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One of the nation’s largest, coed holiday high school basketball tournaments
For over three decades, the Holiday Classic has been a showcase of great talent and unbelievable basketball in Bloomington-Normal. The 2014 tournament will be the 36th anniversary for one of the nation’s largest, coed high school holiday basketball tournaments.
The Classic was originated in 1975 and was first called the Illinois State Classic. Normal Community High School was crowned the first boys champion by defeating Chicago Brother Rice, 60-51. Over the next 10 years (through 1985), Lincoln would play in the championship game four times (winning twice) and Galesburg would win four championships, including three straight titles from 1981-83. In the beginning, the Classic field consisted of a combination of 16 Class A (small school) and Class AA (large school) teams, from all over the state including all four intercity schools. The Classic took a break from 1986 through 1989, but came back in 1990 and was known as the University High Classic. Sherrard was crowned the champ in 1990, and two years later Gridley became the first Class A school to slay the giants and walk away as champion of the Holiday Classic.
In 1995, the Classic turned down the road that would eventually lead it to the event as it is known today. A community volunteer group, spear-headed by current tournament president Dan Highland, took over all duties and responsibilities for the tournament. This group, then known as the Classic Organizing Group, Inc. (COG), consisted of leaders from all aspects of the Bloomington-Normal community. The tournament was then called the Bloomington-Normal Holiday Classic, and later took on Converse as its title sponsor in 1996 and 1997. Major changes implemented at the time included having 32 participating boys’ teams, and breaking the field into two 16-team sections (Class A and Class AA to mirror the IHSA state tournament). All teams would be guaranteed three games, and those teams which won all three games would come back on the fourth and final day to determine a champion in each class in the morning. The night session would consist of the two losing teams playing against each other for third place, while the two champs went head to head for the title of Grand Champion. Rockford Boylan won the first Grand Championship game in 1995, defeating Bloomington Central Catholic 74-63. The next year saw Manito Midwest Central, led by Ryan Knuppel, become the second Class A team to win the Classic by defeating Boylan, 64-58, in one of the most exciting games in tournament history.
The Classic also took on a different twist in 1995 by hosting an 8-team girl’s shootout. This shootout evolved into a 14-team tournament in 1997, and is now a full-fledged 32-team tournament, mirroring the boys tournament format. Galesburg was the first girls Grand Champion in 1997, by overcoming a 17-point deficit and winning a 77-74 thriller over Class A Mendota on a last second three-pointer by Jaque Howard. Galesburg won the first three Grand Championships (1997, 98 & 99) and had a winning streak of 16 games, before being defeated by Urbana in 2000. That same year, Rock Island Alleman became the only Class A team, and the only team other than Galesburg, to win the girls Grand Championship.
In 1999, the Classic got a big shot in the arm with the announcement of State Farm Insurance as its Title Sponsor. The State Farm Holiday Classic, as it is known today, was able to implement a variety of enhancements thanks to this support, and still continues to find new ways to be the best tournament in the nation. By now the event was starting to gain national recognition, and that included adding teams from across the country to its tournament field. After testing the waters with a team from Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1996, the Classic has seen teams participate from Washington, D.C.; Kentucky; Tennessee; Ohio; Indiana; Florida; Mesa, AZ; Missouri, Pittsburgh, PA; and New Orleans, LA.
In 2001, the COG, now known as the Classic Tournament, Inc., experimented with eliminating the cross-over Grand Championship game and crowning two girls’ champions, one in each class. The experiment worked so well that the same idea was implemented into the boys’ tournament in 2002. By this time, the Grand Championship game had become somewhat anti-climatic for the fans and teams alike, as many times the Class AA teams were to overpowering for the smaller schools. With the new system in place, all teams are now guaranteed four games and championship night has been revived to the point where near capacity Shirk Center crowds are able to witness four consecutive championship games.
For many years, the Holiday Classic format aligned with the Illinois High School Association’s enrollment classifications, predominantly playing every one of our 64 teams in a similar field (Class 1A-2A or Class 3A-4A) with competition that they would face come state tournament time. But with the constant changing of classifications in recent years and the large number of teams that sit “on the bubble” when it comes to being classified as either Class 2A or 3A, the tournament found it easiest to now play our smallest 16 teams per enrollment in our Small School Bracket, and the largest 16 teams in our Large School Bracket. This may be why you will see a number of teams that are technically classified as 3A playing with Class 1A and 2A schools during the Holiday Classic.
