One of the words that best describes the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament is “tradition.”
Now in its 56th year, the Breese basketball extravaganza oozes tradition from every corner of the Mater Dei gym.
It starts with a gathering of some of the top small-school teams and talent from the region, plus the always entertaining Briarcrest Christian Saints from Memphis, Tenn.
Many of the current coaches involved in the tournament also played in it as well. The four-day event features not only great basketball, but many sold-out games and a tough to duplicate intense atmosphere that brings the same fans back year after year while also creating new ones.
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The 10-team round-robin tourney begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
“They run a class tournament,” said Okawville coach Jon Kraus, whose 9-0 team is not only the defending tourney champ but also the No. 1 seed and the No. 1-ranked Class 1A team in Illinois. “They get good basketball programs in there, good coaches. The towns that are in it are close, most of the schools are within 30 minutes and their people like to go.
“You’ve got good rivalries and you get those games every year. You get sellouts and good crowds.”
Briarcrest coach John Harrington, whose team won the tourney in 2012, still remembers the first time his players took part in another tourney post-game tradition.
Each team receives a case of cold Ski soda, the citrus beverage made at Excel Bottling Company in Breese, in the locker room after each game.
“As soon as the gentleman brings in the case of Ski, everyone starts yelling and screaming,” said Harrington, whose team stays at a Holiday Inn Express in Shiloh and commutes to Breese each day. “The kids will talk about that more than some of the tourney games they’ve played in. Even some of our past players will say “Coach, when you’re up at the tournament get me some Ski.”’
Mater Dei coach Ron Schadegg played in the tournament for the Knights and now coaches them. He pointed out it’s been years since the No. 1 seed won the tournament.
“Understand the tournament and understand the history of it — and you’ll have a chance to win it,” said Schadegg, whose team last won its own tourney in 2010 and 1994. “There’s a mystique to this tournament and I believe you’ve go to understand it and know what it’s all about.”
Another link to tradition is Okawville senior and University of Evansville recruit Noah Frederking, the Rockets’ all-time leading scorer with more than 2,160 points. The four-year starter has 302 points in the tourney and will likely become the tourney’s all-time leading scorer with a decent opener Tuesday against Highland.
The pool-play format record holder is current Mascoutah High assistant coach Robbie Rudy, who scored 304 points from 2003-2006. The all-time record holder is former Assumption High star Rick Suttle, who poured in 312 points from 1967-1970.
Frederking is about to break a 46-year-old record.
“It may never be broken again because he’s going to get to the 400 mark,” Schadegg said. “It’s great for him, great for the Okawville community and great for our tournament. Since coming in as a freshman, he definitely opened up some eyes here for four years in a row.”
2016 tourney finish: 1. Okawville; 2. Central; 3. Briarcrest; 4. Mater Dei
Okawville (9-0, No. 1 seed)
Last tourney win here: 2015
Top players: Evansville recruit Noah Frederking (24.8 points per game); Shane Ganz (13.2 ppg); Caleb Frederking (7.2 ppg)
Tourney line: Deeper Rockets team hoping to repeat, but it won’t be easy.
“I’ve been at this tournament for a long time and seeding doesn’t mean anything,” said Kraus, whose team went 13-0 in tourney play last season while winning three tourney championships said. “You can throw the seeds out. All that does is pair you up with who you’re going to play in your pool. Any of those 10 teams can win the tournament.
“You get the right situations and the right matchups ... who would have thought we’d go 5-0 last year?”
While still lacking a bit in overall size, this Rockets team is deeper with a bit more offensive firepower.
“That’s the biggest difference between this team and the last few years,” Kraus said. “We have a lot more weapons that can hurt you. We just have some kids with ability to spread the floor and make shots.”
Nashville (7-1, No. 2 seed)
Last tourney win here: 2014
Top players: Brogan Kemp (15.1 points, six rebounds per game); Ryan Brink (13.5 ppg), Bryce Bultman (9.4 points, four assists per game); Langdon Briles (8.1 points, four rebounds per game)
Tourney line: Nashville has won eight tourney titles here since 1990; Hornets only loss 43-47 to Carterville.
Mater Dei (4-2, No. 3 seed)
Last tourney win here: 2010
Top players: Nolan Robben (11.7 ppg); Noah Gerdes (11.2 points, four rebounds per game); Mason Toennies (9.8 points, 7.3 rebounds per game); Lucas Theising (8.4 ppg).
Tourney line: Getting massive 6-foot-7 Division I football recruit Toennies back after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago adds a lot to the mix.
“Once we get him back and healthy, I think we’ll have a little bit better indication of what we’re going to be like,” Schadegg said. “We’ve got some depth. We’ve got shooters, we’ve got post guys, we’ve got guards and they’ve got good chemistry because they’ve been playing together at the same levels for so long.”
Briarcrest (11-1, No. 4 seed)
Last tourney win here: 2012
Top players: Cedric Henderson Jr. (11 ppg; recruiting interest from Lipscomb and Austin Peay; Trey Harrington (10 ppg; signed with Division I Southeastern Louisiana as a baseball shortstop)
Tourney line: Henderson’s father, Cedric Henderson, averaged 7.2 points in five NBA seasons in with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks after starring at the University of Memphis.
Briarcrest won its own Alumni Christmas Classic tourney, including a victory over a strong Olive Branch, Miss., squad that features one of the nation’s top sophomore prospects in D.J. Jeffries. The Saints try to play all 12 players each game and there isn’t much of a talent drop-off from top to bottom.
The Saints were 25-8 last season, reaching the final eight in the Tennessee state tourney before losing to eventual state champ Brentwood Academy.
Mascoutah (7-3, No. 5 seed)
Last tourney win here: 1975
Top players: Noah Brandon (11 ppg, 20 3-pointers); Blake Weiss (10.7 points, 7.3 rebounds per game; Malik Green (10.4 points, 5.5 rebounds per game)
Tourney line: The Indians should not be overlooked; they have only three losses to Belleville East, Centralia and Civic Memorial.