For the past two years, one of the highlights of the state's junior high/middle school winter basketball scene was the Copper State Jam Tournament held in the Tonto Apache reservation gymnasium.
This year, tournament director and founder Steve Rensch is predicting the youth shoot-out will be bigger and better than ever when it moves to the Rim Country Middle School gym, the old Payson High School gymnasium and Wilson Dome.
Games begin at 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9 and will continue until championship contests in two divisions are played at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11
The first division, or "small schools," will feature middle/junior high schools of less than 350 students. The "all school" division will consist of institutions that have student bodies larger than 350 students.
Local representatives will include Shelby in the small school division and Rim Country Middle School in the upper division.
Rensch will coach the Shelby team that, he said, is composed of mostly younger players in fifth, sixth and seventh grade.
The team, Rensch said, is 8-1 against seventh-grade competition and "has played .500 ball against eighth-grade all-star teams."
By virtue of its record, Shelby earned the right to play, Rensch said.
Also in the 16-team field are schools from Scottsdale, Globe, Seligman, Peoria, Superior, Sanders, Stanfield, San Manuel, Tucson, Hayden and northern Arizona reservation schools.
The large school bracket of 16 teams features several powerhouse teams that might harbor a few up-and-coming high school and collegiate stars.
One of those teams, Tucson St. Joseph's the small school runner-up in last year's jam moves to the big school competition and will return with Sean O'Neal who, as a seventh-grader, was one of the tournament's most valuable players.
Tucson Fickett is another school Rensch predicts could be a title contender because of its player talent.
"The Tucson people have no doubt that Fickett was the best team in the state last year and my sources tell me they are almost as good this year," he said.
Fans shouldn't count out Page as a gold-medal threat. The school will bring a glowing reputation and a 15-0 record to the jam.
"They're coming because they can't find any competition up north," Rensch said. "I think they'll find it here."
For decades, Issac Junior High School has been one of the powerhouses in the Phoenix area. In last year's jam, Issac lost the championship game when an East Fork player scored on a lay-up at the buzzer. Only seconds earlier, Issac had rallied to tie the game after being down by eight points with a minute to go.
That game "was an absolute thriller," Rensch said.
If tradition holds true, Issac will probably boast another potent squad capable of taking home the gold.
One of the most unique entries in the jam is Las Vegas Von Tobel school. For a junior high team to travel hundreds of miles to play, Rensch said, they must be loaded with talent.
"You don't travel that far with a weak team," he said.
The Rim Country Middle School entry in the jam is made up of players who put together an undefeated 2000 White Mountain League season as seventh-graders. This year, the group is coach by Steve Jagadinski, who doubles as the PHS freshman coach.
"RCMS probably has a better team than either of the last two years, but is facing a tougher field than ever," Rensch said.
Other schools the tournament director expects to contend for honors include Tucson Emily Gray, Phoenix Madison One, Tucson Old Vail, Peoria Alta Loma, Tuba City, Lake Havasu Thunderbolt, Phoenix Desert Foothills, Prescott Glassford Hills and Tucson Tortolita.
In addition to showcasing some excellent youth basketball, the Jam features plenty to do for the entire family.
Games for the younger set including foosball and table tennis will be available as will continuous showings of basketball highlight and blooper films. The Frozen Cow restaurant will operate a concession stand in the dome.
And when the tournament is over, the awards presentation begins. Custom designed trophies will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place teams. The most valuable players as selected by a panel of judges will receive similar trophies
Custom embroidered jackets are given to the 10 all-star players from both divisions.
All members of the first-place teams will receive medallions.
A team sportsmanship plaque will also be award.
Rensch is counting on plenty of fan support to make the jam a continued success.
"I'm hoping the people of Payson come out and support their team and help me welcome these kids and their families to the Rim country," he said.
Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children per day.