Matt Schuckman column sig

By the end of three days of camping out at Vergil Fletcher Gym, watching basketball from dawn ’til dusk, drinking Prairie Farms chocolate milk and enjoying the company of colleagues who make you feel like you’ve come home for the holidays, everybody needs a break.

So you take a day to regroup, relax and rejuvenate.

A day later, you want to go back and do it all over again.

That’s the beauty of the Collinsville Prairie Farms Holiday Classic, a post-Christmas tradition which is the yearly pilgrimage for the Quincy High School boys basketball team. It’s basketball and bonding rolled into one epic trip, and this would have been the 37th annual event if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

For basketball junkies, it’s worth the trip.

Year in and year out, some of the state’s top teams and players show up in Collinsville. College coaches are spotted here, there and everywhere in pursuit of top talent, and the quality of competition and intrigue is as good as anywhere.

Want proof? Over the past 20 years, the championship game has been decided by three or fewer points six times and nine or fewer points 13 times. Four tournaments teams have gone on to win state championships and seven have won state trophies.

I consider myself fortunate to have seen those teams play.

I’m also one of many missing the camaraderie, nightly poker games in the hotel rooms and collective fun this week is known to produce.

Not only is basketball not being played, but the chance to make memories is being lost.

Monday morning on social media, the tournament directors asked for fans to share their favorite memories from previous tournaments. Two tournament runs by the Blue Devils came to mind — the first in 2004 and the other in 2006.

Quincy opened the 2004 event with back-to-back 10-point victories against Decatur MacArthur and Belleville East, setting up a semifinal showdown with second-seeded Belleville Althoff for the third straight year.

The Crusaders won the first two meetings behind stellar performances from Kevin Lisch, but Quincy’s Jeremy Osborne engineered a 10-0 run to start the fourth quarter that gave the Blue Devils a 48-42 victory and created an historic championship against Collinsville.

The title tilt went to overtime before Alex Dow scored with 8.2 seconds remaining to give the Kahoks a one-point lead. The Blue Devils’ Jason Kvitle had a chance to win the game with a runner down the lane, but his shot missed the mark and Nic Frericks’ tip rolled off the iron as Collinsville won 47-46.

It is one of seven times the Blue Devils and Kahoks — two of the state’s three winningest programs of all-time — have met in the tournament. Quincy holds a 5-2 edge with four games decided by four points or less.

In 2006, the Blue Devils and Kahoks ended up on opposite sides of the bracket with Quincy suffering a 62-51 loss to Belleville East in the opener and Collinsville beating Chatham Glenwood 47-44. The Kahoks wound up going 2-2 and finishing fourth, while the Blue Devils rattled off three straight victories to win the consolation championship.

The momentum never died. That run generated a 14-game win streak that propelled Quincy to a Class AA regional championship, a 23-6 record and the reminder anything is possible once you get on a roll.

There have been countless other highlights in my 20-plus years covering this event, and the next 20 years promise to deliver countless more.

This year’s break in the action gave us the chance to reflect on what makes this event unique and yearn for its return. As we’ve learned over time, walking into Vergil Fletcher Gym always makes you feel like you’ve come home for the holidays.

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