By Kyle Daubs

With the reigning champion appearing to be in a rebuild, the easy answer was to defer to Teutopolis as the favorite. 

Due to COVID, there was no Effingham-Teutopolis Christmas Tournament in 2020, so Lincoln Way-East remains the defending champion. However, the team enters the tournament 2-8, so naturally, the finger was pointed to the Wooden Shoes as the early favorite to win it all. After all, the Wooden Shoes are the winningest team in Christmas Classic history, having won the tournament title four times – in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2018. 

However, despite an 8-2 record, head coach Chet Reeder said instead this could be the year that the tournament is the most wide open. 

“We have started in the right direction,” said Reeder. “Offensively, we have to get more consistency throughout four quarters. The tournament field is great. Anyone could win the tournament.”

T-Town returns a bulk of experience from a team that went 15-4 last year in guards Max Niebrugge and Brendan Niebrugge, 6-foot-3 forward Kayden Althoff, and 6-foot-5 center Caleb Siemer, who is averaging 12.0 points per game and 7.5 rebounds. Brendan Niebrugge has been the early scoring leader for T-Town, averaging 15.5 points per game, while Max is adding 9.0 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.0 steals. 

With 2019 runner-up Chicago Corliss out of the tournament, Oak Lawn could contend as well. Oak Lawn finished third in 2019 and brings a 7-1 record and potentially the tournament’s best overall big man in 6-foot-5 senior center Davion Lawrence, who is averaging 13.7 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting an impressive 54% from the field. 

“He is a very good and willing passer out of the post, which makes our team more difficult to guard,” said coach Jason Rhodes, via “We’re very proud of the development he has made already this year and look forward to his continued improvement this season.”

Along with Mitchell, the team brings 6-foot-3 Johnny McGowan, who has already committed to the University of Dubuque. McGowan was on the team that helped defeat Champaign Centennial in double overtime to clinch third place two years ago. 

The Chargers are 4-5 this season, 1-1 in the Big 12 Conference, but bring a talented guard in 6-foot-2 senior Trae Warren, who is averaging 17.2 points per game. Jack Young adds 16.0 points and 7.6 rebounds and stands at 6-foot-5. 

“Our team has been inconsistent in our play through the first nine games,” said coach Tim Lavin. “Hopefully, we can find some consistent play at the tournament. Not really sure who the tournament favorite is. There are a bunch of good teams and there should be some really good basketball for the fans.”

Adding to the height will be Horizon Southwest’s Isaiah Earnest, who ranks third in the state in blocks with 2.7. Combined with 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds, the 6-foot-6 junior center also averaged a double-double last year. Sophomore guard Kaivon Payton averages 14.0 points and 6.0 assists, so look out for this star tandem. 

Head coach Romel Bryant has transformed the program into a contender. The program began in 2015-2016, went winless for four years, and then finished 12-0 in his second season, which included a conference championship. 

Among other success stories, look out for Knoxville, Newton, Charleston, and Mattoon. Knoxville is a late addition after Champaign St. Thomas More dropped out due to COVID. Knoxville is 9-1 on the season and brings a high-volume scorer in David Hise, averaging 25.0 points, as well as 16.0 points from Braden Downs. 

Newton brings a 9-2 record with three starters averaging double-figures, while Charleston will look to get revenge against the Eagles in the first round. Newton defeated Charleston 56-40 last week. The Trojans bring an 8-3 record and are hoping for consistency these next three days. 

“The season has been going well and we have beat some solid teams,” said coach Cody Drone. “Our defense is leading us and if our offense continues to improve, we will look to be a factor in this year’s tournament. I want to see us have improved execution on the offensive end. We need to find ways to consistently find shots and hit open looks.”

Mattoon’s first opponent will be Knoxville. Due to COVID issues, the Green Wave haven’t played a game since Dec. 14. Before their 53-33 win over Shelbyville, MHS coach Ryan Ghere said struggled offensively. 

“We have struggled with our shooting a couple of games,” Ghere. “ I think it’s just a funk because we have shot well in other games.  We will get through it as the season goes.”

Mattoon has its own big man in 6-8 center Sam Bradbury, who has played well during his senior season.

Rounding the last few teams with winning records. Rockford Lutheran North brings a 7-5 record, 2-0 in the Big Northern Conference, and their leading player is 5-foot-10 senior guard David Moore, who averaged 13.5 points per game last year. The team also features two senior guards in Brian Brown and Brian O’Laughlin. 

Dixon brings a 7-3 record and a talented guard in senior Jake Gaither. Last year, Gaither averaged 20.0 points and 9.0 rebounds as a 6-foot-2 guard. Combined with senior Riley Abel, who averaged 10.0 points, the team brings a deadly backcourt duo. 

Finally, Effingham St. Anthony brings a 7-5 record, which includes a 4-0 mark in the National Trails Conference. The team returns just one player with varsity experience in 6-foot-4 forward Craig Croy, who averaged 12.0 points and 4.0 rebounds. 

“We have been very inconsistent between injuries and illness we have struggled to find consistency, but hopefully over the Christmas break we can find more consistency in the tournament,” said coach Cody Rincker. 

Four teams enter the tournament with losing records, while Pleasant Plains’ record is unknown. As mentioned, Lincoln Way-East is the defending champion but brings a 2-8 record. Rich Kolimas, who enters his 21st year coaching and owns 272 wins, brings a young team with size. Juniors Tylon Tolliver and George Bellavue top 6-foot-6, while Kyle Olagbegi is 6-foot-5. 

Chicago Brooks enters with a 3-6 record. Their uptempo offense will be led by Tim Taiwo, while the team is coached by former Illinois standout George Montgomery. Belvidere is 2-8 on the season and winless in the Northern Illinois Big 10 Conference. Point guard Jason Dearn was recently named to the Strombom Thanksgiving All-Tournament Team. Effingham closes out the tournament pool with a 2-8 record, 0-4 in the Apollo. The team is led by junior guard Garrett Wolfe. 

