BLOOMFIELD - The 45th Annual Bloomfield Christmas Tournament will tip things off on Wednesday at Bloomfield High School with eight first round games.
The tournament will field the same teams, but the usual suspects fill the top spots once again.
Heading into the competition, area coaches overwhelmingly feel that Dexter is the team to beat again. But most agree that it won't be a cakewalk like it has been the last three years for the Bearcats.
"Until somebody knocks them off they're the favorite," said Kennett head coach Tim Turlington. "But I think any of the top four teams can win it and there are a bunch of teams that can give them a hard game if they're playing well."
Portageville head coach Jim Bidewell feels Dexter should be the favorite, but he thinks there are other teams that can just as easily win the tournament.
"I think everybody realizes that Dexter's the team to go after, but I think the parity is a little closer this year," said Bidewell. "Kennett's a fine ballclub and they had a good showing in the Sikeston Tournament. They're definitely a contender for the top spot. Twin Rivers has got all the tools to be able to do it too."
The following is a team-by-team breakdown of every Bloomfield Tournament participant.
The Bearcats return to try to defend the Bloomfield championship for the fourth straight year.
Dexter has won 22 straight games at Bloomfield High School, including the Christmas Tournament, the Stoddard County Conference Tournament and regular season games.
While Dexter did graduate two standouts in Brett Hale and Shannon Wright, they appear to have picked up where they left off from last year.
"That was a different team with Brett and Shannon and some other seniors that were awful good players," said Dexter head coach Eric Sitze. "This is a different team so it's going to be a whole new situation."
Leading this year's squad is 6-foot-7 senior Chris Carr, who averages 17 points and 13 rebounds per game. Senior guards Chad Gill and Matt Christian also reach double figures. Junior point guard Chris Hyten pumps in about 12 points per game.
"We've been blessed with some awful good players the last three or four years," said Sitze. "The kids have worked hard and played hard and we've been lucky. Just because we're the top seed doesn't mean we're going to win the tournament. We've got a tough side of the bracket to go through. We're just wanting to get to the finals, that's our goal. Hopefully if we get there then we can make something happen."
Last year Dexter became just the second team to ever win three consecutive championships. But no team has ever won the tournament four years in a row.
The Bearcats are schedule to play host team Bloomfield at 9:30 a.m.
The Indians enter with their highest seed since garnering the No. 1 slot in 1991.
Kennett is traditionally a strong team in the tournament, but they haven't won the event since 1981. They haven't reached the finals since '91.
Kennett is off to a solid start this year, taking third in the brutal Sikeston Invitational and defeating Portageville, which is seeded third in the Christmas Tournament. The Indians' only loss was to Poplar Bluff in overtime.
"We always love playing in Bloomfield," said Turlington. "It's a great atmosphere for basketball and it's great competition. The kids always look forward to it and so do I. Based on what's happened so far this year, Dexter would probably be the favorite. The question is who's going to play Dexter in the finals?"
Kennett has been led by senior forward Dustin Pritchett (6-3), who averages more than 20 points per game. Guard Tyree Goolsby (5-8) and forward Julius Taylor (6-2) also reach double figures for the Indians.
"We've been playing pretty good, everything's been going well for us," said Turlington. "We want to be in that championship as much as anybody else."
Kennett will play No. 15 East Prairie at 11 a.m.
The Bulldogs have become a regular in the tournament finals over the years, reaching the championship six times since 1990. But they haven't won the Christmas Tournament since 1992.
Bidewell hopes that will change this year.
"I feel like our chances are as good as anybody's," said Bidewell. "We normally don't play that well during this tournament, but we have quite a few seniors and maybe we'll fare a little better. But I can't complain for what we've done the last few years."
Portageville is led by senior forward Eric Booker (6-3), who averages 13 points and eight rebounds per game. Senior J.T. Williams (6-3) also reaches double figures at 11 points per game. "The Bloomfield Tournament is kind of a mini state tournament for this area," said Bidewell. "I think the atmosphere is always a good chance for your kids to get involved with that type of ballgame. With that in mind, we're always glad we're able to place."
