SALIDA — What began as a well-planned experiment 10 years ago has developed into the area's top basketball tournament at any level.
The Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic was born from coach Gary Porter's desire not only to import competition for his Crusaders, but to reintroduce the elite quality of the game to area fans.
"We wanted to bring in competition that this area didn't get to see too much," Porter said. "I missed the old MJC Tournament, which used to be so good that you planned your vacation around being able to watch it. We wanted to bring as high a quality of basketball to the valley as possible."
The 10th annual MC event opens Saturday with one of the state's deepest 16-team fields on hand — each team hoping to make it through to Wednesday's championship round. After the event rests on Sunday, action picks back up on Monday and runs through Wednesday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
It competes with four other high school tournaments that also run Monday-Wednesday. Those tourneys, all filled with primarily local teams, will be staged at Oakdale, Ceres, Orestimba and at Columbia College.
The MC Tournament always has courted local teams, and this year six squads within easy driving distance have accepted the challenge: MC, Merced, Turlock, Manteca, Ripon and Tracy's West High. The rest of the field is comprised of some of California's top teams.
Clovis East and Central — Fresno's top-ranked teams — are joined by southern state powers Centennial of Compton, Fremont, Jordan and Inglewood of Los Angeles, and Lincoln of San Diego. The Bay Area is represented by Skyline of Oakland, San Leandro and Oakland Tech.
The quality of the field made seeding the tournament difficult for Porter and the tournament committee. They wanted to ensure marquee matchups each day, but also needed to keep teams happy and willing to return.
For instance, conference rivals Merced and Turlock, and MC and Ripon had to be kept apart. Teams coming from Southern California had to be given late games on Saturday to accommodate travel, and local teams were scattered throughout the opening round's schedule to keep the crowds flowing through the tiny 600-seat gym.
Then, there always is the possibility that one of the teams coming will be better than initially advertised, which has happened this year with Centennial.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Centennial, but the Apaches come in at 6-3, with a victory over defending Division 3 state champion Harvard-Westlake and a one-point loss at the buzzer at Westchester, the state's top-ranked team.
On Saturday, Centennial opens against Fremont (9-2), with the winner probably facing Clovis East, the tourney's top seed, in Monday's second round.
"We talked to people in Los Angeles and they didn't think Centennial would be this good," Porter said. "We changed the bracket about 20 times this year where normally we'll do it once or twice, and you're still going to have Fremont and Centennial on that first day."
And what about the host Crusaders? A week ago today, four players on this basketball team — Isaiah Burse, Kevin Roya, Jose Osqudera and Brandon Baker — were celebrating a state small school football bowl victory.
Burse suffered a knee bruise in the game and has yet to practice with the team, but is expected to see action in the tournament.
"The success in football hurts our basketball team early but it will help us in March," said Porter, who scheduled lightly in December anticipating a long football season. "It brings a toughness to our team. Winners learn from winners, and that football team did not want to lose. I have four kids who refuse to lose."
In this tournament's early years, Porter had to sell the idea of coming to Modesto to out-of-area teams. The tournament costs roughly $25,000 to stage — with the cost of lodging visiting teams making up a large chunk of the expense — but thanks to gate receipts, concessions and sponsors it never has failed to break even or turn a profit.
And now, with deep, talented fields such as this year's a regular attraction, teams from across the country are contacting Porter about coming to Modesto.
"We have to turn away teams from out of the area who want to play in this," Porter said. "We have schools from other states calling, but that gets tough because of the travel and the paperwork.
"I think our tournament brings a lot to this area. Overall this tournament has been good for the area and good for basketball. It's great that we're getting some more local teams playing in this, because that's always been part of our dream."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.