One year after the future of the Abby's Holiday Classic came into question, the boys basketball tournament is back and as strong as ever.
The 24th annual eight-team event begins Friday with games at North Medford and South Medford high schools. It continues with all of the contests Saturday and Sunday at North Medford.
Last year's edition fell on hard times because of defections. Three teams backed out for varying reasons, and replacement teams were brought in so the five remaining squads could each get in three games.
"After the debacle of last year," said Dennis Murphy, the South Medford coach and athletic director who is a co-founder of the event, "I made a real effort to go out and find teams, and I tried to go after better teams, I will admit that."
It appears he succeeded.
"I think we have a very good field, better than we've had in some time," he said.
Along with the Medford host teams, Crater — one of the fill-ins last year — gives the Southern Oregon Hybrid three representatives.
The Metro League sends two teams, Southridge and Westview, while Salem schools Sprague and McKay and Eugene team Sheldon round out the lineup.
In the opening round at South Medford on Friday, Sprague (2-4) plays Westview (5-1) at 6 p.m., and Sheldon (5-2) faces South Medford (5-2) at 7:45.
Openers at North Medford are Southridge (4-3) against Crater (3-3) at 6 p.m. and McKay (7-0) taking on North Medford (5-1) at 7:45.
The teams have a combined record of 36-16, and all but Sprague are .500 or above.
Four squads are in the top 10 in the OSAA Class 6A power rankings: No. 3 McKay, No. 4 Sheldon, No. 7 North Medford and No. 9 Westview.
Two teams — South Medford and Southridge — made the final eight in the state tournament last season, with the latter placing fourth.
It's not uncommon for tournament hosts to schedule a relatively easy opening game in hopes of advancing. There's only one problem, said North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn.
"It's a pretty loaded tournament," he said. "I don't know who you could draw."
The Black Tornado gets the only unbeaten team to start with in McKay.
South Medford gets a Sheldon team that is the highest-ranked team in the bracket.
"It'll be quality competition," said Plankenhorn. "It'll be fun and there will be a lot of good games for the fans. It'll be a well-deserved champion with this many good teams in it."
Despite the chaos in putting together a field, last year's Abby's title game may have been the best in tournament history.
The two local teams met in the finals for the fifth time, and South Medford eked out a double-overtime victory, 65-64. Panthers senior Matt Toreson made two free throws with 1.8 seconds left to seal the win.
South Medford is 4-1 in championship matchups with its crosstown rival.
Only three times in 23 years has a Medford team not made it to the championship. South Medford has won it nine times, North Medford six.
While neither coach yearns for a matchup this week because the teams will play three times in conference, they'll take it, especially if it's for the crown.
"We always bring out the best in each other and have good games," said Murphy.
"I just want to play the best teams we can play," said Plankenhorn. "It's a big tournament, one you want to win. It's a chance to get prepared for league, and you want to get tested because league is going to challenge you. The better teams you play, the better off you'll be. If that's (South Medford) the best team, then we definitely want to play them."
North Medford is coming off its lone loss, 76-57 to Lakeridge in the finals of the Lakeridge Holiday Classic.
The Black Tornado has been led by the guard tandem of Tristen Holmes and Julian Gray.
"It's one of the better backcourts we've had lately, and we've had some good ones," said Plankenhorn.
Holmes is averaging 20 points per game and Gray 11. Aaron Browne-Moore provides muscle inside and also averages 11 points per game.
"We've been really solid on defense and we've done a good job of rebounding the basketball," said Plankenhorn. "I think we're a solid offensive team, too. We're sharing the ball. Tristen's done a really good job of scoring it, and the guys are doing a really good job of finding him and working through him."
Holmes and Gray are both active on the boards and in distributing the ball.
"If you take away their scoring, they're still doing other things," said Plankenhorn. "Rebounding, keeping teammates involved, and when they get the chance to score, they score it."
South Medford won its first five games before dropping two straight last weekend in the Red Bluff (Calif.) Holiday Classic.
The Panthers posted respectable victories over West Albany and Red Bluff prior to defeats to Golden Valley, of Merced, Calif., which went to 10-0 with the victory over the Panthers, and to Franklin, of Sacramento, Calif., which, Murphy said, "If you saw them, you'd say that's a college team."
The Panthers have been short-handed of late, losing two of their top offensive players to injury.
Post CJ Keepes, a 6-foot-6 senior, sprained an ankle against Bend on Dec. 14 and remains hobbled. He's might sit out the tournament to get ready for Southern Oregon Hybrid play.
Cameron English, a 6-7 junior post, suffered a concussion in the Red Bluff tourney when his head hit the floor. He might be available this week.
"Right now we're searching," said Murphy. "We truly have to find people to shoot the ball. We didn't shoot it well in the second and third games in Red Bluff. Once we get that, we'll have a little more offense going and that will help us. Then we can press more. But it's early in the season; we're still kind of looking for answers."
Crater, which has a trio of 6-7 forwards in senior Connor Lane, junior Race Reiter and sophomore Jacob Hintemeyer, had a three-game winning streak snapped by South Salem in the finals of the Dallas Tournament Saturday.
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