2021 Christmas Classic Preview

2021 Christmas Classic Preview

The 8th annual Effingham-Teutopolis Christmas Classic will be another good one.

The 2021 field will feature 16 quality basketball teams and some outstanding individual players that should provide plenty of offensive fireworks, vital defensive stops, and three days of non-stop competitive action.

Following is a brief look at the teams that will be competing in this year’s tournament.


Belvidere Bucs

The Bucs are one of five schools that will be making their first appearance in the holiday tournament.

Head coach Brian Koehne will bring in a young team with two sophomores in the starting lineup. One of those sophomores – 5’10” point guard Jason Dean – was recently named to the Strombom Thanksgiving All-Tournament team.

Other players to watch for Belvidere are 6’2” senior forward Byron West and 6’6” junior forward Ryan Beaudet. West returns after missing all of last year due to injury. He averaged 11 points a game as a sophomore. In the Thanksgiving tournament, he averaged 7 points and 12 rebounds.

Koehne said this will be an important year for his young players to gain valuable experience and move the program forward.

The Bucs are part of the NIC-10 Conference.


Champaign Centennial Chargers

Head Coach Tim Lavin says solid team defense and the ability to share the ball to create good open shots will be a key for his squad this season.

He welcomed back Trae Warren, a 6’2” guard that averaged 12.5 points and 3 rebounds per game a year ago, plus Jack Young, a 6’5” forward that averaged 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds.

The Chargers, who play in the Big 12 Conference, will be making their second appearance in the tournament. They went 2-2 and finished fourth in 2019, dropping a 69-64 double-overtime decision in the third-place contest.


Champaign St. Thomas More Sabers

The Sabers are making their inaugural appearance in the Christmas Classic.

Head Coach Brandon Martin will bring an experienced group, returning nine seniors from a squad that went 8-4 a year ago.

“Having that many seniors is an asset, as well as presenting a very balanced scoring attack,” Martin said. “We have some pieces to be a very good team. The more we work together, the more it will directly correlate to growing as a team so we can be playing our best basketball in February. We look forward to a very competitive Christmas Tournament.”

Players to watch for St. Thomas More include Patrick Quarnstrom, a 6’2” guard; Dawson Magrini, a 5’10” guard; and Justen Green, a 6’ guard.

The Sabers are part of the Illini Prairie Conference.


Charleston Trojans

The Trojans have been part of the tournament since its inception and will be making their eighth appearance.

Head coach Cody Drone returns three players that averaged in double figures a year ago. Jaksen Braun, a 6’5” senior forward, nearly averaged a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 8 rebounds a game. Grady Smitley, a 6’1” senior guard, averaged 12 points and 3 assists; while 6’2” junior guard William Applegate scored at a 15-point clip.

Coach Drone said he has plenty of shooters and scoring options, plus his team has athleticism and likes playing in transition. The key to the season, however, will be defending consistently for four quarters and not letting up on the defensive end.

“We need to learn to play together on both sides of the floor,” the coach said.

Charleston plays in the Apollo Conference.


Chicago Brooks Eagles

The Eagles will be making their sixth trip to the tournament.

Once again, they will bring a quick and athletic team that likes to pressure the basketball and play at an up-tempo. The top returning player is Tim Taiwo.

Chicago Brooks is coached by George Montgomery, the former Illinois standout and fan favorite. He said the Eagles “play a team game, meaning we play together well, both offensively and defensively.”

The Eagles play in the Red South Conference.


Dixon Dukes

The Dukes could have one of the top scorers in this year’s tournament field.

Jake Gaither, a 6’2” senior guard, averaged 20 points per game a year ago. He also pulled down 9 rebounds a game. Teammate and fellow senior Riley Abell help form a solid backcourt for Dixon. The 6’1” guard averaged 10 points.

“We have the ability to play at different speeds and score the ball,” head coach Chris Harmann said. “Winning the turnover margin is important for us to succeed. And defensively, we must compete on each possession.”

The Dukes, who are making their second appearance in the tournament, compete in the Big Northern Conference.


Effingham Flaming Hearts

The Hearts have a different look this year. After being an up-tempo team that looked for and took the first shot available the past two seasons, this year’s squad is much more deliberate and patient on the offensive end.

“If we play our tempo, we’re a pretty good team. If we play at our opponent’s tempo, we’re not,” said head coach Obie Farmer.

Effingham is a guard-oriented team that has the ability to shoot well from three-point range. Returning players are senior guard Dalton Fox, 6’6” senior forward Brayden Pals, and junior guard Garrett Wolfe.

“We are a quick team that has the ability to shoot the ball or get to the basket,” Farmer said. “Our athleticism will allow us to take risks on defense and get out and run when the opportunity is there. We should be able to handle pressure with our improved ballhandling.”

The Hearts play in the Apollo Conference and are coming off a 17-1 spring season.


Effingham St. Anthony Bulldogs

The Bulldogs will be competing in the Christmas Classic for the third straight year and bring a team looking for identity, experience, and growth.

Head Coach Cody Rincker has just one player returning with any varsity experience – Craig Croy. The 6’4” senior forward averaged 12 points and 4 rebounds.

“We have good length and skilled, versatile players,” Rincker said. “But we need to learn how to play at the speed and physicality of the varsity level. Overall, I think we will improve greatly as the year progresses and I’m looking forward to the process.”

The Bulldogs are members of the National Trail Conference.


Horizon Science Academy Huskies

The Huskies will be making their first appearance in the tournament.

Coach Romel Bryant took over a program that had never won a game before he arrived and turned it into conference champions the past two years. HSA was 12-0 and won the Chicago Blue Central Conference a year ago.

