2022 Christmas Tournament Preview

2022 Christmas Tournament Preview

By Steve Raymond

The 9th annual Effingham-Teutopolis Christmas Classic will be another good one.

The 2022 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 will be making their second appearance in the holiday tournament.

Head coach Brian Koehne welcomed back seven varsity letter winners from last year’s squad that finished 6-27 overall. His top returners include three seniors – 5’10” guard David Guerrero; 6’ guard Ryan Jensen; and 6’6” forward Ryan Beaudet; and junior Jason Dean, a 6’ guard.

“Our experience has helped us become a tougher and more resilient team than last year,” Koehne said. “They compete all game long and have overcome several early deficits.”

After a couple tough losses in the Thanksgiving tournament, the Bucs bounced back with a hard-fought win over Richmond-Burton and started their conference season with a win against Rockford East, rallying from 15 points down in the second half.

Koehne said keys to this season will be his team’s defense and ball security.

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.

The Chargers are making their third trip to the tournament. After an opening round loss last year, Centennial won three straight games to win the consolation bracket.

Top players returning for Coach Lavin are Todd Makabu, a 6’ guard that averages 11 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists; and Kellen Davis, also a 6’ guard that scores 6 points a game, while pulling down 5 rebounds and handing out two assists.

The Chargers, who are part of the Big 12 Conference, finished 17-13 overall a year ago.


Charleston Trojans

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

Coach Andrew Alexander has two standout players returning from a squad that finished 18-11 a year ago. Senior William Applegate is a 6’2” shooting guard that averaged 12 points a game. Fellow senior Caleb Oakley is a 6’2” point guard that scored at a 9-point clip.

Coach Alexander said athletic guards, improved three-point shooting and consistent intensity on defense are the strengths of his team this year.

“Buying into the defensive end, having five guys working together to control the glass and playing with pace and poise will be the keys to our success,” the coach noted.

Charleston plays in the Apollo Conference.


Chicago Brooks Eagles

The Eagles will be making their seventh trip to the tournament and return as defending champions.

They went 4-0 last year, defeating Belvidere, Effingham and Oak Lawn to reach the championship. Brooks then posted a 53-46 win over Lincoln-Way East in the final game.

Once again, they will bring a quick and athletic team that likes to pressure the basketball and play at an up-tempo pace. The top returning player is Anthony Vaval, a 5’10” senior that averages 14 points and 5 rebounds a game. He was a member of last year’s all-tournament team

Chicago Brooks is coached by George Montgomery, the former Illinois standout and fan favorite. He said, “once we start jelling, we will be a pretty good team.”

The Eagles play in the Red South Conference.


Dixon Dukes

The Dukes will be competing in the tournament for the third straight year. They went 2-2 a year ago, falling to Champaign Centennial in the consolation final.

Head coach Chris Harmann welcomed several new faces to the varsity roster after finishing 16-11 overall.

“Everyone on the roster has the ability to contribute in some form on the court,” Harmann said. “Being consistently good shooters and rebounders are key for us this season.”

He believes the Dukes can compete for a Big Northern Conference title this year.

Two of his top returners are Wyatt Wetzell, a 5’11” guard, and Austin Hicks, a 6’1” guard.


Effingham Flaming Hearts

The Hearts have a different look this year after losing several players to graduation. They don’t have much size or varsity experience, but head coach Obie Farmer likes his team, who he says has “a real competitive spirit.”

Only one starter returns from a squad that finished 10-22 last year. There are three other players back that saw limited playing time.

“This is a very coachable group that understands the game,” said Farmer. “We can draw up a plan during a timeout and they can go out and execute it. Not every team can do that.

“We’re going to have to play quick because of our lack of size,” Farmer added. “We’re pretty athletic and we’ll have the ability to play more in transition this year. We’ve put a system in place to put us in position to score at all three levels, regardless of our size.”

