mundelein represented its program and the Midwest well at Torrey Pines despite missing a major piece of its puzzle.
Star senior guard Robert Knar hasn't played a second yet this season as he continues to recover from off-season knee surgery to repair torn ligaments in his knee. He averaged more than 20 points per game last season and is one of the leading scorers in Mundelein history.
"I think it took us awhile to figure out that we could be a good team even without Robert," Mundelein coach Dick Knar said. "We were starting to understand that before we went to Torrey Pines, but I think the way we played there against those really good teams really made us believe it.
"We've got a lot of good guys on this team who can step up and they've been doing that."
Robert Knar might be ready to step up himself soon. The Northern Iowa signee is on track to return to action by late January or early February.
Honoring a legend:
The Mustangs didn't get to say goodbye.
At least not officially.
But during warmups for every game the rest of this season, they'll be speaking volumes to their old friend Jim Ackley.
Ackley, who had been the Mundelein boys basketball official scorekeeper for 50 years, died over the holidays. And the Mustangs, who were in California at their tournament in Torrey Pines at the time, were unable to attend the funeral.
"It's so sad about Jim. I just loved that guy," Mundelein coach Dick Knar said. "But we'll be honoring him and thinking of him at every game by wearing shooting shirts that have a 50 on them for his 50 years.
"During every huddle at Torrey Pines, we broke it by yelling '1-2-3 Ackley.' I also told the guys that even though we had heavy hearts, the best way we could honor Jim was to go out there and give maximum effort. Jim was always about effort. He talked to the kids about that all the time. I think he would have been proud of the way we played out (at Torrey Pines)."