Pondering the upcoming 10th anniversary of his school's Cliff Warkins Memorial Cardinal Classic, Erie boys' basketball coach Ryan Winckler sums it up thusly:|
"Ten years, that's pretty scary," said the former Erie Cardinal prep standout. "That just means I'm getting old, that's all."
However, Winckler also admits that when the Warkins Classic tipped off in December of 2002, nobody involved had much of an idea it would grow into one of the region's premier holiday basketball gatherings, subsequently spawning a companion girls' tournament in the process.
"This past Wednesday," Winckler said, "we were talking at school — Coach (Brad) Storm was there, and so was Coach (Jason) Orman — and we talked about 10 years ago and wanting to start a Christmas tournament and our vision for it, and how it's expanded into what we hope is one of the better ones around, with a lot of local teams.
"Back then, I don't think anybody had any idea we'd do what we have done (over the past decade), no way."
As the Cardinals prepare to welcome Three Rivers Conference rivals Kewanee, Morrison and Riverdale along with the Lincoln Trail's trio of Annawan, Mercer County and Wethersfield and West Central North power Orion (plus Chicago Dyett, Knoxville and Stockton) to Erie, there have been some rumblings of change.
For starters, this year's tournament will be an 11-team gathering after the 12th school, Lanark Eastland, departed to start its own holiday tournament. Come next year, Annawan and Chicago Dyett will be out of the picture.
However, Erie already has planned ahead, and as a result, three new teams — Bureau Valley, Stark County and West Carroll — will arrive next December to swell the ranks back up to 12 teams.
"There was a bit of a hiccup this year, with teams having to drop out because of travel expenses, and Eastland backed out at the last second after starting its own Christmas tournament in its new facility," said Winckler. "We hate to see them go, along with Annawan. It's a different climate, but we're exciting knowing we'll be getting back to 12 teams next year.
"We think our format is a good one, and both pools are pretty equal, so we're excited with the matchups and hopefully what should be an entire week of competitive basketball."
Leading the pack is four-time defending Warkins champion Orion (9-2), which already has won titles at its own Tip-Off Classic and at last week's ROWVA-Ridgewood Holiday Tournament and boasts another solid lineup headed by senior center and Division I prospect Tanner Williams.
The Chargers open up on Tuesday against Mercer County (2-5), a team they beat 57-35 to clinch the ROWVA-Ridgewood title. A solid Stockton club also could pose trouble, while Kewanee has been stepping up its play after a slow start.
Riverdale (8-2), which boasts its own top-flight star in senior guard Wes DeClercq, looks to have its hands full in its pool both with Wethersfield (4-3) and the host Cardinals (9-4). Since a 51-44 loss to the Rams to open TRAC-9 play, Erie has reeled off eight straight wins, including a 65-64 double-overtime thriller at Kewanee.
"The good and the bad thing about our winning streak is that all of those games have been away from home. We haven't had a home game since losing to Riverdale," said Winckler, whose club also won the West Carroll Holiday Tournament title.
"We feel like we've improved since that point, and hopefully getting on a hot streak going into our own tournament will generate a lot of enthusiasm among our fans and get them coming out to support us."