The Holiday Hoops girls basketball tournament, that this year will be played Dec. 28 and 29 in Wilson Dome and old PHS gym, annually draws 16 premier teams from around Arizona.
In the past, teams representing Gilbert, Glendale Apollo, Mesa Westwood, Tucson Catalina, Phoenix Xavier, Eloy Santa Cruz, Blue Ridge, Florence, San Tan Valley Poston Butte, Yuma Kofa, Tucson Catalina Foothills, Queen Creek and Higley have participated. Lady Horn coach Jennifer White is expecting most of those teams to show up in Payson next week for the 2012 tournament.
The tournament remains a popular draw because it attracts schools of all sizes, affording athletes the chance to compete against players they might not see during the course of the regular season.
Also, on the days of the tournament, players, families and friends flood our community, providing the economic boost town leaders and business persons clamor for.
Many who come to the tournament are first-time visitors eager for up close glimpses at life in the Rim Country.
In past years, Holiday Hoops has generated a feel-good vibe among the visitors as they enjoyed our hospitality and good will.
It’s obvious, the tournament is more than basketball games and an economic boon, it’s a testament to the small-town way of life we all enjoy.
Those who attended the 2010 tournament, couldn’t help but chuckle while several players from big city schools like Mesa, Glendale and Gilbert gasp in amazement as snow began to fall, giving some of them their first opportunity to revel in the white stuff.
In fact, during a game played in Julia Randall Elementary gym, several “big school” players ran outside during a time out to marvel at the falling snow.
Of course, it takes a great deal of effort, commitment and work to put on a basketball tournament that draws upward of 300 high school players and their followers, but coaches, especially Lady Longhorn head coach Jennifer White, parents and volunteers have always stepped up to help make Holiday Hoops a tournament everyone can be proud of.
At the conclusion of the 2011 tournament, former PHS athletic director Gary Fishel was lavish in his praise of White for directing a first-class invitational in just her first year as tournament director, “She really put her heart and effort into the tournament.”
First year athletic director Don Heizer has built a reputation as one of the state’s finest tournament directors in wrestling.
This year, he’ll be on hand to lend some of his expertise to White as she directs her second Holiday Hoops.
Holiday Hoops, which was founded in the mid 1990s by then-coach Jerry Daniels, has annually showcased some of Payson High’s finest basketball players.
In 2006, with current school board member Rory Huff coaching the Lady Horns, Danielle O’Haver wowed the crowds all tournament long with her long-range shooting accuracy. She ended up making the all-tournament team and later set school records for three-pointers.
Although O’Haver and her teammates entered the holiday shoot-out as defending champs, they relinquished the crown to Desert Mountain, which beat Gilbert in the finale.
A real plus for the tournament that year was that it earned more than $3,000 for the basketball program. At the time, Huff called the cash, “money we really needed.”
A year earlier, the Lady Horns put on one of the most amazing rallies in the history of the program defeating Tempe McClintock 48-45, after trailing 18-5 to start the second quarter. Huff called the 2005 tournament “the toughest ever” with teams like Higley, Gilbert, Desert Mountain, Mesa Westwood, Tuba City and Tucson Catalina competing. In that tournament, Huff’s daughter — Haylee — earned Most Valuable Player honors.
In 2003, the Lady Horns — under former coach Shawn Hardt — turned in an outstanding tournament performance, but finished second, falling in the championship game to two-time defending state champion Tuba City. Also that year, former PHS baseball coach and then-town recreation leader Teddy Pettet served as tournament director.
In 2000, the Lady Horns, led by Jennifer Plumb, were again second. The tournament also showcased the hardwood abilities of ex-Lady Horn standouts Sidney Swartwood and Ashli Herrera.
In 1998, the terrific trio of Stephanie Robertson, Rheanna Martinez and Swartwood were among the finest players on the Holiday Hoops court.
Last year, Emmee Ashby’s monster game — highlighted by 17 points, nine rebounds and four steals — got the Lady Longhorns off and running in the Holiday Hoops with a tournament opening 59-32 victory over San Tan Foothills.
Ashby was only a junior last year and would have returned to the Lady Horn fold this season had not she and her mother moved to Queen Creek at the end of the school year.
Ashby now concentrates on her volleyball career playing varsity for QCHS and on the elite club scene.
Following the win over San Tan, the Lady Horns went on to whip Queen Creek, 37-34, but dropped a quarterfinal clash, 48-28, to Mesa Westwood.
In the battle for third place, Payson dropped a hard-fought 44-38 decision to Marana to finish 2-2 and fourth in the tournament.
In the win over San Tan, the Lady Horns unleashed a stifling full court, man-to-man press that befuddled and frustrated Sabercat players.
While Ashby dominated the game, the Lady Horns also received solid efforts from other players.
In particular, Chioya Hill, who this year is on track to set a school career rebounding record, controlled the boards corralling 13 missed shots.
Many of her rebounds eliminated any chance the Sabercats had for put backs and second shot attempts. Hill also finished with five steals off the full court pressure.
Although the tournament has been a staple on the holiday agenda since founded by Daniels, it suffered a hiccup of sorts in 2008
when only an abbreviated form of it was held.
The format was altered — instead of the 16 teams that traditionally competed, the field was reduced to six schools.
Also, it was not played during the school district’s Christmas vacation as it had been, but rather moved to Dec. 12 and Dec. 13.
School officials said at the time, the change was made to accommodate the coach.