If you attend only one area prep holiday tournament the one to watch may be the Aitkin Quarterbacks Club boys' basketball tournament.
The two-day event features one of the most surprising teams of the young season, one of the favorites in Section 7, Class 2A and one of the favorites in Section 6, Class 1A.
The surprise team this season is the Aitkin Gobblers, which will play Blackduck in the opening round 7:45 p.m. Thursday.
Sporting a 3-2 overall record, this was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the red and black. But the Gobblers are looking to avenge an 81-71 loss in last year's championship game to Pillager.
"I thought we would do all right," said Aitkin head coach Greg Hills. "We lost a lot of perimeter players and ballhandlers. We didn't have a lot of experience in those areas coming back.
"I felt our kids coming back were good, but it was going to be a matter of time before they got used to handling varsity pressure. That was my biggest concern, and their play has been a real surprise for us so far."
Aitkin senior Thomas Just might be the best center in the area. In the season opener, Just led Aitkin past Chisholm 53-52. He knocked in the game-winning free throws and finished with a game-high 19 points.
Just followed those games with 25 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Hinckley-Finlayson and 25 points and 16 rebounds in a victory over East Central.
"Since his sophomore year he's been real coachable," Hills said. "Everything we've asked him to do he's just done that. He's got the real fundamental parts of basketball for low post players down.
"This year as a senior he's got those skills refined and now it's just a matter of reacting to the defense."
Just will take on Luke Schramm, Shane Blowers and Jeremy Wiczek of Pequot Lakes or Pillager's' Luke Kavanaugh and Mark Gaalswyk. The latter five will square off in the second game 6 p.m. Thursday.
The trio of towers have helped the Patriots to a 5-0 start.
Schramm has led the group. The junior pumped in 26 points against Crosby-Ironton. Wiczek and Blowers have started out in supporting roles, but teams shouldn't take them lightly.
With both Aitkin and Pequot in Section 7, this could be a preview of something bigger down the road.
Last week, Pillager suffered an overtime loss to Cass Lake-Bena at Cass Lake, but will look to defend its tournament crown.
Leading the way for Pillager has been guard Lee Roberts, but two players whom the Huskies needed to step up have. Kavanaugh and Gaalswyk have done their share in helping Pillager to a 4-1 start.
The 6-foot-5 Kavanaugh is averaging 11.5 points. He poured in 17 in a 75-51 victory over Onamia. Gaalswyk had 14 in the loss to Cass Lake.
"We've gone to a 1-2 punch," said Pillager coach Jim Bentson. "We have two to their one. They've been averaging 20 points a game between the two of them. We rotate each of them and we can go smaller with Ben Stoll being able to rotate in. They've both come a long way for us."
With all the post players playing positive roles it will be the players around them that could decide the outcome of this tournament.
Aitkin's duo of Brian Hills and Jacob Mehr have been steady and have given the Gobblers a triple threat when it comes to scoring.
"Jacob started for us last year," said Hills. "He's a real steady player and I'm not surprised by what he's done. He's fundamentally sound. He doesn't make many mistakes.
"Brian played on the varsity and he's a kid that physically matured late. He's a real good shooter. The real plus is he sees the floor very well and he's done a good job of running the point for us."
Pequot, meanwhile, is deep and Coach Rad Royer has confidence in every player. The main focus for opponents has been forward Matt Royer.
A starter since his freshman year, Matt Royer continues to light up the scoreboard and add to his already impressive career stats. The senior is averaging 14.8 points this winter.
Roberts is averaging 15 points and reached 1,000 for his career last week.
A good matchup will be Adam Brown on Matt Royer. Brown is one of the area's most athletic seniors. Don't be surprised if Stoll or Jason Eastman lead Pillager in scoring, however. Both have good size and not too many teams know about them.
"You let Royer get what he's going to get, but you stop everyone else," said Bentson. "Schramm is a good player. We saw him this summer and you have to stop him. But kids that normally score four points or less you have to hold them to just four points and no more.
"Royer is just too good of an athlete to stop."
The championship game is 7:45 p.m. Friday. The third-place game is 6 p.m.
This is the 18th year of the tournament. Hills believes this is one of the best collections of talent the tournament has ever had.
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