Senior point guard Garrett Wolfe is the lone returning starter. He averaged 13 points and three rebounds a game a year ago. He was named to the all-tournament team.

The Hearts play in the Apollo Conference.


Effingham St. Anthony Bulldogs

The Bulldogs will be competing in the Christmas Classic for the fourth straight year and bring a team that needs to rely on its versatility, depth and attention to detail to be successful.

Head Coach Cody Rincker has two players returning with significant varsity experience – Griffin Sehy, a 6’3” senior guard; and Brock Fearday, a 6’2” sophomore guard, who is averaging 12.5 points per game so far this season.

“While we have good length and speed, we lack some size and strength that will make it difficult to matchup with other teams at times,” Rincker said. “We will need to use our length and speed to our advantage. Our defense must be a strength and help us create easy scoring opportunities.”

The Bulldogs, who finished 21-13 a year ago, are members of the National Trail Conference.


Highland Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are the lone new team in this year’s tournament field.

Head coach Deryl Cunningham says his team’s strengths are “the ability to guard defensively, run in transition, make three-point shots, get to the free throw line and get scoring from various players.”

They have three players already averaging in double figures – Jake Ottensmeier, a 6’ combo guard at 14.8 points per game; Cade Altadonna, a 6’ combo guard at 10.8 points; and Brenda Gelly, a 5’11” shooting guard at 10.2 points. Joe Jansen, a 6’3” junior forward, is another key player for Highland. Ottensmeier is being recruited by some DI and DII schools.

The Bulldogs, who were 14-17 a year ago, compete in the Mississippi Valley Conference.


Knoxville Blue Bullets

The Blue Bullets will be making their second trip to the tournament. They finished 2-2 in last year’s event.

Due to Knoxville’s successful playoff run to the quarterfinals in football, practice time was limited at the beginning. In fact, the Blue Bullets had just one week together as a full team before the basketball season opener. They still finished 2-2 in the Brimfield Thanksgiving Tournament.

Coach Erik Hughs says the keys to his team’s success will be taking care of the basketball, being able to defend and execution.

The Blue Bullets have three players that average in double figures – Braden Downs, a 6’2” forward at 17 points a game; Will Shreeves, a 6’1” guard at 12 points; and Beau Honeycutt, a 5’9” guard at 10 points.

Knoxville is part of the Lincoln Trail Conference. They finished 27-7 a year ago.


Lincoln-Way East Griffins

The Griffins will be making their sixth appearance in the Christmas Classic and have gone 7-1 over the past two tournaments. They won the tournament title in 2019, and after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, LWE was runner-up to Chicago Brooks last year.

Rich Kolimas, who is entering his 22nd year at Lincoln-Way East, will bring a talented and experienced team to the tournament.

He has a pair of strong and versatile wing players – George Bellevue and Kyle Olagbegi, both 6’6” senior forwards; two excellent shooting guards – seniors Kaiden Ross and Ty Toliver; and a strong inside player in 6’8” junior center Mac Hagemaster. Bellevue and Toliver were both named to the all-tournament team a year ago.

Coach Kolimas also likes his depth that includes 6’7” senior Brayden Lovell, sophomore Brenden Sanders and Freshman BJ Powell.

The Griffins compete in the Southwest Suburban Conference.


Lutheran North Crusaders

The Crusaders will be making their second appearance in the Christmas Classic.

After a 5-22 season a year ago, new head coach Gary Spiller’s squad started this year at 3-0.

The Crusaders will feature one of the top scorers in the St. Louis area. Dynamic junior guard Bryce Spiller (6’4”) is averaging 25 points per game.

“Senior leaders Davell Long, Jameer Cretter and Ike Prude are all off to a great start this season and all have received some increased interest from college coaches,” Spiller said. “Hard-working junior forward AJ Newton is our top rebounder.”

Long is a 6’5” forward that is averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds.

The Crusaders are part of the Metro League Conference.


