Holiday hoop-la: What we learned from high school basketball tournament season

Clovis North sophomore Connor Amundsen is closely guarded by St. Joseph freshman Tounde Yessoufou during the Broncos’ 79-69 defeat to the Knights on December 20, 2021. (Photo: Gabe Camarillo / Clovis Roundup)

As the calendar turns to a new year, high school basketball has kicked into high gear with league play quickly approaching on Jan. 11. 

With a smattering of non-conferences games still to be played, the holiday tournament season revealed a lot about where the Tri-River Athletic Conference (TRAC) schools currently sit.

Clovis West boasts the top basketball team in the Central Section for boys and girls, according to MaxPreps. Clovis North is a favorite to land in the Open Division boys’ basketball bracket, and the Buchanan and Clovis East boys have gritty squads that can make noise in Division-I, if they land there. 

Remember, the new playoff system means that, until the regular season ends, nobody knows which division they will compete for a Section title in. Four teams go in Open Division, eight go in Division-I, and 16 fill out each division after that. For a rebuilding team like Clovis High, does that mean Division-II is in the cards? MaxPreps will decide that for every team.

And on the girls’ side, it appears Clovis West is the favorite to win their 10th (yes, 10th) straight Central Section championship. Buchanan has held up against a daunting schedule, even picking up a key non-conference win over San Joaquin Memorial, and Clovis High has adjusted to new head coach Cooper Steele. Yet outside of Clovis West, the hottest start to the season belongs to Clovis East and its 13-5 record. Head coach Garrette Mantle has led his team to the program’s most wins since the 2013-14 season – and TRAC play hasn’t even started yet.

That is just one of the highlights in a frenetic and fun first half of the basketball season.

Clovis West… still the best (so far)

When all-time leading scorer Cole Anderson departed in June on his way to UC Santa Barbara, the Clovis West boys’ basketball program faced one simple question – who was going to take the big shot late in games?

The answer: everyone.

The Golden Eagles made it clear in their wild 102-94 triple-overtime win over Clovis North that there was no de facto “best player on the team.” Star junior guard Issac Martinez has been named MVP at three tournaments – NorCal Tip-Off Classic, Nike Invitational, and Tarkanian Classic, all of which Clovis West won. 6-foot-8 forward Tyus Parrish-Tillman has the potential to be the best player on the floor with his scoring, rebounding, and shot-blocking ability.

Sophomore Jackson Young can get hot and hurt an opponent with his shooting, a weapon just as effective as fellow sophomore Marshel Sanders’ athleticism and defense. Don’t forget Sanders’ football teammate Tytus Khajavi or sophomore Zach Chauhan, two more players who get the dirty work done with defense and rebounding.

The list goes on, but the point is made – head coach Vance Walberg has assembled a deep team that returns as the favorite to win the TRAC for the fifth year in a row. If there is one team that can unseat the 17-1 Golden Eagles, though… 

Clovis North shows flashes of being the Section’s top team

It can be argued that Clovis North owns the most impressive win out of any Central Section basketball team this season. On Dec. 9 at the Clovis West Nike Invitational, Clovis North played high-energy, hustling basketball with its trio of star guards – sophomore Connor Amundsen, senior Niko Jones, and sophomore Jordan Espinoza – and it resulted in a 77-56 win over state-ranked No. 10 Modesto Christian.

Two nights later, the Broncos led state No. 9 Clovis West by 14 in the third quarter. It looked like Clovis North would not only win the tournament but assert themselves as the Section’s top squad. 

Fouls, clutch shots, and missed opportunities followed suit, and the 102-94 loss started a stretch where Clovis North went 3-6. The record might be misleading as Clovis North, like many high school teams, dealt with COVID-19-related concerns during that time. At 9-6, MaxPreps has them sitting outside the Open Division, but considering Clovis North has the second-toughest schedule in the entire Section, a strong showing in league will put them back in the Open.

If at full strength, Clovis North can give any of the Open Division teams fits. Besides the close loss at Clovis West, the Broncos led defending Open champ St. Joseph in the third quarter before falling away, 79-69. They are scheduled to face San Joaquin Memorial, another likely Open Division team.

Clovis West… still the best (part 2)

The Golden Eagles girls’ basketball program appears primed for a repeat title – or a ten-peat in this instance.

Clovis West tested its young squad against some of the nation’s top teams at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Sandra Meadows Classic in the Dallas-Fort Worth region of Texas. The results were promising – a runner-up finish in the TOC John Anderson division, and a 6th place finish out of 32 teams at the Meadows. 

Clovis West is 13-3 with its losses coming to the top team in Arkansas (Conway), a top 5 team in California (Cathedral Catholic), and a top 15 team in Texas (Plano).

The results show Clovis West is hanging with some of the best in the nation and getting better as the season goes on. With league play and two less-difficult non-league games ahead of them, running the table is not out of the question. Etoyah Montgomery and Michaela Young were named to the all-tournament team in Phoenix, while sophomore Athena Tomlinson energizes the offense from the point guard position.

TRAC girls’ basketball looking deep all-around

San Joaquin Memorial entered the season as one of the closest challengers to Clovis West’s quest for ten straight Central Section championships, just based on its talent alone.

Yet on Dec. 9, Buchanan pulled out the win over SJM, 51-46, a big victory not just for themselves but the league. As a matter of fact, the TRAC has scored a lot of victories in the girls’ basketball world.

Clovis East, winners of the Gold Crown Tip-Off Holiday Tournament in San Diego, is 13-5 and on a seven-game winning streak. Central is 14-2 with wins over TRAC foes Buchanan and Clovis East. Clovis High is 8-6 and always a threat with junior sharpshooter Devin Miller as well as senior captain Erin Tatum

Five of the six teams in the league are above .500, portending close games as January goes into February. 

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.