IHSA Traditions Series presented by IPPA: Pontiac Holiday Tournament

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IHSA Traditions Series presented by IPPA: Pontiac Holiday Tournament

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The Illinois Pork Producers Association (IPPA) is proud to present the IHSA Traditions Series throughout the 2022-23 school year. The IPPA represents Generations of Commitment to Illinoisans and is proud to highlight some of the most unique high school sports traditions that are passed down from generation to generation within IHSA school communities.

Each month during the 2022-23 school year, the IPPA Traditions Series will feature a storied school tradition and provide a unique perspective on the history and story behind it…

Pontiac Holiday Tournament
In many states, late December through early January signals a slowdown, if not a complete shutdown, of high school sports action to observe the holidays. However, that is not the case in Illinois, where holiday basketball tournaments are just as much a part of the holiday tradition as yule logs and figgy pudding. 

The December holiday hoopla that precedes America’s Original March Madness continues to thrive throughout Illinois and its roots can be traced back to the Central Illinois city of Pontiac. The Pontiac Holiday Tournament (PHT), which debuted in 1926, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. The PHT completed its 91st tourney last week, as the boys basketball tourney has been contested annually with the exception of a suspension during World War II and again in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The PHT has a history of attracting the state’s top “large school” teams, many of whom go on to hoist IHSA State Final trophies, and countless star players have played in the famed tourney through the years. In 1972, the PHT added the A.C. Williamson Award for the tourney’s top player based on both performance and sportsmanship. The honor, which recognizes legendary Pontiac coach Aubra “A.C.” Williamson, is unique in that it is selected by the tournament referees. A.C. Williamson Award winners include Quincy High School’s Keith, Bruce, & Dennis Douglas, Providence’s Walter Downing, West Aurora’s Kenny Battle, Manual’s Howard Nathan, Sergio McClain and Frank Williams, Joliet Township’s Roger Powell Jr., Lockport's Alando Tucker, and Simeon’s future NBA trio of Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, and Talen Horton-Tucker. See all the A.C. Williamson Award winners, All-Tourney Teams, and past champions here.

Simeon High School has returned to Chicago with the PHT crown 16 times, including again in 2022, which is more than any other school.

Pontiac Township Associate Athletic Director John Neisler provided further behind the scenes info on what makes the tradition of this marquee event so special…

Q: Who had the original idea for the PHT?
A: Don "Cash" Seaton - then a teacher and coach at Pontiac Township High School - started the tournament to provide players an opportunity to play/train during Christmas break and to give teams an opportunity to see play styles from different parts of the state. His story alone is pretty fantastic (Seaton's obituary from The Pantagraph; Oct 18, 1986).

Q: Who handles the tourney operations?
: The operations of the tournament are really a group effort of everyone at PTHS. The PTHS Cafeteria staff and student council manage the concession stand; the maintenance/custodial staff sets up the physical space; every administrator has responsibilities for all three days of the tournament; the technology staff works on the website, game stats, and the live stream; the Key Club sells programs and runs the coat check; the Law Enforcement classes assist with security and securing locker rooms; and many other students sign up to be ushers, ball boys, or other support needs. The tournament also relies on dedicated school or community members to run the clock, keep the official scorebook, and sell tickets.

There is a single Tournament Director who ultimately makes tournament decisions. The director relies on the Holiday Tournament Committee for advice. The Committee is a group of community members who provide the director with the community perspective and work to recruit tournament sponsors and donors. The director also regularly communicates with school administration and staff, as well as coaches and officials in the tournament for input on decisions.

Q: How does the Pontiac community support PHT?
: One of the more unique aspects of the tournament is the season ticket opportunity. All seats are assigned, and we have folks who have purchased the exact same seat at every tournament for many, many years. Tickets get passed down through generations of families. Fans who used to get tickets in their Christmas stockings now purchase those same seats for themselves and their kids. We have fans who saw the 1974 Pontiac Indians win the tournament (the only Pontiac championship in the history of the tournament) and will likely be sitting in the same seats for the 2022 nstallment.

Q: What else makes PHT unique?          
: 16 teams, 26 games, 3 days. It's three days of nothing but basketball with some of the most competitive teams in the state. Season tickets (every game) are only $45 in 2022, with session tickets (3 games) only $10. The tournament has a unique hospitality room. For just $120, fans get unlimited access to the hospitality room for the three days of the tournament. They'll bump elbows with coaches, officials, and media while enjoying a variety of food selections from Pontiac restaurants.


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