Led by coach Brice Fantazia, the Modesto Christian boys basketball team tips off the 20th annual Holiday Hoop Classic against undefeated Gregori on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019.

Holiday Hoop Classic: Modesto Christian welcomes another strong field Thursday

Ron Agostini

Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia fondly remembers the time he was Brice Fantazia, the MC basketball player, at the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic.

The year was 2003 and Fantazia and the Crusaders placed third. Though he didn't know it at the time, Fantazia planted some serious basketball seeds.

Sixteen years later, Fantazia is campaigning through this fourth season as the Crusaders' head coach. He's the trusted steward of the award-winning basketball legacy, not unlike his MC coach Gary Porter and Fantazia's predecessor Richard Midgley.

"Coach Porter and everyone at the school always took great pride in the tournament," Fantazia said this week. "It already had reached the presigious level when I played, and it still is today."

The holiday hoop classic, beginning its 20th renewal Thursday, has earned its top-tier status. The event has grown over the two decades into one of Northern California’s premier holiday basketball events.

The 16-team double-elimination competition, much like the Modesto Junior College Tournament in its larger days, features elite teams from both nearby and far away. It also serves as an ideal final tuneup before the start of league play.

Modesto Christian senior forward Alex Merkviladze, a Georgian international, has signed at Cal State Northridge.

The host Crusaders (3-4) have absorbed their ups and downs against a challenging schedule. That said, their usual stacked roster – MC reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I finals and the CIF State Open semifinals last season – should improve.

Alex Merkviladze, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, already has signed to continue his career at Cal State Northridge. Darius Smith, a 6-2 freshman, is one of the promising youngsters. But the learning curve can be steep. MC blew a 10-point halftime lead last weekend and lost to powerful Riordan 55-41.

"We have a lot of young pieces. A few of them have to get used to the physicality of high school basketball," Fantazia said. "That's why we play these early-season games."

Modesto Christian is paired Thursday at 7 p.m. against Gregori (11-0), which has garnered headlines with its fast start. The Jaguars, who've beaten teams throughout the valley, surprised many observers earlier this month by defeating Vanden to win Central Catholic’s 16-team Gallo Invitational.  

"They're well-coached and play hard and their seniors have been around for a while," Fantazia said. "They haven't played the schedule we have, but I know they won't back down from us. That's for sure."

Clovis West (10-2), coached by Vance Walberg, is one of the tournament's top teams. The Golden Eagles, who own lopsided wins over Bullard of Fresno and Modesto Christian, open against Sonora at 4. One of the event's players to watch is Clovis West's heavily-recruited 6-4 guard Cole Anderson.

Sonora (8-1) is one of three 2019 SJS champions in the field. Austin Patterson, the Wildcats’ 6-foot-3 senior, demanded fans’ attention earlier this month at Central Catholic’s Gallo Invitational.

Patterson, who averaged 23.5 points a game as a junior to lead Sonora to the section Division IV title, scores from anywhere and has not stopped as a senior. He set a school record with 48 points to beat the host Raiders at the Gallo, one day after Sonora’s only loss to Newark Memorial.

"He (Patterson) can really play," Fantazia said. "I've seen him play a lot during his time on Chuck Hayes' AAU team."

Weston Ranch, the defending tournament champion, again is led by Gavin Wilburn, Donjae Lindsey and Mison Coilton. The Cougars (2-6) have struggled against a tough schedule, however, going into their first-round matchup against Turlock (5-5).

Weston Ranch guard Donjae Lindsey is one of the top scorers in the field at the 20th annual Holiday Hoop Classic. Weston Ranch is the defending champion.

Beyer begins its week at 5:30 against Campolindo in a matchup of 5-3 teams. Campolindo returns nearly everyone, including the talented 6-3 sophomore Aidan Mahaney (21.1 ppg), from its 2019 CIF State D-II championship team.

Ripon (3-6), still trying to get its football stars into basketball shape after its state-title season, will be tested by James Logan (3-3), the 2019 state Division I runner-up. The game starts at 8:30 and will finish Thursday’s eight-game program.

Brookside Christian (6-3), last season’s D-V section champion, is slotted against Bullard (6-7) at 1. Manteca (4-6) will meet Clovis East (7-2) at 11:30 a.m. Vanden (7-2) will open the day at 10 against Liberty Ranch (5-7), which was beaten by Sonora in last season’s section D-IV final.

The tournament will proceed through the first three days and, after an off-day Sunday, conclude with Monday's games leading to the final at 7:45 p.m.

"I think this is the most loaded tournament in a while," Fantazia said. "There are some very good teams."

MC Holiday Hoop Classic

At Modesto Christian

Thursday’s 1st-Round Games

10 a.m.: Vanden (7-2) vs. Liberty Ranch (5-7)

11:30: Clovis East (7-2) vs. Manteca (4-6)

1 p.m.: Bullard (6-7) vs. Brookside Christian (6-3)

2:30: Weston Ranch (2-6) vs. Turlock (5-5)

4: Clovis West (10-2) vs. Sonora (8-1)

5:30: Campolindo (5-3) vs. Beyer (5-3)

7: Gregori (11-0) vs. Modesto Christian (3-4)

8:30: James Logan (3-3) vs. Ripon (3-6)