Webster Groves' Demetrius Robinson (33, center) heads to the basket as Chris Robinson (33, left) and Tyler Anderson (40, right) of Lee's Summit North look to block in the first half of the 12th annual Webster Classic championship game between Lee's Summit North and Webster Groves Saturday, December 10, 2011, at Webster Groves High School. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford elunsford@post-dispatch.com

Erik M. Lunsford

Vianney coach Kevin Walsh wouldn’t know what to do with himself the day after Christmas if it weren’t for the Meramec Holiday Festival Tournament. Now in its 34th year, Meramec, as it is known, is the best boys’ basketball tournament of the winter. Nowhere else do you find the depth of competition or electric atmosphere. “That’s the best tournament in town; there’s none better,” Walsh says. “The coaches you get to match wits with, the teams you get to play against. You want to play at Meramec at Christmas time.”

The tournament, which is held on the St. Louis Community College at Meramec campus in Kirkwood, runs Monday, Dec. 26, through Friday, Dec. 30. The field is 16 teams deep and brings out the very best large-school programs St. Louis has to offer.

“I love Meramec,” McCluer coach and former Saint Louis University standout and graduate Erwin Claggett says. “The competition is so good, and you get to play against styles that you don’t normally see.”

McCluer, in its fourth tour through the tournament, is this year’s top seed. The Comets opened the season with a five game win streak that saw them knock the socks off of both CBC and Chaminade by a combined 74 points to win the season-opening Pattonville Tournament the first week of December.

Claggett remembers being particularly pumped up that his team received the opportunity to join the tournament field. The waiting list to join Meramec is longer than a Black Friday line—with good reason.

The atmosphere at Meramec is second to none. Because the tournament takes place the week between Christmas and New Year’s, plenty of hoop heads have extra time to watch ball games. Family, friends and alumni are home for the holidays or on holiday break from college. “The competition, the crowds, the officiating and the tradition of it are great,” Webster Groves coach Jay Blossom says. “I can’t think of anywhere else I’d be but at Meramec. It’s just what you do at Christmas.”

It was once said by a prominent local coach that winning Meramec was harder than winning the state title. There’s a lot of truth in that. Webster, which is the No. 3 seed this year, won the Class 5 state title in 2008. It lost in the Meramec title game that same season.

Meramec has been a good place for the Statesmen in their recent history. They’ve won the tournament twice, most recently in 2010. Blossom says that because of the grueling schedule (you play every day for three straight days) and the loaded field it takes a pretty special team to walk away with that big trophy. “That’s a huge deal. Aside from our state title, those two Meramec titles are as big as anything we’ve done,” Blossom says.

Walsh’s Vianney team, which is seeded No. 2 this year, put itself on the map last season when it came out of the blue to knock off both McCluer and Webster Groves to reach the semifinals. Those are two of the more significant victories in this class of Golden Griffins’ short history. “I think it was important for our guys,” Walsh says. “It proved all the hard work they were putting in was worth it.”

This year they won’t come out of the blue. Instead, the roles have reversed as Vianney is among those teams pegged as one of the best in the field. Now teams have their sights set on that gigantic target on the Golden Griffins’ back. “This year, they’re going to be gunning for us,” Walsh says. “We tell our kids all the time, it’s the premier tournament in town.” It’s a St. Louis holiday tradition unlike any other.