On February 14 and 15, youth ages 12 years and under from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and other Arizona communities participated in the Valentine’s Classic Basketball Tournament, a double-elimination tournament.
The young players and their parents filled the Salt River Pi-Copa Gym for the two-day tournament, during which four teams in the boys division and five in the girls division battled it out. This tournament has been taking place for about 32 years and has been a great way for youth from tribal communities to compete against one another.
In the boys division, Gila River dominated, with a three-game winning streak that would make them this year’s champions. Gila River went up against the San Carlos Mustangs in the championship game. The two teams had played against each other in the first game of the tournament, and the Mustangs were beat out of the winning bracket by Gila River. The Mustangs fought their way to the championship game by beating Lil Outlawz and Fort McDowell.
In the championship game, the Mustangs and Gila River were in a back-and-forth battle, each scoring one after another. The Mustangs lagged behind on the scoreboard, but in the second quarter they fought to catch up to Gila River. They still came up short, ending the game 32-41. Gila River took first place and the Mustangs finished second in the boys division.
“Our wins were pretty good because we played good teams,” said Gila River coach Johnny Crawford. “We won by one point in the first game against San Carlos. This game was pretty close, but they gave us a better game in that first game.”
Crawford credits his team’s wins throughout the tournament to sticking together as a team. He explained that many of the players are related, and feeling like a big family helps the boys work together.
In the girls division, the Lehi Mercury dominated the court with four wins and no losses, playing against Fort McDowell, the Renegades and the Beeliners. The Mercury beat the Beeliners in the third game in the winner’s bracket, bumping the Beeliners to the losing bracket, but the Beeliners beat the Renegades, bringing them back for a shot at the championship title. The Beeliners and Lehi Mercury met again in the championship game. It was a fast-paced game, but the Beeliners struggled to get points on the board and lost to the Mercury, 5-23.
“We won every single game in this tournament. It’s been really fun to see them develop and grow together,” said Kim Zoni about the Mercury girls, who came from all over Arizona, including Mesa, Salt River, the Hopi Nation and the Navajo Nation.
Players on the top three teams in each division received trophies and Valentine’s Classic tournament sweaters.