Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Cascade Christian boys basketball coach Brian Morse set out to provide stiff competition in the Challengers' annual holiday tournament.
This week's Southern Oregon Subaru Christmas Classic will include last year's Class 3A state champion in Dayton, last year's 4A state runner-up in Phoenix, his own Cascade Christian team that made the final eight in the 3A state tournament last year and is No. 3 in the current OSAA power rankings and Santiam Christian, which defeated the Challengers in the state quarterfinals a year ago.
And none of those teams are favored in the eight-team event that will be played at Cascade Christian and Phoenix high schools Thursday through Saturday.
That distinction goes to North Valley, itself a 4A state-tournament team last season that is ranked No. 1 in the OSAA rankings and has rolled to a 7-0 mark.
"It's just a very competitive field, obviously," said Morse, who welcomed a new title sponsor this year and pushed the tournament back a week because of how the holiday schedule unfolded. "That's what all the best teams in it want. It'll help their RPI rankings later in the year, and they also want to be pushed and see how they do against the best teams."
The Classic actually consists of four tournaments: the "Unlimited" boys, which features the aforementioned teams; the eight-team "Unlimited" girls; and two "Varsity" divisions for smaller schools and lower-level teams in a round-robin format.
The top girls bracket doesn't have quite the star power as the boys, but it's not without talent.
Class 5A Eagle Point brings in an 8-1 record; Mazama is No. 2 in the OSAA 4A rankings with a 6-2 record, its only losses against unbeaten, higher-classification teams in North Medford and Willamette; and Phoenix, No. 9 in the OSAA rankings with a 5-2 record.
Morse's team got a late start to the season because the school's football team — with nine varsity basketball players — made the state finals, where it lost to Dayton.
Cascade Christian (3-1) opens the tournament against Mazama at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Challengers' gym. That game will be preceded by Santiam Christian (3-3) against Umatilla (0-6) at 5:15.
In first-round games at Phoenix High, North Valley takes on Illinois Valley (2-5) at 5:15 p.m. and Phoenix (3-3) plays Dayton (4-3) at 8:45.
This is only the Challengers' third full week together.
"We're actually starting to work on things now instead of the crash course of the first three days," said Morse, adding that Cascade Christian's defensive intensity should pick up and its attention to fundamentals will increase.
He expects the host team to be at full strength and playing well.
It will need to be if it gets a chance to play North Valley for the championship.
The Knights lost last year's tourney title game to Phoenix, 64-48, and are missing a key player in senior point guard Kevin Brazille, a first-team all-Skyline Conference selection last season. Brazille, selected the Grants Pass Daily Courier's player of the year in 2011-12, is recovering from minor knee surgery and will be out a month or so, according to the paper.
Still, North Valley has perhaps the most dominant inside presence in Southern Oregon in 6-foot-9 senior JJ Chirnside. He had 20 rebounds and eight blocked shots in a recent win over Gold Beach.
Cascade Christian is well-equipped to match up against North Valley with 6-7 David Sellers, 6-5 Seth Knox and 6-5 Aaron Cesaro — all juniors. And with Brazille out, senior Alex Miller gives the Challengers the edge at point guard.
"North Valley is the favorite to win the tournament," said Morse. "I would love the opportunity to face them and seen how our big guys match up to Chirnside. Our guys are so much bigger and stronger now (than last season)."
The Knights defeated Cascade Christian, 58-43, in last year's tournament.
The Cascade Christian-Mazama winner will face the Phoenix-Dayton winner in the semifinals.
"I'm really interested to see who wins that game," said Morse.
The championship contest is at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at Cascade Christian High.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com