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Oregon’s top girls basketball teams gather in Portland for ‘fun three days’ as Holiday Classic tips off

“It’s just really great competition. ... It’s really good to have a tournament like this around here.”

By Bob Lundeberg 

PORTLAND — It’s a special season for high school girls basketball in Oregon, and many of the state’s top players will be battling each other over the next three days in different gyms across Portland. 

The entire Oregon Class 6A top 10 and California powers La Jolla County Day and Sierra Canyon are among the 42 schools participating in this year’s Holiday Classic. The three-day event began Wednesday with five varsity brackets featuring games at Franklin, Grant, Lincoln and McDaniel.

The Holiday Classic, which started as an eight-team tournament in 2017, was canceled in 2020 and severely impacted a season ago by inclement weather and the Omicron surge.

“We don’t have a snowstorm and we don’t have a bunch of teams dealing with COVID, so we’re thrilled,” PIL assistant district athletic director and tournament organizer Jeff Peeler said. “Everyone made it here and Southwest Airlines didn’t affect us. We’re happy.”

Added Jesuit coach Jason Lowery: “Nothing but kudos to Jeff Peeler and the PIL for putting on something like this to showcase all the great girls we have in our state, along with bringing in some of the nation’s best.”

In the first game of the Diamond Bracket, Jesuit went 9 of 22 from three-point range and played smothering defense in a 62-38 victory over Sheldon. Oregon-bound senior Sofia Bell had 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists to lead the Crusaders (6-0), who took over the No. 1 ranking from Clackamas in the most recent 6A coaches poll.

“It’s early in the season, so we just have to stay focused on getting better for when it really matters,” Bell said.

Avery Edwards made three early three-pointers as Jesuit stormed to a 25-12 first-quarter lead. The Crusaders kept the pressure up at both ends and entered halftime up 42-25.

Edwards and Emma Sixta scored 12 points apiece for Jesuit. Beaux Bruegman paced the Irish (5-4), who were coming off a 2-2 showing at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas, with 13 points and eight rebounds. 

“I thought the girls played a pretty complete game,” Lowery said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Sheldon. I think Brian (Brancato) has one of the better programs in the state, so anytime we get to play them, I know it’s going to be a battle.”

This year’s Holiday Classic is almost functioning as a 6A state tournament preview.

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Jesuit and No. 9 Sheldon could very well meet again at Chiles Center in March. The Diamond Bracket final could feature a matchup between the Crusaders and Clackamas, arguably the state’s two best teams.

“I think this tournament gives teams a chance to see where they are and see where everyone else is moving forward into league play,” Bell said. “It’s just really great competition. Yesterday at the banquet they said it’s the biggest tournament on the West Coast. There are a ton of ranked players here, and obviously there are some super-talented teams both in and out of the state. It’s really good to have a tournament like this around here.”

Brancato said playing opponents such as Jesuit early in the season helps prepare the team for battles down the road.

“It’s just great,” the coach added. “Getting to see some other 6A schools in a state tournament environment where the competition is always good is a really great thing for us.”

Unlike some tournaments, the Holiday Classic also has brackets for junior varsity and JV2 teams. Peeler said the non-varsity aspect has helped the event grow over the years.

“Also, with Portland Public Schools rebuilding the venues, we keep adding nicer gyms, so we keep expanding the fields,” Peeler said. “JV and JV2 are sort of our niche, so everybody gets to participate. We’re trying to keep it an elite tournament while also maintaining as much inclusivity as we can so that everybody gets to be a part of it.”

The tournament has also grown because of the talent boom within the state of Oregon.

Nine of the 10 players who made first- or- second-team 6A all-state last season are back. That list doesn’t include Bell, the top-ranked senior in Oregon, and Clackamas’ Rhyan Mogel, a Portland signee who missed most of last season because of injury.

Bell, South Medford’s Donovyn Hunter (Oregon State) and Barlow’s Kennedie Shuler (Oregon State) will be playing in the Pac-12 next year.

“It’s super cool to see,” Bell said. “Especially in my class, with how many players are going on to play in college. There’s just a lot of talent in the state.”

Added Lowery: “The 2023 class is the best class I’ve seen throughout the state since I’ve been around. It’s a good group of coaches and a good group of programs right now. It’s fun.”

With teams such as La Jolla Country Day and Sierra Canyon facing some of Oregon’s best, the talent level at the Holiday Classic has never been higher. There should be plenty of fireworks in each bracket.

“Hopefully it’s a fun three days,” Peeler said.