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Crusader Classic tips off new high-school basketball season

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Mission forward U’jah Pratt (32) is the only starter to return from the Bears’ title-winning season last year. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The Riordan Crusader Classic signifies the start of the high school basketball season, and this year’s edition, the 59th, will set the stage for three coaching debuts and the start of Mission’s defense of its state title.

Joey Curtin, who graduated from Riordan in 2001, made his head coaching debut on Wednesday night as his Crusaders defeated El Camino, which is also under the guidance of a new head coach in Denzel McCollum. Additionally, John Parsons led his alma mater, Half Moon Bay, for the first time on Wednesday when it took on Sacred Heart Prep.

Perhaps the most anticipated match of the tournament will be the 6 p.m. game tonight. While Rick Hanson is in his 15th year at Mills and Arnold Zelaya is starting his 11th at Mission, the Bears will begin their defense of both the Crusader Classic and the Division III State Championship after they became the first San Francisco public school to win a state title in March.

“The tournament has a lot of historical significance for people in San Francisco,” said Zelaya. “It’s always exciting, it’s a great venue, so it’s a point of pride playing in it.”

Mission’s quest to repeat will be a difficult road. In addition to the massive target on the Bears’ back, they return just one starter, U’jah Pratt, and they’ll be tasked with replacing a talented class of seniors, including two-time league MVP Niamey Harris. Zelaya’s team also may not be at full strength for the tournament, with Pratt, his brother I’jah, and Robert Lee all participating on the football team, which will play for the City championship on Saturday. In all, Mission has five players doing double-duty, and while they’ll be in uniform, it remains to be seen how much they’ll be on the court.

Ben Knight, who got significant minutes as a sophomore, will be at the forefront of Mission’s efforts during the Crusader Classic. Adrian Otis and Anthony McBride should also factor in as significant returners.

Mills will be led by sophomore Michael Matsuno, who is the third Matsuno brother to play for the Vikings. Kory graduated in 2015, and Brandon was one of the leaders of the 2017 team.

Between three new head coaches, Mission’s return to action and an exciting field from top to bottom, the 59th Crusader Classic isn’t just a sign that basketball season is underway; it’s a chance to see major contenders in the region. While it’s the first full week of the season, and the playoffs are three months away, teams have a chance to pick up major résumé-building wins that could determine playoff seedings when seeding committees meet in February and March.

Prep Focus writer Ethan Kassel covers high school sports throughout the Bay Area. If you have a story tip, game to watch or player to track, email him at ethankassel@gmail.com.

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