Over the last 50 years the Crescent City Jaycees 8th Grade Basketball Tournament has grown from being a small tournament with about 16 teams into a massive 56-team tournament that basketball players will never forget.
“College guys have March Madness, pros have the NBA Tournament, this is their version of March Madness,” said retired coach and principal John Berry, who brought teams from Kelseyville to the Jaycees Tournament for all 33 years that he coached and returned as a spectator for the tournament’s 50th anniversary. “After all my years in Kelseyville, I had players come back as a 25-year-old or 32-year-old, introduce me to their wife and kids, and this was an everlasting memory for them.”
Redwood Red head coach Blake Lopez can still clearly remember winning the consolation championship in the A-1 division with Redwood as an eighth grader in 1999.
“That is one of the highlights of a kid’s life,” Lopez said. “I still remember my Jaycees Tournament. I still have my all tourney medal and all the awards. I had one of the games of my life in this Jaycees Tournament. It is a huge experience for the kids. As an eighth grade basketball player, not everybody is going to move up into high school and make the teams. So these kids will remember this as long as they have a memory.”
Although most of the teams attend several tournaments throughout the season, as well as competing in league games, Berry said the Jaycees Tournament is the one that his teams always circled on their calendar at the beginning of the year.
“When I used to coach, on the first day of practice our goal was to get to Crescent City,” Berry said. “It’s no different than when Duke has practice in October with the goal of getting to the NCAA Tournament. You might win your league, you might not, but you’d give the whole thing up to come up here.”
With a total of 56 teams the Jaycees Tournament is about twice as large as even the biggest middle school basketball tournaments — but the competition in Crescent City goes beyond just hoops to include the entire student body in a unique way.
In addition to 84 basketball games played throughout the two-day tournament, the Jaycees also host a cheerleading competition, a princess competition, a mascot competition and a poster contest. That gives students who choose not to play basketball lots of different opportunities to participate.
“I can’t tell you how much that means to all of our students — our princess, or cheerleaders, the kids that made the poster — and it isn’t just Smith River,” said Smith River coach Ron Quick. “When we got to the Redwood gym on Friday they had all sorts of posters, and it wasn’t just for Redwood. They had a nice welcoming poster for all of the teams in the division that were going to be playing there. Hopefully we are making all the out-of-town teams feel welcome and makes them want to come back.”
That friendly and welcoming atmosphere is one of the things that has helped the tournament grow from just two brackets in 1968, into the seven-bracket event that it is today.
As the number of teams competing began to grow, so too did the tournament’s reach.
“The scope is greater,” Berry said, comparing his first Jaycees Tournament experience in 1980 to the 2018 competition this weekend. “It used to be almost like a North Coast and Southwestern Oregon tournament. Now there are more teams from Redding, or from our area in Clear Lake, some Sonoma County schools, and others. So the scope is greater, and I think that is because the word is out. This is a neat experience and you need to come here. Plus the town is geared for it. You have so many gyms, you have the hotels, the kids can go to Ocean World, Crescent City really does roll out the red carpet for these guys.”
“The Jaycees have really worked hard,” Quick said. “To put this on for 50 years is incredible. Back when it started there was only two divisions, and they worked hard to get it to seven divisions. Arman Gunnerson started the whole thing, and when he passed away his shoes were really hard to fill. But the Jaycees have done a really good job trying to carry this on and try to improve on it. They really deserve a lot of credit.”
Gunnerson, widely regarded as the godfather of the Jaycees Tournament, is still remembered fondly each year with the tournament’s top overall honor — the Arman Gunnerson Sportsmanship Award — bearing his name.
This year Big Springs, a long time Jaycees Tournament participant, won its first ever sportsmanship award.
Local basketball teams
Del Norte middle schools compete in the Jaycees Tournament every year, but even more local kids had the opportunity to play in the tournament’s 50th anniversary with a total of nine teams participating.
Crescent Elk had the most successful run of any of the local teams, winning all three of its games to capture the AA championship — the tournament’s second toughest bracket — with a 48-39 victory over Washington in the championship game.
“It is pretty huge for us,” said Crescent Elk head coach Luke O’Laughlin. “We are just the second Crescent Elk team to ever win the AA division, and just the seventh time that Crescent Elk has won a championship. At the beginning of the year, on the first day of practice, we sit there and look at the banners and I tell them, ‘Hey, this is what we are here for. To get one of these.’”
That is exactly what Crescent Elk did this year. O’Laughlin said the Cougars had a pretty up and down regular season, taking third place in McKinleyville and winning the consolation championship at two other tournaments this year.
The Cougars continued to improve throughout the season, however, and were able to end the year with an exclamation point at the Jaycees Tournament.
