Jamari Phillips has missed time at the start of the season with a foot injury, but coach Brice Fantazia hopes to have the Arizona commit and reigning tournament MVP for the 22nd annual Holiday Hoop Classic, which begins Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. (Samantha Schmidt)

Loaded field looks to dethrone Modesto Christian at Holiday Hoop Classic

James Burns

Fighting congestion and fatigue, Modesto Christian boys basketball coach Brice Fantazia admits it has been the most challenging opening month to a season since he’s returned to his alma mater.

The architect of one of the top programs in the state has had to weather a host of illnesses and injuries to his roster, while steering clear of the same bug that has ravaged his locker room.

He hopes the Crusaders will be close to full strength on Tuesday evening when they headline the opening day of the 22nd annual Holiday Hoop Classic. Modesto Christian is the defending champion, but it limps into the region’s premiere holiday tournament.

The Crusaders competed with just eight players at the Capital City Classic in Salem, Ore., last week. Among those left at home to rest and recover was highly touted senior and reigning Holiday Hoop MVP Jamari Phillips (foot), who recently committed to the University of Arizona.

“This has been the most challenging opening month of my career. The flu has just destroyed us,” said Fantazia, himself congested. “At one point we had four kids in practice; it was that bad.”

Low on numbers, Modesto Christian rallied to a third-place finish at the Capital City Classic. Led by San Diego State-bound senior BJ Davis, the Crusaders knocked off Texas state champion John Paul II in overtime in route to the podium.

Davis, an all-tournament selection, had 49 points on just 27 shots. He averaged 26 points per game for the tournament. On a court full of Division I prospects, Fantazia said Davis was the best.

“We all know how talented BJ is. He was one of the ones who got hit with the flu bad before the season started, so he got off to slower start to the season than he would have liked,” Fantazia said. “This weekend, his performance against the team from Texas was one of the better performances in Modesto Christian history.”

The 2021-22 Modesto Christian boys basketball program poses with the Holiday Hoop Classic championship trophy after beating Durango High of Las Vegas. (Samantha Schmidt)

Once again, basketball fans won’t have to travel far for some of the best prep action in Northern California. Annually, the Holiday Hoop Classic invites heavyhitters from across the state, and just last year saw Durango High of Las Vegas make a run to the championship game.

The Holiday Hoop Classic begins Tuesday, Dec. 27, with a full slate. All games will be played at Modesto Christian’s newly minted Anderson Gymnasium, beginning at 10 a.m.

Here’s a look at Tuesday’s matchups: Gregori-Clovis West, 10 a.m.; Edison-Clovis East, 11:30; Northgate-Cosumnes Oaks, 1 p.m.; Turlock-Campolindo, 2:30; Bullard-Weston Ranch, 4; Pleasant Valley-Vanden, 5:30; Downey-Modesto Christian, 7; and Ripon Christian-Manteca, 8:30.

Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for students with an ID card, and $5 for seniors (62 years and older) and military (with ID). Only CIF State, section and lifetime CIF passes will be accepted.

“I’m always excited for the Holiday Hoop Classic,” Fantazia said. “It gives me flashbacks to when I was playing. It’s sort of our crown jewel, as I like to say. Our boys are excited, we’ve got another strong field, and we hope to repeat.”

This year, three of the four podium finishers return, including host and defending champion Modesto Christian (4-4).

The Crusaders have limped out of the gates, but Fantazia hopes a strong showing at the Capital City Classic is a little wind in their sails. He lauded his team’s resolve on the road, despite leaving five players at home.

“Proud of the heart and togetherness this group showed. Missing five teammates this group of eight grinded and fought their way to a 3-1 record out in Oregon. Tough and Together!” Fantazia tweeted on Dec. 21.

After dropping its first three games of the season, Modesto Christian has won four of its last five. Its only loss was an overtime setback to West Linn of Oregon at the Capital City Classic. Through eight games, the Crusaders have played teams from Nevada, Texas, Oregon and Southern California.

“There is definitely some momentum and positive vibes. Early on with the schedule and the injuries and the flu, the season didn’t get started the way we hoped,” Fantazia said. “This is the next step, playing in front of our home fans.

“I hope we can continue to grow. We haven’t had our full team. We haven’t been healthy,” he added. “I hope we can continue to grow and take steps forward together.”

Modesto Christian beat Durango, which will not return, in the 2021 Holiday Hoop Classic final.

Pleasant Valley of Chico looks to build on its third-place finish in 2021, while Weston Ranch returns several key pieces from a team that won the consolation championship at last year’s Holiday Hoop Classic.

Weston Ranch has lost all six games to start the 2022-23 season but like Modesto Christian, the Cougars have played a national schedule. They’ve only played one opponent from the Sac-Joaquin Section (Inderkum). The rest have been from Florida, Utah, Idaho and San Francisco.

The Cougars have lost three games by seven points or less, including a one-point defeat to Coral Gables of Florida in their final game at the prestigious Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas.

“They’re going to come into the Holiday Hoop hungry,” Fantazia said of Weston Ranch, coached by close friend Nicolas Podesta. “They want to get some wins.”