With no high school holiday basketball tournaments in 2020 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, area coaches, administrators and fans sent us some of their favorite holiday tournament memories.
Enjoy these anecdotes, with more of this two-part series to come in Saturday’s News-Gazette:
Heritage athletic director
This is my 27th year at Heritage and the first time that Heritage has not hosted a Christmas tournament in those 27 years. Through the years, I think my favorite memory was from the Hayden’s Classic on Dec. 27, 2005. On this date, Lyle Loman, who coached at Heritage for 30 years, got his 400th win. It was an important date for him, but for me as well. I had been diagnosed with cancer in April of that year. Lyle knew how much I wanted him to continue coaching until he reached that milestone. He had talked of retiring a few times prior to the 2005-2006 season, but I convinced him to stick around until he achieved his 400th win. Needless to say, Lyle was not big into fanfare and wasn’t coaching for the wins. When I received my cancer diagnosis, one of the first people to show up at my door was Lyle. He made me promise to do what I had to do to beat it and be there to see him get his 400th win. He said if I wouldn’t make that promise, he would walk away from coaching right then, with 394 wins. From that day on, I knew I had to be there on his special day. Heritage won the game in overwhelming fashion, beating DeLand-Weldon 100-28. Many of Lyle’s former players were there to be a part of his milestone and celebration. And maybe the best part: Heritage went on to win the tournament that year.
Watseka athletic director, girls’ basketball coach and former boys’ basketball coach
During my coaching career, I have been involved in all of the 19 Watseka Holiday Tournaments, either as head coach or as athletic director. The tournament started in 2002, and Watseka defeated rival Clifton Central in overtime that year in the championship game. We were down five points with eight seconds left in regulation and tied it before winning by five in overtime. The 2009 tournament championship game was also memorable when Watseka defeated Maroa-Forsyth in overtime. When I was in high school at Cissna Park, I loved attending and playing in the Rossville Holiday Tournament. The tournament was a long-running 16-team tournament with lots of tradition. My junior season in 1981-82, we were the only Cissna Park team to win the Rossville Holiday Tournament. They hung a banner in the Cissna Park gym, and when they were discarding old items a few years ago, I got it along with the first-place trophy. I display both in my man cave today.
St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball coach
The Leader Classic, now the Toyota of Danville Classic, has always been a huge part of my life even growing up. When I was really young, I would sit next to my dad at the scorer’s table while he would announce or keep the book. I would get a chance to watch some of the really good games from the best seat in the house. I would also get the “players I need to watch” from my dad, which were usually the guys that made their teams better. As a player and a coach in the Classic, there is nothing like having a tournament on your home court. It is a team goal every year for us to win the Classic. We have had some really great performances out of our guys, which you remember forever. Winning as a coach and a player has been very special, but having those early memories when I was a kid makes it that much better.
Champaign Central boys’ basketball director of operations
Champaign Central has participated in almost every Centralia Holiday Tournament since it began in 1943. The Maroons have won the tournament twice: 1971 and 2005. The 2005 Maroons faced Alton in the championship game. The Maroons starting lineup consisted of seniors Jordan Lee (News-Gazette Player of the Year that season), Bubba Chisholm (future Illini) and Spencer Johnson (currently on the Illinois State coaching staff), junior Drew Sharrick and sophomore Verdell Jones III (future News-Gazette Player of the year). This was the final Centralia Holiday Tournament played at Trout Gymnasium, as they would move to a newly built high school the next year. The championship game started off as a back-and-forth affair between Scott Davis’s Maroons and Lee Bennett’s Redbirds (Bennett is now the Centralia head coach). After the first quarter, the Redbirds would lead 21-16. The second quarter would see the Maroons get into foul trouble, with reserves Damien Henderson, Spencer Adams and Donald “Ducky” Stewart seeing significant first-half playing time. Alton would dominate the glass and the scoreboard in the second quarter, pulling away to a 43-27 lead for the Redbirds. After a fiery halftime chat from Davis and his assistant coaches — John Woods, Sergio McClain, Tom Hess and Leconte Nix — the Maroons would come out in the third quarter fighting. The goal was to cut the lead to single digits heading to the fourth quarter, which it was as the Redbirds would lead 52-45 going into the final eight minutes. Champaign’s full-court diamond press would give Alton fits in the fourth and with just over four minutes remaining, Jones would sink a pull-up jumper to put the Maroons in the lead 55-54. Champaign was ahead 62-61 with 12.2 seconds left and Jones headed to the line to shoot two free throws. Jones would miss both of them, giving the Redbirds a chance. Jones would more than make up for it on the defensive end with a steal and Stewart then made two free throws with 1.2 seconds left. Stewart would tip the inbounds pass into Chisholm’s hands and the Maroons were champions with a 64-61 win.
