‘A lot of good memories:’ Coaches, former players reminisce on rich history of Plano Christmas Classic

Keith Rieger never could have dreamed of what’s become of his creation.

Rieger came to Plano High School fresh out of college in the fall of 1962 for his first teaching job and to be head basketball coach. He also was the head football coach, track coach, athletic director – and yes, even taught five classes.

The next school year, when Rieger’s Reapers weren’t invited back to a Christmas tournament in Naperville, they decided they’d try their own.

“For some reason, we were left out and decided we would try this,” Rieger said. “It was out of a necessity that we started it. I can’t believe how big it’s grown over the years.”

Rieger left Plano for Clifton Central the next school year and, ironically, hasn’t been back to the tournament he started.

What he’s left behind is quite a legacy.

Out of humble beginnings, an eight-team event in 1963, the Plano Christmas Classic has grown into one of the oldest, most beloved and best tournaments of its kind. The 58th edition, unfortunately, will have to wait until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s left mainstays like Ottawa coach Mark Cooper, the tournament MVP in 1986 while starring for Mendota and a three-time champion as coach, in uncharted waters this week.

“It’s kind of a gut punch,” Cooper said. “I’ve been going to the Plano tournament since 1985. You develop a lot of relationships, you see the same fans, the same people working the scorer’s table, you become friends with people associated with the tournament. It’s been a part of what I’ve done for decades.”

The same can be said for so many basketball fans from Plano to Newark, to even fans from towns that don’t have teams in the field who make Plano High School a post-Christmas destination for four days every December. With a hospitality room in the balcony overlooking the gym, ideal for catching the action while eating, the event is a favorite of media types.

Plano AD Jim Schmidt, retiring at the end of next school year, has attended the Classic since he was a kid and run it since 2002.

“When I think of the tournament, I see faces that I only see once a year, I see people that come to the tournament year in and year out,” Schmidt said. “When I think of the tournament I see good basketball, packed gyms, good hospitality, just good entertainment and a fun time.”

The first event, held at the old Plano High School, featured eight teams: Lockport West (now Romeoville), Sandwich, Wauconda, Plainfield, Oak Lawn, Lisle, Plano and Lemont. Wauconda beat Oak Lawn in overtime in the first championship game. Plano’s Norm Hage, who would become the program’s all-time leading scorer, was the first MVP.

“For a second-year teacher and coach, it was kind of a scary undertaking,” said Rieger, who eventually became a principal and superintendent in Normal and is now retired and living in Florida. “I’m just out of college and starting a tournament, which needs more than teams showing up; you have to have officials. There was a lot of apprehension. Are we going to be able to do this? Are we going to lose money or whatever? We were in a bind. I don’t know how we got eight teams, but we did.”

Keeping it going, Kirkland Hiawatha won the second tournament in 1964, led by a three-sport star named Gene Lamont. Baseball fans might know him better as manager of the Chicago White Sox from 1992 to 1995.

He’s one of several former Classic MVPs with notable claims to fame. PJ Fleck, who led Kaneland to the 1998 title, starred on the Knights’ football team that won back-to-back undefeated state titles, was an All-American at NIU and is now head coach at Minnesota. Isaiah Roby, MVP in 2015 for runner-up Dixon, is in his second season with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Newark’s David Olson, who holds the scoring record with 134 points in a single tournament, led the state in scoring his senior year in 1987-88 with a 36-point average before going on to Eastern Illinois. Former Plano All-Stater Brad Korn is in his first season as head coach at Southeast Missouri State.

And then there are the many great teams. The 1987-88 Sandwich team that beat Newark in the final went on to go 30-1 and reached the supersectionals. Spring Valley Hall, led by All-Stater Shawn Jeppson, won the 1997 Classic title, and then took second in Class A for the second straight year. Bureau Valley, champion in 2000 and 2001, placed third in Class A both years.

Seneca won three straight titles from 2004-2006, its 2004 Classic champion going 33-1 and taking third in Class A and the 2005 team a 35-0 state champion.

“Probably our most loaded field was 1998. We got third in our own tournament and took fourth in the state,” Schmidt said. “Whoever won the Plano Christmas Classic always did really well in the state tournament.”

Rick Tollefson knows that all too well.

An all-tournament player for fourth-place Yorkville in 1977, coach at Newark since 2006, his 2010-11 team lost a 48-44 barnburner to Rockford Christian in the 2010 Classic final. It was the Norsemen’s only loss of the year en route to the Class 1A title, while Rockford Christian took third in Class 2A.

Newark’s program has made nine championship game appearances, a Classic record, with four titles, matching Seneca for most ever.

“It’s a great tradition, especially in the Newark community,” Tollefson said. “No matter how Newark does, you see our fans go to the tournament all week to watch good basketball. It’s a big thing in our community. Of course it’s always nice when Newark does well, but either way it’s a real neat tradition.”

The tournament, with the new high school built, expanded to 16 teams in 1977. Schmidt made it a guaranteed four games for teams when he took over in 2002. A sophomore tournament was added in 2010 in the auxiliary gym, and Schmidt got really crazy in 2011, going to a 24-team field, before dialing it back to 16 the next year.

