For multiple reasons, this year’s George Long Holiday Hoops Tournament at Wakefield High School was probably the most unique in the 19-year history of the boys high-school basketball competition.
First and foremost, the host Wakefield Warriors team did not participate in the three-day event, because too many of its players and coaches had COVID. Wakefield had to pull out of the tourney just a few minutes prior to its scheduled opening game Dec. 27 against W.T. Woodson.
Second, the tournament produced probably the biggest Cinderella story in the history of the 3-0 Annandale Atoms, and there was an odd twist to that team’s performance – with a local angle.
Also, when Wakefield pulled out, the West Springfield Spartans were quickly added as a replacement team for the final two days.
Despite Wakefield not participating, Warriors’ head coach and tournament director Tony Bentley and his staff continued to run the event.
“We wanted to fight to keep the tournament going so the other seven teams could have the full experience of the three days, and we were able to do that,” Bentley said. “We thank West Springfield so much for stepping up and playing for those two days and Nate [Hailey, Wakefield director of student activities] for helping to keep this going.”
Bentley said it was weird not coaching his team in the tournament.
“I did everything else I usually do wearing different hats for this tournament – announcing, sweeping floors, filling water bottles, buying the concessions and so many things,” Bentley said. “That’s what George Long used to do at this tournament. The only thing this year was I didn’t coach our team.”
The late Long was a regular volunteer at the tournament and big supporter of Wakefield sports. When he died in 2010, the holiday tournament was named in his honor.
The champion Annandale team was coached for the three tournament games by assistant coach Drew Simpson, a 2015 Wakefield graduate. Annandale head coach Andrew Hypnar was not able to coach because he had COVID. Simpson, on the staff for two seasons, coached the team alone during the tourney.
Simpson played for Wakefield and Bentley as a substitute on the 2014-15 team that finished 24-2, won a district championship and was the winner of the George Long event that year. That makes Simpson the first person in the George Long tournament’s history to both play on and coach a championship team.
“Drew was a good athletic player for us,” Bentley said.
Considering the teams’ losing post-tournament records, Bentley figured Annandale and Wakefield entered the George Long tourney as maybe the seventh or eighth seeds. By going 3-0, Annandale improved to 5-3.
“Yes, it’s the biggest Cinderella story in history,” Bentley said.
Annandale defeated defending champion South County (6-3) in the first round, 69-54, topped Madison (8-3) in overtime, 70-64, in the semifinals, then routed W.T. Woodson (6-2), 73-55, in the final. Against Madison, Annandale trailed by 11 points at halftime.
The Atoms had never previously reached the finals of the tournament.
“They definitely beat three very good teams, because every team in this tournament was good,” Bentley said.
Said Simpson: “It’s an amazing experience and very exciting, because I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen. We played some good defense, shot well and played some really good basketball. I never thought I’d be running the team by myself. It’s crazy.”
Making the all-tournament team from Annandale were Most Valuable Player Maxwell Lanham, Andrew Nields and Leoule Yared.
Brady Lencz and Andre Pacheco made all-tournament for Woodson along with Centreville’s Doyle Brown, Madison’s Bo Kuhblank, South County’s Paul Anderson, and Roosevelt’s Jihad Simpson.
Madison finished third in the tournament, Centreville fourth, South County fifth, Roosevelt sixth, Washington-Liberty seventh and West Springfield eighth.
Madison topped Centreville, 68-59, in double overtime in the consolation game.
NOTE: In the tournament’s 19 seasons, some 60 different teams have participated, including some as far away as Madison, Miss., Lexington, Ky.; Ellicott City, Md.; Baltimore; and Hampton, Va.