Despite format changes, Sand Dune still a classic hoops tourney

The annual holiday break brings about several benefits. Students get a chance to step away from their course loads for a few days, parents spend more time with their kids, and teachers take advantage of much-needed downtime.

It’s also an opportunity for the region’s high schools to compete in an array of competitive holiday basketball tournaments, which typically bring together teams from across the Bay Area, the state and even the West Coast.

The Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic hosted by Saint Ignatius is one of those high-profile tournaments. And while this year’s event had a slightly different feel, it nonetheless generated great basketball. For over four decades, Saint Ignatius has hosted the tourney — named after the school’s longtime athletic director — and for the past 20 or so years, the event has featured double-elimination tournaments for both girls and boys teams.

However, in 2014, the Saint Ignatius girls team wanted to test their mettle at the West Coast Jamboree tournament — one of the top holiday competitions in the country — which has made the Sand Dune an all-boys event in recent years. The event changed again this season, when the school opted to forego the double-elimination format in favor of round-robin.

“We were getting requests from teams across the state and across the country to play in this event,” said Saint Ignatius athletic director John Mulkerrins. “We didn’t want to limit the competition to eight teams, and we wanted to make sure that every school got three good games in. So we decided to go with a pre-scheduled format.”

With top squads from Texas, Oregon and, of course, the Bay Area, the Leo LaRocca was once again a success, and the host school showed why they’re one of The City’s top teams. Saint Ignatius took down three quality opponents in three nights — soundly defeating Kinkaid of Houston, Mercer Island from the Seattle metropolitan area, and Burlingame of the Peninsula.

The Wildcats won the three contests with an average margin of victory of 25 points, while improving to 8-1 on the season. Coming off a 17-win season that included a trip to the Central Coast Section Division II title game, Saint Ignatius has the look of a contender in the always-rugged West Catholic Athletic League.

The Wildcats start three juniors and two sophomores, but coach Rob Marcaletti said he’s been impressed by the gains his young team has made so far this season. He cited the growth of juniors Darrion Trammell, Brandon Beckman and Matthew Redmond — who all started last season — as a reason for optimism in the program.

“Every year, the WCAL has teams that are top-five or top-10 in Northern California,” said Marcaletti, now in his second season as full-time head coach for the Wildcats. “There is no reason that we shouldn’t be right up there with them. We have the tools here to be a perennial top team.”

Saint Ignatius wasn’t the only City team to have a strong showing at the Sand Dune. Mission, the top public school squad in San Francisco, defeated Oakland and James Logan — a school with four times as many students — before suffering their first loss of the season to Monte Vista, a traditional Division I power from the East Bay. The Bears, at 12-1, will enter league play at the Academic Athletic Association as the clear team to beat.

Meanwhile, at the Jamboree in Orinda, the Saint Ignatius girls’ squad was making the most out of their opportunity to play against top-flight schools. The Wildcats — the defending CCS Division II champions — took down Concord and Moreau Catholic of Hayward and Sheldon of Eugene, Oregon to capture the Amber bracket of the Jamboree. That bracket is about the fourth-strongest grouping in the Jamboree, a multi-site tournament that features the best teams from the West Coast.

Coach Mike Mulkerrins (brother of John), is high on his squad, which is off to a 9-1 start. The Wildcats feature three double-digit scorers, led by senior guard Ayzhiana Basallo’s 13.4 points per game. Saint Ignatius is thriving despite an early-season injury to Ariana Abdulmassih, the team’s 6-foot-2 senior center who has already committed to play at Cornell next year.

“I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve handled some really tough non-conference games,” said Mike Mulkerrins. “The point of these games is to get better and to gain confidence, but also get closer as a team, and I think we’ve really done that so far.”

Mike Mulkerrins said the experience of playing at the Jamboree has been great for his team, but he and his brother expect the squad to be back hosting the Sand Dune Classic next year alongside the boys’ squad.

John Mulkerrins said with interest so strong from outside schools, he anticipates the Sand Dune retaining its current 10-team, three-game format.

“The feedback we received from the coaches was really positive,” said Mulkerrins. “It’s really not a hard pitch to sell. Schools get to come and visit San Francisco for the holidays while playing against some really great teams.”

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