REGION — In 2004, Brad Leaf a rising coach in San Diego captivated local basketball fans as he led his powerful Steele Canyon team to the coveted National Division title of the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic.
No local team has won the prominent holiday basketball tournament’s top division since.
Eleven years later, a local team might have its best shot of claiming the crown of the prestigious tournament, now known as the Under Armour Holiday Classic: and once again, the name “Leaf” is a big reason why.
Foothills Christian, now coached by Leaf and led on the floor by his talented son, 6-foot-10 TJ Leaf, come into the tournament with a 5-1 record, and its only loss to a Chino Hills team that just this week defeated the nation’s No. 1 team. It defeated Cypress Lakes of Katy, Texas, on Dec. 18 in a nationally televised game that saw TJ, who has signed with UCLA, score 35 points.
Many pundits believe that it is the Knights’ tournament to lose.
“Foothills Christian is one of the strongest teams to come out of San Diego County in recent memory,” said Frank Burlison, one of the nation’s top prep basketball scouts. “When you have a player like TJ Leaf, who is a legitimate McDonald’s All American candidate, you have a good chance of making a deep run.”
Foothills Christian is not the only local team with dreams of hoisting the national division title. Four San Diego teams dot the 16-team bracket, including North County powers Torrey Pines and Army and Navy Academy.
St. Augustine, which made a run to the tournament finals in 2013, is the fourth team.
The Saints and Knights could face each other in the tournament’s second round if both win their opening round games. St. Augustine faces Bellevue (Wash.) and Foothills Christian faces Bishop O’Dowd from Northern California.
St. Augustine comes into the tournament undefeated after defeating Santa Margarita on Monday to capture the Orange County school’s holiday tournament. They are led by Yale signee Eric Monroe, a 6-foot-2 point guard.
Torrey Pines is spearheaded by senior shooting guard Jack Heller, who recently committed to New York University, and Jackson Strong, and has an intriguing junior prospect in 6-foot-9 center Jacob Gilliam.
Army Navy has been paced this season by senior forward Aziz Seck, who signed with Northern Arizona University, and a highly-touted junior forward Richard Polanco, who is originally from the Dominican Republican and played on his native country’s under-19 basketball team this summer.
For local basketball fans, the Under Armour Holiday Classic is an annual rite of passage, giving fans a chance to see future college — and NBA stars — before they play in front of much larger crowds.
Over the years, tournament-goers have seen NBA stars Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings, Michael Kidd-Gillchrist and Brandon Jenning before they became stars.
The five-division tournament is actually played at multiple sites. Torrey Pines High School plays host to the aforementioned National division and a new “Prep Division,” which includes six of the top basketball programs in the country that can’t participate in the National Division because of their unsanctioned status.
In addition the four local teams, the National Division includes eight teams from elsewhere in California — Corona Centennial, Archbishop Mitty, Compton, Fairfax, Bishop O’Dowd, El Cerrito, San Leandro and Diamond Ranch. The four other teams are Issaquah (Wash.), Bellevue (Wash.), Thomas Jefferson (NY) and Pebblebrook (Ga.).
Escondido will host the tournament’s second division, the American Division; La Costa Canyon will host the Senator’s Division, which is the third division; Santa Fe Christian will host the “Governor’s” Division and La Jolla Country Day will host the “Mayor’s” Division.
For more information about game times, tournament site addresses and hotels, visit the tournament website and theholidayclassic.org.