“In the beginning of the year when things didn’t go our way we might check out, but in the last two games they had to make that mental check and go do what was needed of them,” O’Laughlin said. “Our mental toughness really improved throughout the year.”
The Cougars needed that toughness to get through a couple tough spots throughout the tournament. In the championship game, Crescent Elk was in control with a double-digit lead for almost the entire second half, but Washington came roaring back in the closing minutes, cutting the Cougars’ lead to just five points with about a minute left.
Crescent Elk was able to compose itself for the final few possessions, however, and made its free throws to seal the victory.
In the A-1 division, Redwood’s top team went 2-1 for the weekend, finishing in third place overall.
“We wanted to bring the banner home, and it is not going to happen, but we still got a trophy,” Lopez said. “I was impressed with the energy that we brought, and how everybody played together as a team. We had intensity on defense when we needed it, and we were composed on offense when we needed to be.”
Lopez said his Red Raiders have had a fairly up and down year, finishing around .500 for the season. A win in the Jaycees Tournament for third place was a nice high note for the team to end its season on.
“They are just a carefree group. It was a wild bunch this year to say the least,” Lopez said. “We had a lot of ups and downs this season, basketball-wise and off the court. But this team came together at the end of the season when we needed to most and it showed on the court. Finishing in third place at the Jaycees is a nice way to end the season.”
Smith River battled its way to a third-place finish in the B-1 division by going 2-1 overall as well.
“For my eighth graders, they look forward to this all year,” Quick said. “This is the climax of our season, and we are extremely excited about it. We wish we could have won our middle game, but it was great to win the other two.”
Uncharted Shores Academy competed in the C division to wrap up its season.
Although the Jaycees Tournament is for eighth grade teams, Uncharted Shores doesn’t have enough players to form an eighth-grade only team. With last year’s USA squad that captured a consolation championship for their school being populated mostly by eighth graders, head coach Rodney Martindale said this year’s team had to start over.
“It was a learning experience for most of my crew this year,” Martindale said. “We were more like a sixth grade team than an eighth grade team this year, but it was a learning experience for all of us. It was an exciting and fun season, and as long as the kids have fun — that is all that matters. If we stick together and we continue to learn like we did this year, I think we should be a team to beat when they get into eighth grade. I am just teaching them the fundamentals of basketball right now.”
The Crescent Elk B team finished in sixth place in the B-2 division and the Redwood White team finished in 7th place in the C division.
Although the tournament is meant specifically for eighth grade teams, Jaycees Tournament Organizer John Phillips said this year he was forced to scramble at the last minute to fill out the brackets due to some last minute cancellations due to the weather forecast.
“We had four teams cancel last week, so it was probably the hardest tournament that I have ever had to do,” Phillips said. “If anyone had had to cancel on Friday we would have had to go to forfeits, because I didn’t have any teams left to fill in.”
Phillips added both of the eighth grade teams on the waiting list — Redwood Prep and Blue Lake — into the tournament, but he still had three empty spots in his brackets. As a result, seventh grade teams from Smith River, Redwood, and Azalea all got an early look at what the eighth-grade tournament has to offer.
“Our seventh graders were ecstatic,” Quick said. “We have had a couple seventh graders play on the eighth grade team in the past, but they were on the eighth grade team all season. This was the first time where the whole seventh grade team got to play in it.”
Smith River’s 7th graders ended up taking fourth place in the C division, while Redwood was thrust into the AA division where it ended up in eighth place.
In addition to urging on their team at each of its games throughout the weekend, cheerleaders took centerstage in Thunen Gymnasium on Saturday afternoon for the annual cheerleading competition. In all, 17 cheerleading squads competed in six different divisions including a team from Crescent Elk and Smith River, and two teams from Redwood.
Although Weaverville was named the most outstanding cheer team for the weekend, Crescent Elk finished in first place in the largest division (AAA and AA combined).
“I know that there were times that they were getting tired, but they stepped it up, pulled it together, and they ended up winning first place so it was all worth it,” said Crescent Elk cheerleading coach Valerie Galindo.
Galindo said this is the only cheerleading competition that the Cougars attend all season. After spending most of the season focused on cheering at Crescent Elk basketball games, Galindo said the Cougars have been focused solely on their routine for the past two to three weeks.
All that hard work seems to have paid off.
“It was really entertaining and the girls had fun, which shows through as well,” Galindo said. “They put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time in practice and it showed. They had a great routine, they all had fun, and they each added their own little personality into the moves that they were doing. This is my first year coaching, so these girls definitely made it one to remember. They were a great group of girls, and we will lose a lot of them next year when they go to high school, so we are really going to miss them. We are just really proud of them. They really managed to pull it together and perform a great routine that was entertaining to everybody. The crowd was so excited when they were done.”
Reach Michael Zogg at email@example.com .