Over the years the Classic has seen its share of great individual performances. In 1985, Rockton Hononegah’s Jim Shikenjanski averaged nearly 33 points a game, and pulled down 66 rebounds over the course of the tournament. Eight years later in 1993, Mike Robinson of Peoria Richwoods knocked down 18 field goals in one game, while in 1999 Rock Island Alleman’s Tyler Ryan killed 9 three pointers for a tournament record. In 1996, Joey Range from Galesburg wowed the crowd with a tournament record 55 points in one game, while Normal U-High’s Jeremy Stanton delivered an unselfish 18 assists in one game. Fans still remember watching man-child Eddy Curry go from signing autographs in the Shirk Center bleachers to become a first round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls right out of South Holland Thornwood, as well as the 2006 girls’ semi-final match-up between state-ranked Bolingbrook and national power Mesa (AZ) Red Mountain that featured six players who would go on to play Division I basketball. Yet maybe the crowning individual achievement was when Olney East Richland’s Brittany Johnson became Illinois’ all-time career (girls or boys) prep hoops scoring leader in the second round of the 2006 tournament, breaking the record on a three-point play in the third quarter.
With the Classic becoming more successful, it looked for ways to give back the community and increase its philanthropic efforts. In 2002, local Special Olympics Illinois basketball teams were given the chance to participate in a one-day shootout at the Shirk Center on Championship Day of the tournament. These teams then had the chance to participate in an 8 minute exhibition during halftime of the championship games that night on the Shirk Center floor. This effort proved to be very popular among the full-house crowd in attendance, as well as the players who experienced this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The shootout has continued each year, and in 2005 it was renamed the Ron Knisley Memorial Special Olympics shootout after the long-time committee member and huge Classic supporter, who was also Director of Sports and Competition for Special Olympics Illinois.
In 2006, the first recipients of the Holiday Classic Foundation Scholarships were awarded in an effort to give back to graduating seniors who participated in the Holiday Classic and were extending their educational careers at four-year universities or colleges. To date, the Classic Foundation has awarded $36,000.00 in scholarships to deserving student-athletes.
All of these changes and enhancements over the years have led thousands of fans to discover what we know today as “The Best Basketball This Side Of March!”
The Best of the Best…
Over the years the Holiday Classic has seen its share of great individual players that have gone on to acheive success in sports after their high school careers were over. Here is just a sample of those great players:
- Kevin Duckworth of the Los Angeles Clippers/Milwaukee Bucks/Washington Bullets/Portland Trailblazers/San Antonio Spurs (Dolton Thornridge)
- Melvin McCants of the Los Angeles Lakers (Chicago Mt. Carmel High School)
- Eddy Curry of the Dallas Mavericks/Miami Heat/New York Knicks/Chicago Bulls (South Holland Thornwood High School)
- Brian Cook of the Washington Wizards/Los Angeles Clippers/Houston Rockets/Orlando Magic/Los Angeles Lakers (Lincoln High School)
- Latoya Bond of the Indiana Fever/Sacramento Monarchs/Charlotte Sting (Urbana High School)
- Angelina Williams of the Detroit Shock/Phoenix Mercury (Chicago Washington High School)
- Kayla Pedersen of the Tulsa Shock and Connecticut Sun (Mesa Red Mountain High School, AZ)
European Professional Leagues players:
- Eddy Curry (South Holland Thornwood) played with the Chinese League’s Zhejiang Golden Bulls team
- Rachel Galligan (Blm. Central Catholic) played with Club Baloncesto Conquero in Spain
- Carl Golston (Chicago Phillips) played in New Zealand, Italy and Spain
- Damir Krupalija (Rockford Boylan High School) of the 2002-03 Polish National Champions Anwil Wloclawek, and 2003-04 Belgian National Champions Spirou Charleroi
- Olivia Lett (Pana High School) of the Spain League’s Universitario de Ferrol team
- Kayla Pederesen (Mesa Red Mountain High School) of the Austrailian Women’s National Basketball League Dandenong Rangers