State Rankings

The 16-team field includes six teams that are receiving state recognition through the AP Poll or MaxPreps rankings. These are the following teams and their rankings. 

  • In Class 1A, Effingham St. Anthony was ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll. 
  • In Class 1A, Champaign St. Thomas More was ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll. Had the Sabres been able to participate, it would have brought the field to seven state-ranked teams. 
  • In Class 2A, Teutopolis was ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll and is ranked No. 12 on MaxPreps. 
  • In Class 2A, Newton is ranked No. 15 on MaxPreps. 
  • In Class 2A, Rockford Lutheran was ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll. 
  • In Class 2A, Knoxville is ranked No. 20 on MaxPreps. 
  • In Class 3A, Charleston is ranked No. 23 on MaxPreps. 

10 Players to Watch

  • Caleb Siemer (Teutopolis) – The 6-foot-5 center is averaging 12.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. He is the anchor of a defense that nearly helped T-Town defeat Class 2A No. 6 ranked Breese Central in the St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament championship. 
  • Brendan Niebrugge (Teutopolis) – The leading scorer is averaging 15.5 points per game, who owned a three-point shooting percentage at 52% last season. 
  • Davion Lawrence (Oak Lawn) – The big man already owns a buzzer-beater this season and could very well be the strongest player in the tournament. 
  • Sam Bradbury (Mattoon) – The 6-foot-8 center could battle against Lawrence. If both Mattoon and Oak Lawn win, this could be the best matchup in the paint all tournament. 
  • Daniel Hise (Knoxville) – Mattoon will have their hands full. According to the states, Hise owns the best points-per-game average entering the tournament. 
  • Johnny McGowan (Oak Lawn) – McGowan is a committed college athlete, who will attend NCAA Division III’s University of Dubuque. 
  • Isaiah Earnest (Horizon SW) – There are not a lot of centers that average 2.7 blocks, as well as a double-double. This will be a hard player to stop by anybody. 
  • Zach Powell (Pleasant Plains) – Their record is unknown, but Powell is averaging 15.5 points and 8.0 rebounds for a team that finished fifth two years ago. 
  • Mason & Evan Schafer (Newton) – Mason is averaging 14.0 points, while Evan is averaging 12.0 points. The Eagles could be a dark horse team in this tournament. 
  • Jake Gaither (Dixon) – When is the last time you remembered a 6-foot-2 guard nearly averaging a double-double in points and rebounds?

SCHEDULE (Location in Parentheses)

Tuesday, Dec. 28

Game 1: Pleasant Plains vs. Lincoln-Way East – 3:00 (T-Town)

Game 2: Mattoon vs Knoxville – 3:00 (Effingham)

Game 3: Champaign Centennial vs. St. Anthony – 4:30 (T-Town)

Game 4: Oak Lawn vs. Horizon Southwest – 4:30 (Effingham)

Game 5: Newton vs. Charleston – 6:00 (T-Town)

Game 6: Chicago Brooks vs. Belvidere – 6:00 (Effingham)

Game 7: Lutheran North vs. Teutopolis – 7:30 (T-Town)

Game 8: Dixon vs. Effingham – 7:30 (Effingham)

Wednesday, Dec. 29

Game 9: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 3 – 9:00 (T-Town)

Game 10: Loser of Game 2 vs. Loser of Game 4 – 9:00 (Effingham)

Game 11: Loser of Game 5 vs. Loser of Game 7 – 10:30 (T-Town)

Game 12: Loser of Game 6 vs. Loser of Game 8 – 10:30 (Effingham)

Game 13: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 3 – 12:00 (T-Town)

Game 14: Winner of Game 2 vs. Winner of Game 4 – 12:00 (Effingham)

Game 15: Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 7 – 1:30 (T-Town)

Game 16: Winner of Game 6 vs. Winner of Game 8 – 1:30 (Effingham)

Game 17: Winner of Game 9 vs. Winner of Game 11 – 4:30 (T-Town)

Game 18: Winner of Game 10 vs. Winner of Game 12 – 4:30 (Effingham)

Game 19: Loser of Game 9 vs. Loser of Game 11 – 4:30 (Effingham)

Game 20: Loser of Game 13 vs. Loser of Game 15 – 6:00 (T-Town)

Game 21: Loser of Game 10 vs. Loser of Game 12 – 6:00 (Effingham)

Game 22: Loser of Game 14 vs. Loser of Game 16 – 6:00 (Effingham)

Game 23: Winner of Game 13 vs. Winner of Game 15 – 7:30 (T-Town)

Game 24: Winner of Game 14 vs. Winner of Game 16 – 7:30 (Effingham)

Thursday, Dec. 30

Game 25: Loser of Game 19 vs. Loser of Game 21 – 10:00 (Effingham) 15th/16th Place

Game 26: Winner of Game 19 vs. Winner of Game 21 – 10:00 (Effingham) 13th/14th Place

Game 27: Loser of Game 17 vs. Loser of Game 18 – 11:30 (Effingham) 11th/12th Place

Game 28: Loser of Game 20 vs. Loser of Game 22 – 1:00 (Effingham) 7th/8th Place

Game 29: Winner of Game 20 vs. Winner of Game 22 – 3:00 (Effingham) 5th/6th Place

Game 30: Winner of Game 17 vs. Winner of Game 18 – 4:30 (Effingham) Consolation Championship

Game 31: Loser of Game 23 vs. Loser of Game 24 – 6:00 (Effingham) 3rd/4th Place

Game 32: Winner of Game 23 vs. Winner of Game 24 – 7:30 (Effingham) Championship