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Despite defections Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament remains loaded

By David Kvidahl , 12/20/17, 11:15PM CST

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Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament remains loaded

Mike Nelke might have jumped out of his chair.

The Ritenour boys basketball coach vividly remembers the e-mail he received informing him that his team was invited to participate in the Coaches vs. Cancer Holiday Tournament.

It was a milestone moment for Nelke and his Huskies.

“We're thrilled,” Nelke said. “It was a big day for us.”

There are somewhere between 10 and 50 holiday tournaments around the area. The short list of the best includes the MICDS Holiday Tournament, the Collinsville Classic and the Coaches vs. Cancer Holiday Tournament at St. Louis Community College - Meramec.

The Coaches vs. Cancer field lost Webster Groves for one year to the prestigious City of Palms. CBC withdrew and will participate in the Poplar Bluff Showdown.

That's two heavyweights that could sink the field at any other tournament. Not so at Coaches vs. Cancer.

“I don't think our field has diminished,” Coaches vs. Cancer tournament director Keith Anderson said.

Not when you can trot out top seed and defending champion St. Mary's. The No. 1 small school in the STLhighschoolsports.com rankings, St. Mary's (9-0) can make a case it's the best team in the area regardless of size. The Dragons blasted CBC, held on to beat defending Class 3 champion Northwest Academy and then ran Archdiocesan Athletic Association rival Borgia out of the gym with a 74-30 win on Friday.

Sitting pretty at the No. 2 seed is Hazelwood Central. The No. 3 large school, Central (7-1) has a loaded senior class that went toe-to-toe with Chicago power and defending Class 2A champion Orr Academy on Saturday. The Hawks have made winning at Meramec a holiday tradition. Since the 2007-08 season, Central has won the tournament four times, made the final seven times and advanced to at least the semifinal eight times.

At No. 3 is Jennings. The No. 6 small school, Jennings (6-1) hasn't had the same tournament success as Central, but has been a tough out the last four seasons. It won the consolation bracket last year and made the semifinals the year before that.

“We play good basketball over there and it felt good to have that recognized as a top seed,” Jennings coach Travis Wallace said.

Checking in at No. 4 is Kirkwood (4-0). The Pioneers are off to a scorching start as they're averaging nearly 80 points per game.

It only gets deeper with St. Louis U. High, Marquette, Eureka, Vianney, McCluer North, Ritenour, Lafayette, Lindbergh, Troy, De Smet, St. Charles West and Parkway West rounding out the field.

To be included in this field was big for Ritenour (5-4). When Nelke took the reins of his alma mater before the 2015-16 season, he was surprised to learn the Huskies were not booked for a holiday tournament. It made for a long break between games.

“It was kind of like boot camp for a few weeks,” Nelke said.

Last year Ritenour was part of the Chaminade Christmas Tournament and played the talented host for the title, but the opportunity to play at Meramec was too good to pass up. Nelke had an idea of what he was getting his team into, but felt his players didn't quite grasp the magnitude. He said they had their eyes opened at the tip-off breakfast on Saturday. The bracket was revealed like the NCAA tournament, Lindbergh's Wil Ohler was presented the Stephanie Phillips Survivor Award for his continued fight against Leukemia and several speakers talked about the greater mission behind the basketball tournament.

“It's first class,” Nelke said. 

Wallace said the senior leaders that accompanied him to the breakfast had a different mental focus when they walked out of the building. When the Warriors took the court that night against a strong Duchesne team, Wallace said his players were locked in. Jennings grabbed a 68-57 win in the finale of the GAC/Suburban Challenge Saturday night. 

"When we left they had a different mindset," Wallace said. "During the walk through they were different. Before the game they were different. It was huge for us to win that game." 

He hopes his team parlays the program's first win over Duchesne in his eight seasons into another strong showing at the tournament. 

"That No. 3 seed comes with a target," Wallace said. "I think the kids will be focused." 

Anderson said the tournament raised a record $110,000 last year. They'd love to break that mark this season. He said that Ohler's story and his resilience galvanized the audience and reaffirmed the good this tournament and its volunteers can do.

“He gave a moving speech that really affected everybody,” Anderson said. “He's why we're doing what we're doing. He's why we put our hearts into this mission.”

The tournament runs Dec. 27-30. Admission is $5 and good for the whole day