Snowball Classic preview: 60th edition of annual tournament illustrates just how far one of the province’s top tournaments has come
Each January a familiar sense of anticipation begins to circulate through gymnasiums across the Fraser Valley. Under the shadows of ceiling lights blinking at the crack of dawn and the heat of soles pressed against the baseline long after last period is over, scores of British Columbia’s top high school basketball players are preparing for one of the province’s most historic tournaments.
It is a feeling fuelled by memories of a particularly cramped gymnasium in a small city of no more than 125,000 people. Anyone who has stepped within such a gym over the course of a four-day period in mid-January can recall the rows of mismatched colours that line the bleachers.
Seating is scarce. Sit where you can.
Upon entry it is tough to make out one individual from the next. Some wear black and yellow in support of Burnaby South. Others wear red and yellow as ambassadors of the W.J. Mouat Hawks, others wear green as a salute to the Walnut Grove Gators. The list goes on.
Makeshift posters pepper the outskirts of where the walls meet the ceiling, each with the emblem or badge of a school competing for supremacy.
Welcome to the Snowball Classic – 60 years in the making. Its home? Abbotsford Senior Secondary School.
More than just a narrative, the Snowball Classic is a tradition that has grown to occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of players, families and friends. What began as a tournament featuring an array of local teams competing for a trophy and post-holidays bragging rights has since blossomed into something much bigger – an event for the Lower Mainland region to rally around and a measuring stick for some of the top high school basketball players in western Canada.
“To us it has been a special event to galvanize support of the school and for people to come together both as teachers, students and communities,” said Prentice Lenz, head coach of the Abbotsford Panthers’ senior girls basketball team and an organizer of the tournament.
Lenz says the turning point for Snowball was 2008. Lenz began being involved with the tournament two years prior, and along with the tournament’s committee, recognized the opportunity to use the event as a platform. If the tournament could attract a broader spectrum of talent, particularly that hailing from south of the Canada-United States border, it would trigger more interest, attendance and would showcase the hotbed of basketball talent present in the Fraser Valley and B.C. – a bridge created by basketball.
Lenz and the tournament’s committee of teachers, coaches and volunteers went to work. An estimated 50 to 60 phone calls later, the Snowball Classic had its first American team commit – Williamson High School, from Mobile, AL.
“We were really fortunate that year when they came up. Our goal was to see if we could attract people back to the gym. Williamson had won a championship the year before, so people were excited to see what they would play like. A bunch of those kids had never been on planes before and they made the effort to come up,” Lenz recalled.
“They played Yale in the final that year and Yale had a great team and Williamson was a fantastic group. We had to find somebody who was interested in giving the kids an experience because to try to attract them to Canada for basketball is still a difficult thing.”
Williamson ended up winning the 2008 tournament and set the stage for a cross-cultural exchange that could be used to pitch future American teams interested in visiting Abbotsford and the Greater Vancouver area.
Attendance at the tournament has continued to grow in the 12 years since. Despite being hosted at Abbotsford Senior Secondary, the tournament offers a home court advantage for many schools in the Fraser Valley, whose student bodies come in waves in support of their teams.
For Lenz, it is hard not to draw comparisons to the intense playing environment that he was part of in the late 80s as a student and a guard for the senior boys basketball team at the Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI). MEI and Abbotsford Senior found themselves to be familiar adversaries and cross-town rivals. The friendly rivalry at the core of both schools’ basketball cultures stuck with Lenz and set the blueprint for what the Snowball Classic channels every January.
“It was one of those bigtime moments as a high school kid that you were able to be a part of,” Lenz recalled.
“There was a while there where the amount of people who came out to Snowball sort of dwindled, so it was fun to see that come back where kids could experience that sort of intensity and livelihood in front of a great fan base.”
With each passing year of the tournament, new memories are instilled in future basketball players who may one day come to race the sidelines of Abbotsford Senior – whether for the Panthers or otherwise. From spectator to player, there is no doubting the inspiring precedent set by a tournament that brings top-tier provincial and American basketball talent under one roof.
Just ask Marek Klassen. Klassen starred at the tournament as a member of the Yale Lions in 2009 and 2010 and returned to Abbotsford last summer as a member of the Fraser Valley Bandits professional basketball club.
But before Klassen took his own shot at the Snowball title, he was one of many onlookers wedged shoulder-to-shoulder along the walls of Abbotsford Senior. His brother, Caleb, helped lead the way for Yale in the mid-2000s.
“I was always super excited about it. We always played in the old gym. Just the memories of not being able to get a seat, it’s super hot – one of the only sort of iconic gyms to me in the Fraser Valley, for sure,” Klassen said.
“It’s one of the oldest tournaments in B.C., which is pretty cool, and it’s the focus on the high-level talent that draws the crowd and the scouts out. For me, my favourite experience was going back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.”
For those ready to rise to the occasion, the Snowball Classic is the perfect coming out party. Klassen won back-to-back MVP awards and led Yale to two straight tournament titles. Little did he know, his standout performance in 2010 would be all the evidence that then-assistant coach (now head coach) Mike Weir would need to make Klassen an NCAA Division I scholarship offer to New Mexico State University.
“That was where my first Division I offer came from – I’ve shared that story with a lot of people from Abbotsford just to say that in the end, Abbotsford is a small city, but there are tournaments that can showcase your level of skill and even take it to the next level,” Klassen said.
“The more times you get to put yourself against the top talent in your province, the more you’ll be able to find out the kind of player you are.”
Ask any player who has participated in the Snowball Classic what the atmosphere is like and the answer that you’re most likely to get is electric. From the thunderous pounding of feet on bleachers, to the vibrant colours smeared across cheeks, the tournament takes school spirit and shows how sport can bring out the best in a community.
This year’s tournament features no shortage of talent. Representing Abbotsford are the host Abbotsford Panthers, as well as the Yale Lions, MEI Eagles and Robert Bateman Timberwolves. Five of the top-10 AAAA senior boys basketball teams will take to Abbotsford Secondary, and Rolling Hills Preparatory School comes in as a potential favourite out of California, ranked 47th in the state and 232 in the U.S.
Adam Friesen, head coach University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Cascades men’s basketball team, understands exactly what is at stake for local ballers this week. A former Yale Lion and MVP of the Snowball Classic, Friesen has watched the event grow from a local tournament to a microcosm of some the best talent that the province has to offer.
“If you’re a young basketball player you grow up going to the tournament every chance you get. You watch these teams play against American competition and you start dreaming about yourself one day having a chance to play in this tournament on that stage,” Friesen said.
“It’s definitely something that I think kids get excited for when it comes to vying for that opportunity. “From my position, it’s an amazing chance to watch the best players in the province battle in a good environment so close to home.”