The Royals possess more size in the tournament than any other team.
Twin Rivers can go with a front line of 6-7, 6-6 and 6-4, while having a 6-3 and 6-4 off the bench. But top teams of the past won the tournament with superior guard play.
Twin Rivers is led by shot-blocking specialist Steve Deken (6-7) and Scott Forest (6-4) in the paint. Seth McBroom and Robbie Moore are the top guards in the Royals' lineup.
Twin Rivers' only losses came to Dexter and Portageville in close ballgames. The Royals already clinched the Oran Invitational championship.
Twin Rivers has won the Bloomfield Christmas Tournament three times, but they haven't done it since 1994.
Twin Rivers will play South Pemiscot at 2 p.m.
The Mules are the highest seeded Class 1A team in the tournament.
Led by the versatile Marcus Johnson (6-2), Bernie will attempt to become the first 1A team to win the tournament since 1976 when Richland accomplished the feat. The Mules have a strong history in the Bloomfield Christmas Tournament. They've won the event twice (1958 and 1993) and they've reached the finals five other times -- the last time coming in 1996.
Bernie is also led by Austin Blevins (6-2) and guards Robert Johnson (5-11) and Waylon Owens (6-0) -- all seniors.
The Mules will play No. 12 Puxico at 4 p.m.
The disappointing Dons are trying to cope with life A.C. (after Crader).
For three years the 6-foot-11 Adam Crader clogged lanes for Doniphan, but his graduation left a hole in the paint that the Dons haven't been able to fill.
But Doniphan is still a formidable team, capable of making a run in the tournament.
Led by standout junior guard Danny Kellas (6-1), junior Shayne Talburt (6-2) and senior forward Brian Pulliam (6-2), the Dons have the ingredients to reach the finals.
Doniphan has reached the championship game four times in the past six years, but they've come away with first place just one time (1997).
Doniphan is scheduled to meet No. 11 Malden at 5:30 p.m.
The Redbirds appear to be on the same path that produced back-to-back Bloomfield titles in 1995 and 1996 and a state championship in '96 via Pembroke Hill's forfeiture.
The Redbirds are undefeated, having already dispatched of Doniphan this year, and could be a sleeper in this year's tournament.
East Carter possesses no player over 6-foot, and none shorter than 5-10. But it's a group that has played together since seventh grade.
"I've got a lot of kids that can, on the right night in the right circumstances, carry you," said East Carter head coach C.A. Counts in a preseason article. "They may carry you one night, the next night it's somebody else."
The Redbirds will play Van Buren at 7 p.m.
8. Richland (4-2)>/b>
The enigmatic Rebels haven't put it together yet this year. They rolled to the Oran Invitational title game before falling to Twin Rivers.
But they followed that up with a loss to Campbell before a lackluster effort against North Pemiscot.
But head coach Jim Lincoln is hoping those days are behind him.
"I felt we were fortunate to be the eight seed," said Lincoln. "We laid an egg at Campbell but it was good for our team. We feel we're one of the better 1A schools, at least in that group. We just want to play four nights. If you'd tell me right now that we could play four nights, I'd be very happy with that. Everybody wants to win it but realistically, we're hoping to get better and we want to use this tournament as a springboard to propel our season."
Richland was the last 1A team to win the tournament back in 1976, and they haven't reached the finals since 1977.
But this year's team is led by perhaps the top guard in the tournament in Sherome Cole (5-10), who averages well over 20 points per game.
The senior guard can score in a flash, as evidenced by his 22 points in the fourth quarter against North Pemiscot.
The Rebels also get good play out of seniors Travis Nelson (6-0) and Josh McMullen (5-11).
But Lincoln indicated he may have some lineup shifts when his team tips off with Hayti at 8:30 p.m.
