Columbia, GHS girls to play in loaded Thanksgiving Classic

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The girls high school basketball regular season gets underway on Monday with a bang.

If you like girls hoops then you don’t want to miss the Insider Exposure Thanksgiving Classic.

The tournament, which runs on Monday through Wednesday, will be played in Jacksonville and will feature five schools ranked in the MaxPreps National Top 25, all of whom are from Florida – No. 3 Montverde Academy, No. 6 IMG (Bradenton), No. 12 DME Academy (Daytona Beach), No. 18 Dr. Phillips (Orlando) and No. 20 Lake Highland Prep (Orlando).

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It will also include area schools Gainesville and Columbia (Lake City).

“We have been participating in the Thanksgiving Insider Exposure Tournament for the past five years,” said Columbia’s Anthony Perry, who enters his eighth season as head coach. “This is one of the best tournaments in the state. We think it is important to test where we are very early in the season.”

Five defending FHSAA champs will be there.

In fact, a total of 92 schools will be participating and almost all of them have one or more future D-I basketball players.

While it takes a village to run an event like this, there is one man behind the Thanksgiving Classic, which is in its 10th year now.

“I started out putting together tournaments in 2001,” said John McGraw, founder and CEO of Insider Exposure. “I had gotten into youth basketball as a way to give back and help kids. The program I was working with was having a hard time keeping afloat financially and I suggested we run a tournament as a fundraiser. Thankfully it did really well and by year two it was somewhat of a side business that funded our youth program in NYC.”

Eventually, when he left coaching college basketball in 2016, McGraw went into running tournaments full time. 

Running this type of tournament is no easy task.

“I truly think most people think this is easy work or in their minds, anyone could do this,” he said. “I see people try all the time. What I think most people don’t understand is it took me 15 years to build up enough relationships, wherewithal, and credibility to be able to do this full time.”

He also noted that getting teams to come “is fairly difficult but gets easier as the event becomes more well-known and established.”

“But the bigger it gets the more people have their hands out and you need more help to be fair,” he added. “Officials costs are over $20,000 this year and sanctioning with the state is close to $5000. Then we have to hire workers, contract with facilities and insurance. At this point, it’s routine for us, but it’s a lot of hounding teams for info and handling all the loose ends to make it happen. More work and expenses than most people realize.”

The big state is great for area teams like Columbia and GHS.

The Lady Hurricanes enter year two under head coach Jazlynd Rollins, who won a district title in her first season.

GHS, which will once again compete in 6A-District 2, will play Milton (GA) at 3 p.m. on Monday and Glynn Academy (GA) at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.

“This tournament gives Gainesville High the opportunity to see what we can do as a team and individually,” Rollins said. “It allows us to fix the corrections we need to make for our long term goals for this season and hopefully get kids names out there who have not been seen.”

Columbia, which will complete in 5A-District 2 this season, will play Ponte Vedra at 9 p.m. on Monday.

“Ponte Vedra is a great opponent for us, and we hope to play as a unit in order to secure a victory,” Perry said. “This test helps us to keep motivated through the fall season. Our players know that college coaches will be in attendance and that we need to be as sharp and strong as possible.”

The Lady Tigers will play Central Florida Christian Academy (Ocoee) at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We learn to be competitive playing in this particular tournament,” Perry said. “I think it helps us gain confidence as well. I hope that (junior guard) Eriel Baker has a breakout tournament. She has been playing in this all of her high school career.”

The Lady Hurricanes will play Monday’s game at Bolles (7400 San Jose Blvd., Jacksonville), while Columbia’s game on Monday will held at Bolles’ Bartram campus (2264 Bartram Road, Jacksonville).

Both of their games on Tuesday will be played at Bolles.

There are 19 games on Monday between the two locations with games beginning as early as 9 a.m.

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