Even Don Thomson has to admit he didn't think his tournament would get to be like this.
As the Brandon Sun Spartan Invitational gets set to kick off Year 7 of its run today as one of Manitoba's most successful high school basketball tournaments, the head coach of the Neelin Spartans says he didn't envision that it would earn the status it has today.
"You know what, to be honest, not really," said Thomson, who is the chief organizer of the 32-team event that will welcome teams from Manitoba, Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. "At the time when we discussed merging the Neelin (tournament) and the Brandon Sun, at no point did I think it would be as popular as it is. ... But, you know, a lot of people like to get (their teams) out of town and get the team-building thing going right away."
The BSSI is the largest tournament of its kind in Western Canada and also one of the largest in the country, providing teams five games in three days and making Brandon the epicentre for hoops in Manitoba for the weekend.
"They really love being a part of it and getting a chance to play two games a day and get five games early in the year," Thomson said. "... There is a lot of new faces, but to be honest, I think that spreads the word of mouth and the popularity by other coaches who have gone back to Regina or Thunder Bay and now it's something that people don't wanna miss."
The defending Victoria Inn Division champion Dakota Lancers return to the tournament, but do so without their MVP from a year ago, swingman Philip Labongo, who is now a University of Calgary Dino. And in the Tri-Star Screen Printing Division, there will be a new champion as the Shaftesbury Titans are not back to defend their crown. Thomson has moved his Spartans into that second tier believing that his young group is better suited for a chance to use this tournament to grow and mature.
"Our biggest thing right now is that we're as young as we've been in the last 10 years," Thomson said. "With five Grade 10s and two Grade 11s playing, our biggest battle is whoever we play, can we compete? As long as we're competing well, then we're going to have our success playing at whatever level it is. Those are the small goals you shoot for."
The Kelvin Clippers and Oak Park Raiders will likely go in as favourites in the Victoria Inn Division. The Clippers, returning for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 2004, have arguably the province's most coveted recruit in 6-foot-6 forward Michael Thorne-Finch as well as a host of complementary pieces, while the two-time champion Raiders also have depth and one of Manitoba's most dynamic guards in Grade 10 point Junior Sesay.
The Spartans get the tournament started with a 2:10 p.m. contest on their home floor tomorrow against the Killarney Raiders. In all there will be 80 games played, including 48 in Thursday and Friday's round robin, setting up Saturday's playoffs.