Andrew Johnson, Salt Fork boys’ basketball coach
As a player and now a coach, I’ve always enjoyed the three-day post-Christmas tournament we have participated in. It’s had a number of sponsors throughout the years, from Pizza Hut to Hayden’s to now the BSN Classic. The tournament itself, for both a player and coach, is a serious grind. Five games in three days really puts teams in a unique situation where they have to use a lot of players on the roster and in their rotation that maybe they wouldn’t normally use in a one game a day scenario. The tournament can really become a war of attrition. Each year, the two host sites (it used to be Rossville and Broadlands, then it moved to Schlarman and Broadlands, and now is Bismarck and Broadlands) alternate who hosts the championship round of crossover games. It is always interesting to see how those matchups play out, along with the tournament co-MVPs (one from each pool). Salt Fork has always had a nice run in that tournament over the course of its involvement with the most championships and most championship game appearances of any other team.
Matt Reed, Unity boys’ basketball coach
As a player at Washington Community High School, we always played at the Pekin Holiday Tournament. There were legendary coaches there at the times: Duncan Reid at Rock Island, Chuck Buescher at Peoria Central, Neil Alexander at Lincoln, Norm Reiser at Morton, Steve Doty for our team and Bob Nika at Springfield Lanphier. Those are all IBCA Hall of Fame coaches. Before I started playing, my dad would drop some of us off during the day, and we would stay and watch games all day. Pekin has the four-corner scoreboard, so I thought that was cool. I remember seeing Eric Anderson, who went on to Indiana to play, and Acie Earl, who played at Moline and later at Iowa and in the NBA. As a coach, when I was at Springfield High, we always played at the State Farm Classic in Bloomington. Two memories stand out. The first was coming in to the tournament as the last seed. We had played a really tough schedule, but we beat top-seeded North Lawndale Prep the first game and made it all the way to the championship game, losing in overtime to Normal Community with Anthony Beane. We were the lowest seed ever to make the championship game. Another memory was playing Centennial the year after they won the state title with Rayvonte Rice on their team. They were undefeated at the time. We had a shot to win in regulation and missed it. The game went to overtime, and we couldn’t stop Rayvonte.
Andrew Turner, St. Thomas More boys’ basketball coach
When I coached at Unity as an assistant in the late 1990s, we played in Illinois State’s old Horton Fieldhouse, which was one of the locations for the State Farm Holiday Classic when it was just getting started. I think we played at 9 p.m. the first night and lost, so we went into the consolation bracket for our next game. Our kids got to bed about 1 a.m., and our second game was about seven hours later at 8 a.m. So our kids and coaches got four to five hours of sleep before we played Bloomington Central Catholic. The kids were playing half asleep and it might have been the ugliest game I have ever witnessed. The final score was like 29-28, but we got the 29.
Jerud Van Dyke, Hoopeston Area boys’ basketball coach
Growing up 25 miles from Macomb, the Macomb Western Holiday Basketball Tournament was always special and a big deal to me. I remember watching Hall of Fame coaches that have influenced me even today with how they coached and led their teams. Coaches such as Dave Bennett of Pittsfield, Tom Wierzba of Farmington, Mel Casper of Lewistown and Sean Taylor of Macomb. Many great teams and coaches played throughout my years of watching the tournament, with many of those teams also getting to the state tournament in March. Saturday was always a great day with the semifinals in the morning and the championship game late that night. It is easy to say that those games and the tournament influenced me into becoming a coach and appreciating the game of basketball at the holiday season.