By Joe Henricksen
A few holiday tournaments began earlier this week, while the majority across the state tip off this weekend or early next week. Once again Proviso West and Pontiac are the premier stops on the holiday tournament trail, while the Big Dipper at Rich South, Pekin and the State Farm Classic in Bloomington are all enticing as well for the high school basketball fan.
These tournaments are showcases for many of the elite teams and programs in the state, but there are others that will be using the holidays as a proving ground. Several programs are off to terrific starts but still have plenty to prove. Here is a look at a few of those teams that are off to fast starts but are still searching for a little more respect and would gain it with impressive holiday tournament showings.
SCHAUMBURG. The Saxons, under coach Bob Williams, have become one of the better and more consistent programs over the past decade. Williams has his club unbeaten at 10-0 heading to Pontiac despite losing one of its top players, Blake Mueller. The 6-5 senior, who suffered a serious knee injury, has yet to play. But Alabama-bound Cully Payne has been sensational and others, like 5-10 senior Perrish Bell, have played their roles perfectly. Despite some "big-named" wins over the likes of Rockford Boylan and Farragut, those two programs are not at the level they've been in recent years. At Pontiac, where Schaumburg hasn't exactly had its best moments the last few years, the Saxons will be in position to make believers out of everyone. In their bracket alone the Saxons could get highly-regarded Peoria Manual in the second round and the Hoops Report's No. 1 ranked team, Waukegan and Jereme Richmond, in the semifinals.
CURIE. A tournament title at Pontiac will be no easy task with the road coach Mike Oliver's club has in front of it. Curie opens play with the dreaded 9 a.m. game against a formidable foe in Joliet (7-2) and then would get Simeon, the three-time defending Pontiac champ, in the second round. Though the Condors are young, led by super sophomore Wayne Blackshear, they are anxious to prove they are ready to be included with the state's best. This solid, up-and-coming program, is still searching for a signature moment that grabs everyone's attention. A tournament title at Pontiac would be a start.
ENTIRE BIG DIPPER FIELD. Take your pick at the Big Dipper when it comes to teams with something to prove, with the exception of tournament favorites Seton Academy and Thornton who everyone is anticipating meeting in the title game. But there are a host of other teams looking to show everyone they are the real deal. Is this where talented Bolingbrook puts it together after some early-season struggles? Do Leo and Crete-Monee, a pair of ranked unbeaten teams, have the staying power to remain among the elite? Is this where Rich East gets some of the respect its been seeking playing in the shadows of other top south suburban programs? And how about Bloom, a team that was devastated in the offseason with its two top players dealing with legal issues and unable to play this year? The Blazing Trojans, behind big man Aaron Nelson, have barely missed a beat and are off to a 7-1 start.
MORTON. This program, this team, this particular group of players, has been pleased with and enjoyed being the feel-good story in high school basketball the past year. Racking up 24 wins last year, winning a conference title and getting over the Proviso East hump were great. Now this veteran group wants more. A year ago at Proviso West the Mustangs were buried by eventual 3A state champ Marshall. Now, led by senior big man Luke Scarlata, Morton is in position to make a run at Proviso West as they open with Von Steuben and would face either Hillcrest or Glenbrook North in the second round.
RIVERSIDE-BROOKFIELD. In a tournament that everyone expects St. Ignatius to win, it's R-B that has the most to prove at the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic at York. R-B is a quality team, a guard-heavy group that features shooter Dan Oswald and juniors Sean McGonagill and Billy VandeMerkt. But just how good are the unbeaten Bulldogs? R-B has to feel a little like Gonzaga did a few years ago before the Zags became a household name and program. Sure, dominating the Metro Suburban Conference is great, but the Bulldogs can make a statement with an impressive showing at York, where it would likely meet favorite St. Ignatius in the semifinals.
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