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OPINION: Big-time hoops in Hometown, USA
GIBT a first-class affair
There's a sign on the north wall of Gridley High's Farmer's Hall that reads "Gridley — the small town that loves company!"
That's why the No. 8 team in the country is playing basketball in Butte County this weekend.
Salesian, the three-time defending Gridley Invitational Basketball Tournament champion, is currently ranked eighth in the country by MaxPreps and No. 2 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
The Pride could have had an all-expenses paid trip to a tournament in Las Vegas, but the Richmond-based program prefers the atmosphere of Gridley, choosing to play in the GIBT for the eighth time.
Former Gridley High teacher and coach John Valentino established this tournament in 1953 and his vision has become one of the most prestigious tournaments in California as Thursday night marked the beginning of the 59th installment of the GIBT.
Four of the eight teams competing in this
year's GIBT are ranked in Cal-Hi Sports' Top 35 state rankings, including Gridley's opponent on Thursday night, No. 18 Newark Memorial.
Per recent tradition, the Bulldogs were trounced 61-30 by the Cougars, yet the outcome was a mere sidenote in a tournament that means much more to the community than basketball.
It's a first-class event put on by a bevy of volunteers who have turned the GIBT into a spectacle.
The GIBT has it all: Host families providing lodging in their homes, volunteers serving delicious food in a hospitality room, students making signs to adorn the gym, ticket-takers, stat keepers, a scoreboard operator, an announcer, the Gridley High band playing LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" and the list goes on.
Today, there will be a team breakfast followed by a rally at school with a slam dunk contest.
These athletes, who have spent most of their lives in an urban metropolis like the Bay Area or Sacramento, come to Gridley and experience a little slice of Americana.
It's Hometown, USA and that's why these juggernaut programs keep coming back.
Tony Amundsen is head coach at Fresno powerhouse Bullard, the defending Central Section champion. This is the Knights' first appearance at the GIBT.
After hearing about this tournament from his brother Tim (head coach of 2009 participant Clovis East), Amundsen jumped on the opportunity when his team was asked to participate.
"(Tim) talked about what a first-class tournament this is and how great the competition is and how well everything is run," Amundsen said. "When I got the phone call I jumped all over it. I've been extremely impressed with the organization of this tournament and how friendly everyone is."
The tournament field this year includes Amundsen's Knights, Sacramento High (ranked No. 27 by Cal-Hi Sports), Newark Memorial, Salesian, Dublin, Freedom and defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion Antelope.
Not only were local fans in attendance, but a contingent of scouts from several Division I NCAA programs, including USC, California, UC Davis, Santa Clara, San Francisco, UC Irvine and San Jose State. Even a coach from TCU made the trip from Fort Worth, Texas.
With more than 20 potential D-I prospects playing in games this weekend, Farmer's Hall became the hotbed for prep basketball.
Gridley (4-2) saw four of those athletes up close in Joey Frenchwood, Damien Banford, JoJo Zamora and 6-foot-9 big man Matthew Thomas.
Most of those kids didn't need to play much after Newark Memorial jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter.
The Cougars are the defending North Coast Section Division II champion and fell one game shy of the state championship last season.
Gridley coach Nathan Link wasn't too concerned with the final score. He knows his team will only get better from this tournament.
Last year, the Bulldogs played in the Northern Section D-IV title game and made it to the state tourney.
Gridley hasn't won a game at the GIBT since 2001, but considering the competition, the Bulldogs were happy to score 30 points.
"If we can handle pressure against a team like this, we're going to be ready for later in the year," Link said. "We'll use this as a growing experience so we can improve.
"It's fun for the kids to see that next level."