Even though the level of Colorado high school basketball improves each season, the state's top teams continue to hit the road to see what the national stage has to offer.
Understandably, the opportunity to match up against top-flight talent, oftentimes in front of college coaches, while increasing exposure for the program and providing players and parents with a memorable experience has great appeal.
A host of boys and girls teams already have, or will, participate in out-of-state tournaments again this season. Next week is a particularly popular travel week, as state schools adjourn for the annual holiday break.
The Denver East (Colo.)
boys team will get a jump on that schedule, leaving Wednesday night for the Great Western Shootout
on Orem, Utah, which is recognized as one of the top early-season events in the country.
The Angels, ranked No. 1 in the recent coaches poll by The Denver Post, have quite a week ahead. They begin play in Utah on Thursday afternoon, and after the GWS will head to the Foothill Holiday Classic
in Henderson, Nev., which opens Dec. 19. Denver East will play seven games in eight days.
"We will get a chance to see where we are pretty quick," Denver East coach Rudy Carey said. "The level of competition prepares us for down the road. It toughens our kids for later in the season, and we get some good playing experience."
That type of schedule would prove daunting for even the most experienced teams, but will be especially so for an Angels team that starts three sophomores and two seniors.
If that wasn't enough, Denver East opens the GWS against Lone Peak (Highland, Utah)
, which is ranked No. 22 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Boys Basketball rankings
presented by the Army National Guard.
Lone Peak is coming off a 24-1 season in which the Knights won the Utah big-school state title
. They also feature two BYU recruits in 6-foot-1 junior Nick Emery
and 6-4 sophomore T.J. Haws
. Emery scored 39 points in Lone Peak's opener to set a school record.
"They have two players who signed with BYU, so that says it all," Carey said about the Knights.
Denver East went 21-5 last season, losing in the state quarterfinals
. The Angels are 2-0 this season behind sensational sophomore Dominique Collier
, who Carey said could be the best player he has ever coached at Denver East. Collier participated in international events last summer
"We have some good kids, too, but we are not experienced like (Lone Peak)," Carey said. "They are on their home turf, we've had only two games and we have a couple of kids nursing the flu. But no excuses – we will go out and compete."
The Angels seemingly always do at these events. Just three seasons ago they advanced to the championship of the Bishop Gorman Holiday Classic before losing to the host school 64-59. The perennial power Gaels won the Nevada state championship that season.
"We certainly have been able to hold our own for the most part, but this team is starting three sophs, so it's a little different type of team than we've taken out there before," Carey said.ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch, Colo.)
and Chaparral (Parker, Colo.)
also are headed to the Foothill Holiday Classic and are in the top bracket with Denver East. Lincoln (Denver)
will play in a separate division at the event. Fairview (Boulder, Colo.)
will be in Orlando, Fla., for three games, while three-time defending champion 5A Regis Jesuit (Aurora, Colo.)
and Cherry Creek (Greenwood Village, Colo.)
just returned from out-of-state tournaments. Regis went 3-1 and finished third in the Majerle Challenge in Phoenix last week, and Cherry Creek posted a 2-1 mark in a tournament in Las Vegas.
By far the most popular event for Colorado teams is the girls Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix. The tournament always has attracted Colorado's, and the nation's, best, and this season is no different. This year eight state teams, including several 5A powerhouses, will participate in the tournament that runs Dec. 19-22.
Defending 5A state champion Highlands Ranch (Colo.)
has been a fixture in the event for years and continually places well. The Falcons open against Vanden (Vallejo, Calif.).
"The competition is outstanding with teams from around the country all in one place," Highlands Ranch coach Caryn Jarocki said. "The opportunities for athletes to play at a high level in front of college coaches is also a benefit. Traveling with a team is a unique experience for the players and contributes to team cohesion."
There certainly is no arguing with the results. Feeding off those experiences, Highlands Ranch has won seven state titles in the past 12 years. The Falcons are a favorite this season, too, behind senior Michaela Neuhaus
. The University of Denver recruit is averaging 19.3 points a game.
The Nike TOC will be the second out-of-state tournament for the Falcons in three weeks. They competed in the La Jolla Country Day tournament in California to open the season. They went 2-2, and Jarocki acknowledged that two travel events in one year has proved demanding.
"The main challenge is the expense and fundraising to cover the costs. Some schools just get their parents to write a check for the cost. We do not," Jarocki said. "Of course, planning all the logistics is also a time-consuming challenge. The benefits far outweigh any of the challenges"
Also competing in the Nike TOC are Regis Jesuit (Aurora, Colo.)
, Monarch (Louisville, Colo.)
, ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch, Colo.)
, Cherry Creek (Greenwood Village, Colo.)
, Horizon (Thornton, Colo.)
, Mullen (Denver)
and Rock Canyon (Highlands Ranch, Colo.)
Like Highlands Ranch, this will be the second out-of-state tournament this season for Regis Jesuit. The Raiders finished 2-1 at the Beast of the East Showcase last week in Baltimore.