As Sierra Canyon stood in the tunnel, waiting for its turn to enter the JQH Arena floor, dozens of children stood in the stands and leaned over the fence as they called out the players’ names.
It’s nothing new to the Trailblazers – they’ve been the main attraction at every tournament they play in. At some tournaments, fans cheer them on. At others, such as the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions, they are cheered by thousands who have no affiliation with the team.
All the kids wanted were autographs and selfies as they glimpse their heroes before entering court.
“It’s crazy because I was one of those kids at one point (hung over the rafters),” said sophomore Isaiah Elohim. “And now I’m here. It’s surreal.’
Sierra Canyon (California) advanced to the Championship game of the Tournament of Champions with an 81-49 win over Whitney Young (Chicago) on Friday night at the JQH Arena.
A roster that included sons of NBA legends, four- and five-star recruits, and multiple high school athletes with hundreds of thousands of followers and blue check marks on Instagram took it upon themselves to put on a show in front of thousands in attendance.
“This prepares us for the next level of college and so on,” said Elohim, a top 10 sophomore recruit. “They came here to see us, so we did what we wanted to do today.”
Sierra Canyon’s popularity has led to TV shows and appearances in TMZ articles. It has also resulted in overcrowded gyms and arenas as it is an event wherever the team shows up.
So why does the program keep accepting invitations to the Tournament of Champions, in southwest Missouri, where it can go wherever it wants?
“Our guys who have been with Sierra Canyon for four years, I always want them to experience Bass Pro,” said head coach Andre Chevalier. “I think the tournament is run so well. It’s organized and of a high standard. The support you give… the community loves us every day, whether it’s a stop at a shop or gas station.
“There’s a level of dedication here to excellence and the opportunity to play in front of 13,000 people prepares them for the next level and we want to do everything we can to prepare them for that next level.”
Amari Bailey, the No. 3 senior in the country signed to play at UCLA, looked like he was ready to play at the next level with what he showed in the match.
In his second game back from an injury that put him out for a few months, Bailey scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He hit a couple of threes and had some nice finishes on the edge, be it dunks or acrobatic layups.
“It’s like riding a bike,” Bailey said. “You play more and more and you burn the rust off. Everything comes together and we just play well as a team.”
In addition to earning a trip to the championship by forcing Whitney Young to 24 turnovers while Ramel Lloyd Jr. Also contributing 14 points and six rebounds, Sierra Canyon’s highlight came Friday morning with a trip to Wonders of Wildlife at Bass Pro.
Bailey had multiple Instagram story posts of the aquarium in amazement at the size of some of the fish. He stepped into the bubbles to see the fish from below and his coach laughed at how much he enjoyed it.
“I lay on the floor watching the fish,” Bailey said. “I didn’t think the fish were that big. I thought maybe it was the glass. It was great.”
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist for the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He is also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio on weekdays from 4-6pm