“At that time, Plano was getting bigger and we were trying to get bigger schools,” Schmidt said. “We wanted to maintain that small school flavor but bring in schools our size.”

That’s the small-town, big-event atmosphere that Cooper loves going back decades, like when he led Mendota to the 1986 title over Marquette.

“It was an exciting time, back in the mid to later ’80s. Crowds were very supportive of their communities like Mendota, Marquette and Yorkville. There were massive follows and if you made it to the semifinals and finals you know the place would be sold out both nights,” Cooper said. “If you competed for the championship of the Plano tournament, you had a team capable of making it to the state tournament.”

Teams like Korn-led Plano, which lost to Sandwich in the 1998 Classic semifinals but beat the Indians in a playoff rematch on their way to state. Plano has made the finals six times, the last in 1980 when Schmidt was in eighth grade, but never won its event.

“We’re like the Chicago Cubs, we’ve never won our tournament,” joked Schmidt, a die-hard Sox fan.

For Schmidt’s money, the best tournament final was in 2015, when LaSalle-Peru beat Dixon and Roby in triple overtime, a game Schmidt had to watch on livestream a week after open-heart surgery.

“I was at the tournament a couple days, but I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Schmidt said. “Only tournament I missed in 20 years and probably the best game.”

Cooper and Tollefson are two of several coaches who have also played in the Classic. Jim Braddish played for Plano and coached Sandwich. Luke Engelhardt, now AD at Yorkville, was the MVP in 2002 when the Foxes lost to Bureau Valley in the final, one of five straight championship game appearances by Yorkville. The year before, in 2001, Bureau Valley beat Yorkville in the final and again in a supersectional at NIU.

In 2003, Engelhardt and Yorkville beat Hall in the final.

“A lot of good memories at Plano,” said Engelhardt, who had planned to bring Yorkville back this year before the pandemic washed it out. “I can remember going to those tournaments growing up, one of my neighbors was [1999 MVP] Robbie Bauman and he just lit it up. We wanted to carry the torch. A local school, big crowds, that’s what you want as a coach.”

That hasn’t changed over the years, even as the field has grown and bigger schools such as Ottawa, Dixon, Burlington Central and the most recent champion, Peoria Notre Dame, were added.

“The biggest thing that stands out is just respect for the tournament. It’s run the right way,” Cooper said. “There are so many good things associated with it. If you go there, you want to play well, and that’s something our teams at Ottawa always have taken pride in and the same when I was a player at Mendota. Going to Plano is one of the highlights of the year. I have no idea what I’m going to do this week. I’ve been coaching for 39 of the last 40 years. This is foreign territory to me.”

Plano Christmas Classic Year by year champs

1963 - Wauconda

1964 - Hiawatha

1965 - Newark

1966 - Hinckley-Big Rock

1967 - Mazon-Ver-Kins

1968 - Hinckley-Big Rock

1969 - Burlington Central

1970 - Montini

1971 - Shabbona

1972 - Oswego

1973 - Minooka

1974 - Marmion

1975 - Marmion

1976 - Minooka

1977 - Gardner-SW

1978 - Dwight

1979 - Shabbona

1980 - Dwight

1981 - Somonauk

1982 - Newark

1983 - Sandwich

1984 - Ottawa Marquette

1985 - Newark

1986 - Mendota

1987 - Sandwich

1988 - Kaneland

1989 - Mendota

1990 - Princeton

1991 - Yorkville

1992 - Newark

1993 - Ottawa Marquette

1994 - Kaneland

1995 - Mendota

1996 - Hinckley-Big Rock

1997 - Spring Valley Hall

1998 - Coal City

1999 - Byron

2000 - Bureau Valley

2001 - Bureau Valley

2002 - Coal City

2003 - Yorkville

2004 - Seneca

2005 - Seneca

2006 - Seneca

2007 - Spring Valley Hall

2008 - Seneca

2009 - Kaneland

2010 - Rockford Christian

2011 - Belvidere

2012 - Ottawa

2013 - Ottawa

2014 - Dixon

2015 - LaSalle-Peru

2016 - Ottawa

2017 - Burlington Central

2018 - Peoria Notre Dame

2019 - Peoria Notre Dame

Tournament records

Most points one game - 45 by Joe LaShonse, Mendota vs. Plano

Most points tournament - 134 by David Olson, Newark

Highest score by a champion - Oswego (1972), 96 points vs. Wilmington

Highest score by any team - Newark (1982), 117 points vs. Serena

Most championship appearances - Newark (9), Yorkville (8), Mendota (7), Plano (6), Seneca (5), Ottawa (4), Kaneland (4), Sandwich (4), Marquette (4), Hinckley-Big Rock (4)

Four-time winner: Newark (1965, 1982, 1985, 1992); Seneca (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008)

Three-time winner: Mendota (1986, 1989, 1995); Hinckley-Big Rock (1966, 1968, 1996); Kaneland (1988, 1994, 2009); Ottawa (2012, 2013, 2016)

Joshua Welge

I am the Sports Editor for Kendall County Newspapers, the Kane County Chronicle and Suburban Life Media, covering primarily sports in Kendall, Kane, DuPage and western Cook counties. I've been covering high school sports for 24 years. I also assist with our news coverage.