Mattoon Green Wave

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

Frist-year coach Brandon Jones describes his team as being versatile and mentally tough.

“The team has adapted to the change in coaching styles, both offensive and defensive philosophies, and their new team identity,” Jones said. “Through their continued hard work, grit, work ethic and perseverance, the Green Wave are finding ways to get better every single day.”

Top returning players are Blaine Powers, a 5’10” point guard; Christian Larson, a 6’2” shooting guard; and Taeriek Grace, a 6’4” forward.

“The keys will be our ability and willingness to adapt, adjust and be coachable in order to be successful,” Jones noted. “Their versatility and ability to play from the outside or get to the rim when needed is definitely one of the team’s strengths.”

Mattoon is a member of the Apollo Conference.


Newton Eagles

The Eagles will be making their second appearance in the tournament. They defeated Charleston and Teutopolis last year, en route to a fourth-place finish.

Head Coach Troy Bierman has a strong, junior-led team that features three players averaging in double figures – 6’2” Caden Nichols at 16 points per game; 6’4” Dylan Gier at 14; and 6’1” Parker Wolf at 12.

“We have a group of guys who can play and compete at a high level to help the team be successful,” Bierman said. “We need to compete each and every possession to give us a chance at the end of the night.”

The Eagles, who were 19-10 last season, compete in the Little Illini Conference.


Oak Lawn Spartans

The Spartans have been familiar faces at the Christmas Classic. This will be their eighth appearance. They have gone 3-1 and finished in third place each of the last two tournaments.

After finishing 25-7 overall a year ago, Coach Jason Rhodes brings back a team with a mixture of experience and youth. 

Senior Ayham Salah, a 6’ shooting guard, was an all-conference selection a year ago and has averaged 17.5 points per game in the early going this season. Corey Lee, a 6’ point guard, also returns, and according to Rhodes, has improved tremendously.

Xavier Sulaiman transferred to Oak Lawn this season and has been a great addition. He averaged 24 points in the first four games and was named the Most Valuable Player for the Thanksgiving tournament. He scored 33 points in the championship game against Chicago Mt. Carmel.

Oak Lawn competes in the South Suburban Red Conference.


Pleasant Plains Cardinals

Former Teutopolis player, Kyle Weber, will bring his Pleasant Plains squad to the Christmas Classic for the fourth straight year.

The Cardinals will be bringing a very experienced team to this year’s tournament, with four returning starters. It would have been five, but Nick Sabo broke his leg during football season. Another key contributor, Michael Carter, is also out with a torn ACL.

But Coach Weber has three players returning that averaged double figures. Zach Powell, a 6’6” forward, averaged 17 points and nearly 8 rebounds a game. He was selected to the all-tournament team and was also a first-team pick to the Sangamo All-Conference team.

Evan Houser, a 6’3” guard, averaged 13 points, and Cooper Schallenberg, a 6’2” guard, scored at a 12.5 clip.

“Having a balanced attack and the ability to score from the interior, as well as the perimeter, are strengths of this team,” Weber said. “We take what the defense gives us. We can go inside, but also have guys who shoot the ball well from the perimeter. Defense and defensive rebounding will also be keys to our team’s success.”


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. Last year, they finished 3-1 and in fifth place.

Head Coach Chet Reeder will bring a team he describes as “well-rounded on both ends of the floor.” He has three returning starters from a squad that finished 26-8 and reached the Class 2A super sectional.

Caleb Siemer, a 6’6” center, averages a double-double – 14 points and 10 rebounds. He was named to the all-tournament team last year. Brendan Niebrugge, a 6’1” point guard, averages 10 points, and James Niebrugge, a 6’3” forward, averages 9 points and 7 rebounds.

“Rebounding is one of our main strengths, as well as the ability to share the basketball,” Reeder said. “Our team is at its best when we limit teams to one contested shot and then get out in transition. We are still figuring out our team chemistry and what it takes to win on the defensive side of the ball.”