The Jackson boys basketball team will be spending their Christmas evening with their loved ones -- and each other -- as the Timberwolves hop on a plane and fly to Palm Springs, Calif., for the prestigious MaxPreps Holiday Classic Tournament which runs Dec. 26-30.
Jackson will play four games in the 24-team Invitational division, which boasts 15 programs that won 20 games or more last season. The Timberwolves join defending champion Westchester (Los Angeles), Wenonah (Birmingham, Ala.), Sunnyslope (Pheonix), St. Edward (Lakewood, Ohio), Tampa Catholic (Tampa, Fla.) and other top teams from around the country.
For more information on the Max Preps Holiday Classic, visit: http://desertheatholidayclassic.com/
"It's a pretty rare opportunity to get invited to play in a tournament with so many good teams," said Jackson head coach Steve Johnson. "So many teams with high-profile players. We're hoping we can be better from the experience playing against that caliber of competition. Obviously, we'd like to be successful and win our share in the tournament, but I think the experience against playing those teams help us get better."
Last season Rainier Beach, which went on to win the 3A state championship, went 2-2 at the tournament. Johnson said the Timberwolves don't have a particular win total in mind, they just want to go down and be competitive with their opponents.
"I don't want to put a number on it. I hope we compete," Johnson said. "I don't think we'll be intimidated and back down from some of the bigger teams we see. I think if we lay it all out there and give ourselves a chance to win and perform near the top of our abilities we'll consider that a successful tournament."
The Timberwolves want to be successful and get some wins in California, but they also know just being exposed to the level of competition will help them in their young season.
"I think that's why coach scheduled those games down there. It'll be nice to get away and play a different team than you're used to," said senior point guard Dan Kingma. "Playing against the best teams is good, whether you win or lose. I think we'll get better just playing hard against those types of teams."
The team hopes this opportunity and intense battles will help it as it tries to make a second-consecutive deep run in the 4A state tournament. Last year, Jackson finished second, falling to Curtis in the championship game 60-56.
"Last year we played Curtis in the state championship and we hadn't played a team like that before," said Jackson star Jason Todd. "This year we've got teams that have been to back-to-back state tournaments and some really tough teams. We can see how we match up with them. It will really help us down the road in the playoffs."
The Timberwolves will be joined in the tournament by fellow Washington schools Bellevue and Issaquah, which are on the other side of the bracket and wouldn't potentially play their in-state foes until the championship game.
Jackson could see Columbia Christian, from Oregon, in the quarterfinals. The Knights are a 1A team that some say has the talent to compete for a 5A or 6A state title. With nationally ranked prospect Kameron Chatman and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, who has verbally committed to Idaho, Columbia Christian could be waiting for Jackson if it makes it through its first game with a win.
The semifinals could feature an even tougher matchup with Alabama's Wenonah -- which is ranked No. 13 nationally by MaxPreps -- and star Justin Coleman, who has committed to the University of Alabama.
Jackson's first-round opponent is to be determined. After flying out at 8:30 p.m. Christmas Day, the team will arrive in California late that night. Fortunately for the Timberwolves, they don't play until late Thursday night against the winner of a 9 a.m. game Thursday morning between Catalina Foothills (Tucson, Ariz.) and Harvard Westlake (Studio City, Calif.).
With an unknown opponent from the start, preparing and scouting for individual teams is a challenge for Jackson.
"The coaches crept into that a little bit and have seen potential matchups and guys' averages and things, but it's pretty hard to scout a team from Alabama," Todd said. "We'll have our scouting report a little bit but ultimately it's going to come down to us playing the way we're capable of playing."
Johnson said the Timberwolves' coaching staff has been able to cobble together something like a scouting report using rosters found online and Youtube. Since Jackson arrives late Wednesday night he hopes to be able to go to that first game and see the two teams play in person.
"I really like to know our opponents but obviously this is a little different animal," Johnson said. "We have to kind of piece it together. I'm in the process of getting scouting reports on as many teams as we can. It's kind of hit and miss."
Another potential detriment to Jackson is the fact that it will only have two games under its belt when it gets to Palm Springs. Teams in Washington state are only allowed five nonconference games in a season, and the MaxPreps tournament takes up four of the Timberwolves' allotted contests.
They will also play in the King Holiday Hoopfest at Seattle Pacific University on Jan. 20 to round out their nonleague schedule.
Snow last Friday robbed Jackson of its third game of the season -- the game will be made up on Jan. 10, after the Timberwolves return -- meaning Jackson won't have nearly the experience their opponents have already accumulated this season.
"For us, one of the challenges will be we've only played (two) games. I think most of the teams in the tournament will have played eight to 10," Johnson said. "That's going to be kind of tough."
However, Todd and the Jackson team is looking forward to all the challenges the MaxPreps Holiday Classic poses.
"It's a little bit different," Todd said. "There are games from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. You're playing back-to-back days. You don't know who's going to win and who you might play. There's that fatigue factor. It's important to stay mentally strong. We've just got to go out play and have fun. See what happens."
The long trip -- and various activities -- also bring an opportunity for the Timberwolves to spend some quality time together. Kingma, and several of the other seniors on the Jackson squad, went to San Diego two seasons ago. It was a trip Kingma believes helped bring the Jackson team closer together.
But while team bonding is a big part of the trip, the Timberwolves know they have business to take care of once they get to Palm Springs.
"I think that we're pretty good about that," Kingma said. "We're going down there to play basketball, not to tan and play in the pool."
NFHS Network to Stream 2013 Max Preps Holiday Classic LIVE
WHEN: Thursday, December 26 – Saturday, December 28, 2013
WHO: The following basketball programs will be participating in the Max Preps Holiday Classic from Palm Springs, Calif.:
Beverly Hills High School, Los Angeles, California
Capital Christian High School, Sacramento, California
Orangewood Academy, Redlands, California
De La Salle High School, Concord, California
JSerra High School, San Juan Capistrano, California
Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Long Beach, California
Christian Brothers College High School, St. Louis, Missouri
Wenonah High School, Birmingham, Alabama
Columbia Christian Schools, Portland, Oregon
Sunnyslope High School, Phoenix, Arizona
Issaquah High School, Issaquah, Washington
Jackson High School, Mill Creek, Washington
Bellevue High School, Bellevue, Washington
WHERE: Fans can watch the 2013 Max Preps Holiday Classic live online with a subscription on the NFHS Network at www.NFHSnetwork.com. The event will also be available on mobile devices at m.nfhsnetwork.com and subscribers can download the NFHS Network app from the iTunes store.
Specific schedule information for the Max Preps Holiday Classic from Palm Springs can be found at: http://www.nfhsnetwork.com/channels/california/pages/maxpreps
WHY: Family, fans and alumni unable to attend the event can watch the 2013 Max Preps Holiday Classic live from wherever they are on the NFHS Network. The NFHS Network is the most comprehensive location for coverage of boys and girls high school sports, performing arts and activities.
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