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Sand Dune Classic returns as marquee event for high school basketball in SF

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Darrion Trammell returns for another season with St. Ignatius basketball, which hosts the Sand Dune Classic this week. (Courtesy Paul Ghiglieri/St. Ignatius Athletics)

The week between Christmas and New Year is a busy time for high school basketball fans. There are tournaments galore, with teams playing three or four games in less than a week as they prepare for the start of league play. In San Francisco, it’s the Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic that stands out.

St. Ignatius’ tournament is in its 42nd year, and this year’s field features teams from five different sections and another from out-of-state.

Last year’s tournament was played with a set schedule rather than a traditional bracket to allow teams from out-of-state to be able to explore San Francisco rather than spend days scouting and waiting to find game times, but this year returns to the traditional format, with the championship game set for Friday at 6 p.m.

Local intrigue in the tournament is headlined by St. Ignatius and Mission. The two teams met in March in one of the best high school basketball games The City has ever seen, a Northern California Division III Semifinal en route to Mission’s state title run. The Bears’ only loss last year came at the tournament against Monte Vista of Danville.

Fans that head to St. Ignatius’ Sunset District campus will have a chance to see eight teams that showcase a bevy of different styles. With league play starting in early January, it’s the last chance for most of these teams to get out of their respective comfort zones until postseason play starts in mid-February, meaning it’ll be the last chance for many of these coaches to see how their teams stack up against different systems until elimination games. The field is extremely diverse, including three private schools and five public schools, ranging in student enrollment from 800 (Fremont of Oakland) to more than 2,200 (Monte Vista).

While the variety of teams is noteworthy, the tournament is also loaded with talent. Loyola, which is making the trip from Los Angeles for a second straight year, is off to a 6-2 start and has two players averaging more than 14 points per game in James Keefe and C.J. Jones. The Cubs will open the tournament against Monte Vista, which won a state title in 2014. Nick Jones’ Mustangs own impressive wins over St. Mary’s of Stockton and Oakland Tech.

The eight teams in the field also have a host of impressive alumni. Mission has Carlos Santana and St. Ignatius has Dan Fouts, but it doesn’t stop there. Television host and media personality Chris Hardwick is a Loyola alum, Zach Ertz and Bob Myers hail from Monte Vista. Rapper Too Short came from Fremont, Encinal is home to Dontrelle Willis, Jimmy Rollins and Willie Stargell. Avery Bradley suited up for Bellarmine Prep (Washington) and Marc Benioff went to Burlingame.

The last time Bellarmine Prep flew down from Tacoma to play in the tournament, the Lions returned home with the championship trophy. That team was led by a junior named Malachi Flynn, who may go down as one of the best players to ever play in the Sand Dune Classic. As a sophomore at Washington State, Flynn is averaging 15.8 points per game and scored 26 in a win over Saint Mary’s. Other recent stars in the tournament who have gone on to do big things at the college level include Temidayo Yussuf, who won the tournament in 2013 with St. Joseph Notre Dame and now plays at Long Beach State.

Though attention will shift to league play as soon as the tournament ends, the importance of these games shouldn’t be diminished. The wins and losses in this tournament will have significant effects come playoff time, and with teams having a few games under their belt and players from fall sports fully acclimated, the results will be more indicative of talent levels than some of the games played at the start of the month.

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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