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Holiday basketball tournaments try to persist through pandemic

Holiday tournaments are always prolific during the winter break. This year, the challenges to host them are many.
Dean Gabrelcik and East Lake are scheduled to play in the fourth annual Sun Bash on Friday and Saturday at Canterbury.
Dean Gabrelcik and East Lake are scheduled to play in the fourth annual Sun Bash on Friday and Saturday at Canterbury. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2020
Updated Dec. 18, 2020

Holiday tournaments usually take months of planning, well before seasons get started. Because of the coronavirus pandemic — and the resulting travel bans and arena-capacity caps implemented by some counties — the best-laid tournament plans have gone awry.

Jake Perper, director of the Sun Bash event that starts today at St. Petersburg’s Canterbury School, had his fourth annual boys tournament mostly set in January, with many teams committed to the then-three-day event.

Once the coronavirus hit, Perper had more work ahead of him but is thankful he can still host some local schools.

“I think it’s huge,” Perper said. “It’s about helping these kids get seen because they lost so much time between the summer and after (last) season, just kind of not being able to do anything.”

Florida’s last season ended just before coronavirus cases ramped up in March, but players still lost critical time to get reps in for college recruiters.

Perper hopes the Sun Bash can help alleviate some of that stress for players.

“That’s the No. 1 thing,” he said.

Despite wanting to hold a traditional bracket tournament, Perper opted to host games over two days at Canterbury, similar to what he did during the Sun Bash’s first year.

The 100 spectators allowed this year are required to wear masks and social distance. The courts and bleachers will be cleaned after every game, which accounts for the two-hour window between games. And organizers are encouraging fans to purchase tickets online at athleticjunctionevents.com/sun-bash.

If the Sun Bash had been scheduled for just a few days later, Perper may have had a scheduling nightmare. On Thursday, Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett announced that public school programs will not be allowed to compete outside the county and non-Pinellas schools won’t be allowed to compete in the county starting Monday.

“We just felt like we needed to make that call,” Bennett said.

East Lake’s girls had to withdraw from the annual Jaguar Holiday Classic, hosted by Tampa’s Academy of the Holy Names on Dec. 28-30.

But Bennett said an exception has been made for Pinellas public schools that committed to play in the Keswick Suncoast Classic, a tournament Dec. 28-30 at private Keswick Christian in Pinellas that also includes Sarasota and Bradenton teams. The tournament for boy and girls teams has mostly Pinellas schools, and Bennett said he is confident Keswick Christian will follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for safety and social distancing.

Bennett said the Pinellas public school mandate will last through winter break and possibly into January. The district will monitor the positivity rate of coronavirus cases over the next two to three weeks and reassess the mandate at that time.

Bennett said he didn’t expect a major impact on the season.

“Our goal is to try to finish the season and get our teams where they can play districts, regions, play for the state championship at the end of the year,” Bennett said.

More than 100 games are planned over the next three weekends in the Tampa Bay area.

Seffner Christian hosts one of the biggest tournaments, with its annual Tampa Bay Christmas Invitational scheduled for Dec 28-30.

Originally, Seffner Christian coach Joe Cooper had planned on 40 varsity girls teams from eight states to play out of the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus in Wesley Chapel. When the coronavirus hit, Cooper readjusted to include Florida-only teams. The brackets were still being finalized.

“It’s been interesting (to plan), to say the least,” said Andy Holmes, Seffner’s assistant athletic director. “Our coach, he’s done a great job with coordinating everything, filling spots. It’s just been one thing after another.”

Fans will be encouraged to social distance and required to wear masks.

Next year, Cooper hopes to expand the tournament to 128 teams, with local and national programs already committing. This year, the focus is simply on giving teams an opportunity to compete.

“The kids have lost so many opportunities, other tournaments,” Holmes said. “You do feel bad for the kids because they need these opportunities, and I think we’re able to do it safely at (the Wiregrass complex).”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

Tournaments this weekend

City of Tampa Championship

Location: Tampa Prep

Fans: Not allowed

Stream: NFHS Network online

Friday: Tampa Catholic vs. Brandon Academy, 3 p.m.; Palmetto vs. Jefferson, 4:30; Plant vs. Robinson, 6; Chamberlain vs. Tampa Prep, 7:30

Saturday: Semifinals, 3 and 4:30; loser’s bracket games, noon and 1:30

Monday: Final, 4:30; consolation games, noon, 1:30 and 3

Sun Bash Tampa

Location: Canterbury School

Fans: Allowed

Stream: Athletic Junction Events

Friday: Calvary Christian vs. East Lake High, 6; IMG National vs. Jacksonville Lee, 8

Saturday: Northside Christian vs. Canterbury, 9 a.m.; IMG Blue vs. Clearwater Central Catholic, 11 a.m.; Sarasota Booker vs. Brooks DeBartolo, 1; Naples vs. St. Petersburg, 3; Clearwater vs. Calvary Christian, 5; Jacksonville Lee vs. East Lake, 7; Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian vs. IMG National, 9

Note: Many schools hosting tournaments after Christmas have had to replace teams. We will post those tournaments once brackets are finalized.