The gap between Christmas and New Year is known as a relaxing time for most, with a window to catch up with family and friends as the year winds down.
It’s not relaxing for high school basketball players and coaches. The week between the two holidays is one of the most critical times of the year as many of the best tournaments are played, meaning three or four consecutive games of days, with any remaining downtime used for scouting as the nonleague portion of the schedule wraps up.
“It’s a great time of year for our players,” said St. Ignatius head coach Rob Marcaletti. “They’re done with finals and can really just focus on basketball for these two-to-three weeks.”
The 43rd Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic, hosted by St. Ignatius, has brought in one of its best fields yet, with the host Wildcats and Mission Bears greeting two East Bay powers — St. Joseph Notre Dame and Monte Vista — along with three teams from out of the area.
“We’ve been trying to make this one of the elite tournaments on the West Coast,” said Marcaletti.
Oakland-Fremont rounds out the field, which is essentially a three-game showcase rather than a bracketed tournament so that the teams out of the area are able to explore San Francisco, rather than wait at the gym all day to figure out their matchups and then try to plan out the rest of their trips.
Those teams are Newington, all the way from Australia, as well as Houston power Strake Jesuit and Loyola, from Los Angeles.
“We’ve been trying to bring back the tradition of Jesuit basketball,” said Marcaletti. “It’s neat for our guys to face kids that are getting the same education as them.”
Not only are Strake and Loyola both Jesuit schools, but the tournament has played host to Tacoma-Bellarmine Prep and Carmichael-Jesuit in recent years. Newington, though not a Jesuit school, will get to experience some of those traditions as the Australian team will be hosted by St. Ignatius families.
SI beat Loyola in last year’s championship game, 60-58, and the Cubs return all but one of their major contributors from last year. They already own a landmark win over St. John Bosco, and will try to add to their résumé against SJND and the host Wildcats. Loyola faces the Pilots on Dec. 27 at 2:30 and faces SI the following night at 6. Three hours before the Cubs and Wildcats square off, Mission will take on a Monte Vista team that has the distinction of being the lone team to beat the Bears during their 2016-17 state championship run, which happened during the Sand Dune Classic.
“This tournament has so many great coaches,” Marcaletti added. “You have my old coach, Don Lippi, at St. Joe’s. Jamal Adams has a great program at Loyola, Arnold (Zelaya) has done incredible things at Mission and Nick Jones runs things incredibly well at Monte Vista.”
There’s also a four-team girls division, with Maddie Ennis and Rachel Harvey leading the hosts into battle against Mills, Terra Nova and Windsor.
The tournament with the most local representation, though, would be Marin Catholic’s Bambauer Classic. The four-day, 16-team field features three San Francisco teams, Serra and the host Wildcats. The action gets underway on Dec. 26 at 9:30 a.m., the first of four consecutive eight-game days, and it starts with arguably the best first-round matchup as University takes on Heritage.
The Red Devils finished second in last year’s tournament and the Patriots, headlined by UC Davis-bound point guard Ezra Manjon, finished third. Such a matchup would typically be reserved for later in the day, but with so many teams heading in from out of the area, as far as Riverside, it was necessary to give University the earliest game.
University and Heritage will draw Lincoln and Redwood in the second round, meaning a potential all-SF matchup on Dec. 27. Defending champion Serra opens the tournament with Terra Linda and Urban faces Riverside-King. The hosts wrap up the first day of action with Redmond, out of Washington state.
Sacred Heart Cathedral will also be in a four-day tournament, opening Oakland’s Damian Lilard Classic against Liberty. Wallenberg is also in the field and will take on the host Wildcats, and North Bay power Branson enters as the tournament favorites. Other nearby teams in the field include Westmoor and Aragon. Lick-Wilmerding is once again heading to the Head-Royce Tournament, with a field that includes Justin-Siena and the host Jayhawks, while Lowell will play in the Aptos Santa Cruz Warriors Invitational at Kaiser Permanente Arena. The Cardinals open with Saratoga, and their division includes Berkeley, Mountain View and St. Mary’s-Stockton as possible opponents on the final day.