SALIDA — What’s good for the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic might not be what’s good for the Crusaders.
When the 14th annual 16-team event opens Thursday morning, the host team might not be counted among the favorites to claim the title. But the depth of the field — perhaps the best in tournament history — will make for some great basketball watching.
“I remember that first year was a tough field with highly-ranked teams, but this field is more equal than ever before,” said MC coach and tournament director Gary Porter. “I don’t know that you can pick a winner from the field. I do know that this was the hardest bracket to put together because everybody was going to be pretty even.”
The tournament features eight games Thursday, Friday and Saturday before skipping Sunday. The event opens with Thursday’s 10:30 a.m. Burbank-Castro Valley game, and the last of the 32 games will tip off at 8:15 p.m. Monday.
The Columbia College Holiday Hoop Classic, an eight-team event, runs Thursday-Saturday at Oak Pavilion. The first round of play is highlighted by a 7:30 p.m. showdown between Sonora, 3-4 under new coach Daniel Dona, and defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 champion Summerville.
So how deep is the MC field? Twelve of the 16 teams will enter play with winning records, including local entries Turlock (8-1) and Gregori (6-3). The Bulldogs are regulars in the MC event, and will open with a 3 p.m. game against 7-0 Monte Vista.
“I’m happy with the way we’re playing right now,” said Turlock coach Doug Cornfoot. “It’s good for our confidence to get off to an 8-1 start, but this next weekend could be humbling. You want your team to compete and the last three years we’ve played the eventual champion in the first round.
“We’re looking for this tournament to make us better for when league season comes around, but at the same time I’m curious to see how we’ll do against elite teams — if we’re ready to challenge teams at that level. That’s what makes it exciting about playing in this tournament.”
The Jaguars, meanwhile, will be making history just by stepping on the court for their 4:30 p.m. game against Archbishop Mitty of San Jose, the defending NorCal Open Division champion. Gregori is the first Modesto Metro Conference school ever to participate in the event.
“I went two years ago when the Verhoeven kid (Stanford center Grant Verhoeven) was playing from Central Valley Christian and it interested me,” said Gregori coach Mike Vander Molen. “I asked the players last year if they would like to play in it and they were all excited. They go to the games anyway. If we’re going to go from a team that just reaches the playoffs to one with a chance to have success in the playoffs, this the kind of competition we need.”
One of the major reasons MMC schools have stayed out of Modesto Christian’s tournament is the ongoing feeling that, as a private school, MC has the ability to glean the area’s top players regardless of where they live.
“I haven’t lost players to Modesto Christian,” Vander Molen said. “Some of the other coaches (in the MMC) have, and you’d have to ask them specifically if that’s a reason why they don’t play in this tournament.
“If a couple of my good players transferred to Modesto Christian I’d probably be a little less likely to send them the check to play in their tournament. I think a couple coaches in the league might be disappointed that we’re playing in it, but a couple others have been supportive, telling me that I have to do what’s right for my kids.”
The five Stanislaus District teams will be featured in four straight games. After Turlock and Gregori play, Ripon — off to a slow start — tangles with Serra of Gardena at 6 p.m. Modesto Christian, 2-5 after losing three of four last weekend at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas, takes on young and dangerous Weston Ranch (3-4) in the 7:30 marquee spot.
The Cougars have been a power recently in the Valley Oak League, but are in a quick rebuild mode under second-year coach Chris Teevan, who played for Vander Molen at Beyer. Weston Ranch will be starting three sophomores against the host team in front of what should be a packed gym.
“You play these teams so that when we get into league play the league teams don’t look as good,” Teevan said. “I know some coaches schedule preseason wins, but I want the players who come play for me to know that I’ll schedule tough teams and I expect them to compete. I’m just not sure how much playing inferior teams does for you in the preseason.”