"We're going to go to a smaller, younger more athletic team," said Lincoln. "We're looking at making some changes here at Christmas to hope to get better for the district tournament. If we played tonight we'd probably start a freshman and a sophomore. It's going to be a very challenging tournament, it's good competition and it's where we need to go to see where we're at at this point."
The Indians were supposed to be a contender this year for a 2A district crown but the unexpected transfer of standout Ortiz Banks has left a void in the lineup.
The Indians still haven't found anybody to step up and take the scoring load, but they are athletic with good size. Seniors Derek Moore (6-2) and Jeremy Peoples (6-2) are the top players while sophomore William Moore (6-3), an all-state wide receiver, is an excellent athlete.
Demarcus Stewart and Danny Mack are both long-range threats.
Hayti will play Richland at 8:30 p.m.
Seniors Ryan Freeze (6-2), Justin Gibbs (6-1) and Jeremy Chadwell (5-11) all return from last year's disappointing 5-13 team.
They've already surpassed that win total this season, granted not against a difficult schedule.
The Bulldogs, who already lost to East Carter, will get a rematch with the Redbirds in the first round of the Christmas Tournament at 7 p.m.
The Green Wave, which has fielded some of the top post players in the tournament's history, have just one player over 6-foot.
Last year's team was just 7-16, one of the worst records in recent memory, but the Green Wave are off to a 3-3 start this year and are looking to get back to respectability. Malden started last season 1-10, before playing .500 ball the rest of the way.
The Green Wave are led by James Farr (5-10, jr.), Colen Robinson (5-8, jr.) and 3-point marksman Reggie Benford (6-1, jr.).
Malden will open the tournament against Doniphan at 5:30 p.m.
The Indians have as much tradition as any team in the area, but most of it occurred before any current player was born. Puxico won the inaugural Bloomfield championship in 1957 and won in 1989.
The Indians return three starters from last year's 14-13 team. They are led by Cainan Jordan (6-4) and point guard Derek Binford, an all-region performer last year.
In addition to Jordan, the Indians have plenty of size with three players standing 6-3 and another at 6-4. They also have a 6-11 center in Jordan Jones, but he will be out until January while rehabilitating a knee injury.
Puxico will play Bernie in the first round at 4 p.m.
The days of Robert Farmer baling the Bulldogs out of trouble are over. The scoring machine graduated, taking his 20 points per game with him.
The Bulldogs return James Jones, Josh Kelley and Kyle Helfer from last year.
South Pemiscot's only Bloomfield championship occurred in 1982. They last reached the finals in 1986.
They are scheduled to meet Twin Rivers at 2 p.m.
The Bears have put together a solid start this season led by the 3-point shooting of Jarred Green (5-10).
But they will have the tall task of trying to upset tourney power Portageville in the first round.
Junior forward Jason West (6-2) and guard Brandon Haynes (5-10) will also see plenty of action for the Bears.
Greenville has never made it to the finals of the Bloomfield Tournament.
Tip off for the Bears' game will be at 12:30 p.m.
The Eagles lost their size from last year but they return plenty of guards.
East Prairie head coach Jason Irby has been wanting a strong showing in the Bloomfield Tournament for some time now. The Eagles have never won the tournament but they did finish second in 1985.
East Prairie is led by guards Chris Wheatley (5-10) and Matt Boyer (5-9). Both are excellent shooters and can handle the ball. But the Eagles lack a true post presence. Their tallest player is 6-2 Justin Poley.
East Prairie will play No. 2 Kennett at 11 a.m.
Hope isn't totally lost for the Wildcats. They've posted two wins this year over Kelly and Chaffee and they are under the leadership of a new coach in Travis Brown.
Bloomfield hasn't had a strong team for more than 10 years, but they have produced some tremendous players like two-time all-stater Jeremy Snider and Nathan Conner. And they've been ripe to pull upsets in the past.
Other than Dexter, Bloomfield is the only other team to win three consecutive championships when they did it from 1964-66. They haven't been back to the finals since.