- Blake Schilb (Rantoul High School) of the French League’s Elan Chalon team
- Curley “Boo” Johnson (Peoria Central)
Illinois Mr. Basketball award winners:
- Brian Cook (Lincoln) – 1999
- Eddy Curry (Thornwood) – 2001
- Chasson Randle (Rock Island) – 2011
McDonald’s High School All-Americans:
- Brian Cook in 1999 (Lincoln)
- Eddy Curry in 2001 (Thornwood)
- Kayla Pedersen in 2007 (Mesa Red Mountain, AZ)
- Mike Robinson in 1996 (Peoria Richwoods)
- Chuck Verderber in 1978 (Lincoln)
NCAA Final Four participants
- 1997 – John Baines (Normal U-High), Korey Coon (East Peoria) and Nathan Hubbard (Normal U-High) lead Illinois Wesleyan University to the D-III Men’s National Championship title
- 2000 - Mark Vershaw (East Peoria) lead University of Wisconsin to the Final Four
- 2005 – Brian Randle (Peoria Notre Dame) was a redshirt freshman on the University of Illinois team that reached the D-I championship game
- 2008-12 – Kayla Pedersen (Mesa Red Mountain, AZ) lead Stanford University to four consecutive Final Four appearances
- 2009-11 – Emily Hanley (Normal Community) and Amanda Clifton (Rock Island Alleman) helped lead Illinois State University to three straight WNIT Final Four appearances from 2009-11
- 2011 & 2012 – Brittany Hasselbring (Kankakee Bishop Mac), Olivia Lett (Pana), Karen Solari (Park Ridge Maine South), Annie Brown (Normal West), Katy Seibring (Normal Community), Haley Kitchell (Taylor Ridge Rockridge) and Jordan Steinbrueck (Normal U-High) lead Illinois Wesleyan University to the 2012 D-III Women’s National Championship after taking them to the 2011 D-III Women’s Final Four (fourth place)
- 2012 – Chasson Randle (Rock Island) lead the Stanford Cardinal as a freshman to the NIT Tournament Championship
- 2013 – Matt Vogrich (Lake Forest) and Max Bielfeldt (Peoria Notre Dame) helped lead the Michigan Wolverines to the D-I Championship Game and Final Four in Atlanta
Illinois’ all-time leading scorer:
- Brittany Johnson became Illinois’ all-time prep career scorer (male or female) during the second round of the 2006 State Farm Holiday Classic. She played four seasons for The Ohio State University women’s basketball team. (Olney East Richland)
- Michael Hoomanawanui of the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams (Bloomington Central Catholic)
BSC National Championship football game participants:
- Tommy Rees (Lake Forest) helped lead the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to the 2013 national championship college football game vs. Alabama.
Major League Baseball/minor league players:
- Kevin Seitzer (Lincoln) played in the MLB from 1986-97 with the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians, making the 1987 All-Star team and finishing as runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year award.
- Kevin Roberson (Decatur Eisenhower) played in the MLB from 1993-96 with the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets
- Zach McAllister (Chillicothe IVC) was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2006 and traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2010 where he made his major league debut on July 7, 2011 vs. the Toronto Blue Jays.
- Robbie Minor (Rock Falls) played one season (2007) in the New York Yankees minor league system, and the 2008 season for the Gateway Grizzlies in the Frontier League
- Jakob Junis (Rock Falls) was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2011 and finished the 2012 season with the Burlington Royals in the Rookie Appalachian League.
- Tyson Blaser (Taylor Ridge Rockridge) signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees in 2011 and started the 2013 season with their Class AA affiliate Trenton Thunder.
- Josh Parr (Chillicothe IVC) signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 after playing at the University of Illinois. Parr finished the 2012 season with the Yakima Bears of the Class A Short-Season Northwest League.
- Ogonna Nnamani member of the 2004 and 2008 United States Olympic women’s volleyball team (Normal U-High)
Professional soccer players:
- Ashlee Pistorius won the Honda Sports Award in 2008 as the nation’s top collegiate soccer player at Texas A&M, and played for the Boston Renegades of the USL W-League (Normal U-High)