'Tis the season for holiday basketball tournaments and they don't get any better than the ones in Central Illinois.
Basketball fans can get their appetites satisfied with a daily smorgasboard of boys and girls tournaments in the area, beginning Monday with the Prairie Central Hawk Classic in Fairbury and ending with the Bloomington-Normal State Farm Classic at Illinois Wesleyan's Shirk Center.
But, without a doubt, the best and most prestigious event occurs annually at Pontiac where the townspeople have been supporting a tournament since 1926. It has the distinction of being the oldest original high school tournament in the United States.
That's right, the United States.
Little did Don Cash Seaton know the legacy he was starting when he assembled 16 teams from different parts of the state to play in a tournament. The Pontiac coach viewed it as an opportunity to keep his players in shape over the holiday season.
Only the tournament at Princeville has had a longer continuous run at 77 years and that is because Pontiac did not hold a tournament for five years (1942 through 1946) because of World War II.
University High School defeated Cornell, 12-10, in the first tournament, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Tournament officials will honor various coaches and players throughout the event, which runs Wednesday through Friday.
"I doubt he (Seaton) thought anything about longevity when he started the tournament," said Roger Tuttle, who has the distinction of having served the longest tenure as the event's manager with 18 years of service. "He saw it as an opportunity to bring together teams from different parts of the state and see different styles of play."
At no other holiday tournament around the state can coaches, players and fans see such a wide array of teams that have ranged in distance from as far north as Waukegan to the southern most point of the state as Cairo, and from Danville to the east to Quincy in the west.
"Coaches have always told us they like to come here because they get the opportunity, with a few rare exceptions, to play teams they wouldn't normally get to play any other time unless it's in the state tournament," said Tuttle. "They like to see how they match up with other teams around the state."
Fans can't find many tournaments as inexpensive as Pontiac either. Season tickets cost $35 for 26 games (roughly $1.35 per game) and the format is simple.
The national anthem is played before the start of the morning session each day (either 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.), then fans are treated to a continuous flow of basketball until 11 p.m., with very little interruption between games. Starting lineups and player introductions aren't a part of the program.
Obviously, the tournament has deep roots and a rich history.
There have been 182 teams to participate in the tournament's 1,775 games. But only three - Centralia, Quincy and Peoria Manual - have been able to retire the championship Century Bowl, the traveling trophy that is awarded to the winning team and housed in its trophy case for one year. A team must win three consecutive tournaments to retire the hardware.
A fellow named Dwight (Dike) Edelman led Centralia to its three straight titles, beginning in 1939. Edelman would go on to become the most decorated athlete in University of Illinois history and earn a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics in the high jump.
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Thirty-nine schools have won at least one championship and 58 schools have played in the title contest. Fifteen schools have won multiple championships, while Quincy and Peoria Manual are the only schools to win five straight titles.
The 1984 team from Providence St. Mel is the only Class A school to win a Pontiac championship. A testament to how competitive the tournament has been through the years is the fact no team won back-to-back championships from 1951 through 1978.
The most successful coach has been Dick Van Scyoc, who led Washington High School to his first of an unprecedented eight titles in 1955. Van Scyoc won his last championship in 1991 with Peoria Manual.
How many people know Adolph Rupp coached Freeport in the tournament in 1928 and 1929? Rupp went from Freeport to the University of Kentucky, where he only won 875 games and four NCAA championships.
Several notable players such as Bloomington's Bobby Bender, Chicago Heights Bloom's Audie Matthews, the Douglas brothers (Keith, Bruce and Dennis) of Quincy, Kenny Battle of Aurora West, Michael Payne of Quincy, Walter Downing of New Lenox Providence, Ron Curry of Bloomington, Bobby Simmons of Chicago Simeon, Frankie Williams of Peoria Manual and Roger Powell Jr. of Joliet have earned the Most Valuable Player award.
Amazingly, Bender still holds the record for most points scored in a game with 50 against Cairo in 1974 by making a tourney-record 21 field goals. Other equally amazing long-standing records were set by Matthews in the 1973 tournament.
In the most dominant performance in a tournament by a single player, Matthews scored 134 points in four games for a 33.5 average. He also set records for most field goals with 57 and points in a championship game with 43.
Tournament manager Jim Drengwitz and Tuttle agree the support of the community and school organizations are key to the longevity of the event.
"They realize the importance of the tournament and take a great deal of pride in hosting the tournament," said Drengwitz, who is in his 12th (and next to the last) year as tournament manager. "We have about 50 people on the payroll. The rest volunteer their time."
Tuttle said more than anything the tournament is a gathering place.
"It's the pinnacle of tournaments in the state because of the fact it's always been local in nature," added Tuttle. "The townspeople have always been very much behind it. They talk about it and look forward to it each year.
"It's been a reunion for a lot of people for a lot of years. Many people claim their favorite place to spend Christmas vacation is at the tournament. There is a lot of reminiscing and, I suppose, a little bit of stretching the truth. Things always get bigger and better."
But they don't get any bigger or better than the tournament itself.
To the folks of Pontiac: Happy 75th and enjoy the moment. You've earned it and deserve it.
Bryan Bloodworth is the sports editor. Contact him at bbloodworthyayaypantagraph