SALIDA In a gym full of top-flight high school basketball talent, there’s a quiet confidence about the Modesto Christian High boys basketball team.
The Crusaders are No. 7 in the state, according to Cal-Hi Sports, and among the favorites to win the Holiday Hoop Classic, which begins Wednesday and stretches on through Saturday.
Modesto Christian has won six of its first seven games, including its last three, and will open the tournament against former Trans-Valley League foe and Classic regular Ripon at 7 p.m.
The field includes a list of must-see high school prospects, including Lincoln of Stockton’s Andre Kelly, a Cal commit; San Joaquin Memorial’s Jalen Green, rated as the No. 1 sophomore in the nation; and Clovis West’s Cole Anderson, a 6-foot-2 freshman and former Chuck Hayes Basketball player who holds offers from San Diego State, San Francisco and Fresno State.
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“I’m always excited for Holiday Hoop,” Modesto Christian’s second-year coach Brice Fantazia said. “It’s our big showcase — a lot of good teams and a lot of good coaches. We’re definitely looking forward to it.”
Modesto Christian last won its own holiday tournament in 2016, when the dynamic duo Christian Ellis and Robinson Idehen led an assault of Long Beach Poly in the final. Ellis and Idehen led a senior-laden group bent on restoring the Crusaders' regional and state reputation.
Last year, Modesto Christian was knocked off by point guard Cash Williams and Central High of Fresno in the semifinal and finished third, blasting defending state champion Manteca, 63-48.
This season, Modesto Christian returns a contender with a team of young prospects and two stabilizing seniors, Northwest Nazarene-bound center Gabe Murphy and springy guard Tyler Williams (12.2 points per game). Though they don’t talk much about their goals — as the Crusaders did often in 2016 — Fantazia confirmed the Holiday Hoop Classic remains step No. 1 in the program's plan to take over the world.
“Our goal is to always win the tournament,” he added. “We don’t discuss it much. It’s a game-by-game thing, trust the process and all the work we’ve put in at practice.
“We mentioned it before the season started. We talked about what our goals were — to win Holiday Hoop, sections and state — but we said we wouldn’t mention it again."
Instead, Modesto Christian, the most decorated program in Sac-Joaquin Section history, prefers it’s play did all the talking.
Through the first seven games, the Crusaders have been led by junior Aaron Murphy, who has five straight double-doubles, including two games of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. Murphy missed last season with a knee injury, but has blossomed into “an animal,” Fantazia said.
Murphy had 24 points and 20 rebounds in a 17-point win over San Joaquin Memorial at the Clovis West Nike Invitational, and 28 points and 20 rebounds in just 19 minutes against Johansen.
Sophomore point guard Michael Pearson has been equally as impressive, frustrating teams with his speed and ever-improving decision making. Pearson scored in double figures in five of the first six games.
“I think he knows no one can stay in front of him,” Fantazia said of Pearson, who is second to Aaron Murphy (14.5) and Dathan Satchell (14.5) in scoring.
The tournament promises fireworks from the start.
Manteca clashes with Camplindo at 10 a.m., followed by Clovis West-Turlock at 11:30.
Lincoln-Weston Ranch at 4 p.m. headlines the afternoon slate, which also includes: Freedom-San Leandro (1 p.m.) and St. Joseph Notre Dame-Buchanan (2:30).
Beyer, the reigning Modesto Metro Conference champions, lock horns with San Joaquin Memorial at 5:30. The Panthers boast one of the deepest backcourts in California, attacking with Green, 6-foot-6 senior Jonah Geron, a Washington commit, and 6-6 Dameana Douglas, bound for Loyola Marymount.
Tracy-Vanden wrap up the first day of games at 8:30.
“There’s so many good tournaments, especially in Los Angeles and San Diego. It’s an honor to have your tournament picked amongst the others,” Fantazia said. “We have a waiting list every year, so people know it’s one of the top tournaments in the state.
“That’s how you get better, facing the top competition. We don’t run from anyone. We want the tournament to as loaded as possible. We welcome that.”