Isaiah Earnest, a 6’6” junior center, averaged a double-double last season. He scored 18 points and pulled down 12 rebounds a game. Sophomore Kaivon Payton also returns. The 5’10” point guard averaged 14 points and nearly 6 assists a game.

“The 1-2 punch of Isaiah and Kaivon are the keys to our success this year,” Bryant said. “Both are looking to prove they are among the best players in Class 1A.”


Lincoln-Way East Griffins

The Griffins will be making their fifth appearance in the Christmas Classic and will enter this year’s event as the defending champions. They swept through the 2019 tournament, winning all four games, including a 56-50 victory over Chicago Corliss in the championship contest.

Rich Kolimas, who is entering his 21st year at Lincoln-Way East, will bring a talented, but young team, with only two seniors returning from a year ago.

Returners include senior guards Tommy Cheney and Aidan Dauber, along with three juniors – guard Tylon Tolliver and forwards George Bellavue (6’6”) and Kyle Olagbegi (6’5”).

Kolimas said Bellavue can score from multiple spots on the floor and that his leaping ability makes him one of the top rebounders in the state; and that Tolliver can score in bunches. He also mentioned a newcomer – junior Jayden Cook. The coach describes him as an “explosive athlete.”

“As always, strong fundamentals and good chemistry will prove critical for us,” Kolimas said. “We hope to improve each game so that by the end of the season, we’re a formidable opponent.”

The Griffins compete in the Southwest Suburban Conference.


Lutheran North Crusaders

The Crusaders will be making their first appearance in the Christmas Classic, but for head coach Gerald Jones, this will be his third trip. He formerly coached at Northwest Academy.

Coach Jones has high expectations.

“We have a host of new players that can contribute at all five spots,” he said. “With some game experience, I think we could be very competitive by mid-season. We are very excited about the season and the development of our guys. There’s been a lot of growth and energy displayed in practice and I’m looking for the guys to transfer that to the games.”

David Moore, a 5’10” senior point guard, is the leading returning player for Lutheran North. He averaged 13.5 points a game a year ago. Other players to watch are senior guards Brian Brown and Brian O’Laughlin.

The Crusaders are part of the Metro League Conference.


Mattoon Green Wave

The Green Wave has participated in the Christmas Classic since its inception.

Head Coach Ryan Ghere has a good group of upperclassmen this year with a combination of size and shooting ability.

Sam Bradbury, a 6’8” center, and Jaylen Middleton, a 6’5” forward, present problems inside for Mattoon opponents. Both can score and defend. Bradbury averaged nearly 20 points a game in the season-opening St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament. Both Bradbury and Middleton were named to that all-tourney team.

Cooper Bergstrom also returns as an experienced point guard and team leader.

Mattoon is part of the Apollo Conference.


Newton Eagles

The Eagles will be another of the first-year participants in this year’s tournament field.

Head Coach Troy Bierman will bring an experienced team. He has three returning starters that all averaged double figures – Mason Schafer, a 6’1” forward, 14 points; Evan Schafer, a 6’1” guard, 12 points; and Ben Meinhart, a 5’9” guard, 11 points.

“The keys to our success will be creating the tempo we want and limiting turnovers,” Bierman said. “We have a senior led group to lean on when needed.”

The Eagles play in the Little Illini Conference.


Oak Lawn Spartans

The Spartans have been familiar faces at the Christmas Classic. This will be their seventh appearance. They finished 3-1 overall in 2019 and defeated Champaign Centennial 69-64 in double overtime in the third-place contest.

The top returning players for head coach Jason Rhodes are Johnny McGowan, Nicco Reyes, and Davion Lawrence. McGowan is a 6’3” guard that Rhodes describes as a “knock-down shooter.” He has already committed to the University of Dubuque. Reyes is a 5’10” guard with a knack for scoring and Lawrence is a 6’5” physical and agile forward/center capable of initiating the offense.

“Guard play and team depth should be our strengths this season,” Rhodes said. “We will look to play with good tempo, shoot the apple at will, and hope to steadily improve throughout the 21-22 campaign.”

The Spartans are part of the South Suburban Red Conference and went 11-5 a year ago.


Pleasant Plains Cardinals

Former Teutopolis player, Kyle Weber, will bring his Pleasant Plains squad to the Christmas Classic for the third straight year. Pleasant Plains went 3-1 and finished fifth in 2019.

The Cardinals will be bringing a very inexperienced team to this year’s tournament, having lost their top seven players to graduation from a team that finished 11-3. Weber has been starting four juniors and a freshman so far this season. Zach Powell has been the early team leader, averaging 15.5 points and 8 rebounds.

“We have multiple guys who can shoot the ball from the perimeter, but we have to improve on the defensive end of the floor,” Weber said. “If we improve defensively and take care of the basketball by limiting turnovers, we will be able to compete.”

The Cardinals play in the Sangamo Conference.


Teutopolis Wooden Shoes

The Wooden Shoes are the winningest team in the Christmas Classic, having won the championship four times – 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

Head Coach Chet Reeder will bring a team he describes as “extremely competitive, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”

The Wooden Shoes, who were 15-4 a year ago, are coming off a second-place finish in the season-opening St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament.

Reeder has four players with varsity experience returning – guards Max Niebrugge and Brendan Niebrugge; 6’3” forward Kayden Althoff; and 6’5” center Caleb Siemer. Brendan Niebrugge has been the early scoring leader for T-Town, averaging 15.5 points per game.

“We have length and athleticism, but we are still looking for an identity on the offensive side of the ball,” Reeder said. “I believe we can be very difficult to play against when we play the right way. We are continuing to get better offensively. We have a chance to be very good when we put it all together.”