Tommy Johnson has been through this rodeo before.
The Socastee basketball coach knows sometimes you simply have to hold on as long as you can.
On Wednesday, the 32nd Annual Beach Ball Classic will tip off at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Once again, some of the schools in the 16-team field have basketball fans and college recruiters preparing for what will stand out as one of the best of its kind nationally.
There’s 2011 semifinalists Bishop Gorman (Nev.) – the 2009 Beach Ball champs – and Whitney Young (Ill.), a team with the top-ranked player in the class of 2014. There are six teams that played for or won their respective state titles last season. And there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 college scholarship offers on the table for players in town this week.
“You know going in that there’s a reason there’s only one team from South Carolina that’s ever won this,” Johnson said, referencing Eau Claire’s 1986 championship. “In 31 years, only one team from the state to win it says about the level of teams the Beach Ball is able to get in here. … That is a credit to [tournament founders] Dan D’Antoni and John Rhodes. Through their connections, from Day 1, they were able to attract the best teams. Kenny Anderson and that crowd and Jason Kidd and that crowd. Great teams saw that other great teams were coming down here.”
That’s a trend that has continued.
The 2012 version of the event has locals gauging the field as possibly its best in the last decade. Several of the teams have the national recognition, be it via longtime success or a star-studded roster. Virginia-based Bishop O’Connell has won five state titles in the last decade; Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor is going to have his pick of college choices and is already being thought of as a potential future No. 1 overall NBA pick.
Bishop Gorman won the 2012 Nevada 4A state title while led by UCLA and top recruit Shabazz Muhammad. While Muhammad has moved on, the Gaels and coach Grant Rice are again a team to watch.
Gorman plays a true national schedule, and the competition level this week certainly won’t scare it away from a chance at a second Beach Ball title in four years. The Gaels have been in this position before.
That’s not the case for everyone, specifically St. James.
The Sharks join Beach Ball regulars Socastee and Myrtle Beach, and coach Monty Carr isn’t taking the inclusion lightly.
“It’s a sign of respect that the committee believes we’re talented enough to actually be a Beach Ball Classic team,” Carr said. “It also shows the community that the Beach Ball committee will welcome local talent, as well as outside talent playing in this event. Third, for my guys who have never experienced it at a player, they’ve got to understand it’s a vision of the next level. If they want to have hopes and dreams and think of going to the next level, they get out there and play with talented teams [that have] all five starters are going to college on scholarship.”
Rhodes said during the summer when this year’s field was released that a third area team playing in the event each year could be commonplace. He and the rest of the committee will look at the schools on a case-by-case basis.
St. James is one of the favorites to win the Region VII-AAA crown and maybe even make a run at a state title. This week, though, is going to be something different altogether.
Johnson discovered that very early on. The Braves coach is making his 12th appearance in the Beach Ball between his stops at Wilson, West Florence and Socastee.
He’s had teams he thought could win a couple games only to see them get blown out by better competition. Johnson warned his players last week that even with their best three games of the season could result in an 0-3 showing at Beach Ball.
It’s with that knowledge that he offered some sage advice for his fellow coach just a few miles down S.C. 707.
“Do not be surprised by the talent both in the individual players and as teams,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of times people come in for the first time and get a little overwhelmed by the caliber of teams that they’re playing.
“You’ve got to have every piece of the puzzle to win. If you have a weakness, it’s going to be found, and it’s going to be exploited.”
Contact IAN GUERIN at firstname.lastname@example.org.