College football bowl games crowd the television schedule, the NFL season settles to reveal the playoff contenders and NBA rivals meet in marquee matchups on Christmas Day complete with Santa Claus on ESPN making jokes about James Harden’s beard.
Locally, basketball and wrestling are in high gear. Tournaments allow high school teams to play until they’ve had their fill over the holidays, from pre-Thanksgiving/post-Thanksgiving tournaments to Christmas/Holiday/Festival/New Year’s invitationals and more.
Being involved in the Rome News-Tribune sports department for the majority of the last 15 years has allowed me to be a part of one of these activities.
The name has changed slightly over the years, and the Seven Hills Rotary Club has come on as a presenter along with the RN-T, but ask any high school sports fan, former coach or player in the area and they’ll simply know it as the Christmas tournament.
This year’s edition — the 65th in a row — played out last week with Rome’s boys hoisting the Gold Ball trophy to end a nine-year drought and Model’s girls taking the most recent chapter in their tournament rivalry with Rome’s Lady Wolves.
It’s been written before, but it’s still true. The Christmas tournament feels like a family reunion with about 5,000 relatives you didn’t know you had.
As the days go by there are encounters with past coaches and players, some you don’t see except at the tournament when they come back home for the holidays.
Then some who bring back memories of when they were on the court at Georgia Highlands or Berry College, or even Memorial Gym for those who still recall that former monument to local basketball history.
The fans that come out to support the teams have been at games through the first part of the season, but there they have an extra bit of fire about a clutch 3 or an official’s call.
It could be that with all of the festive spirit in the air people just seem to get an itch to be around crowds of their friends, family and school’s fans. Get enough people in the same place sharing a game experience and the ebb and flow of their emotions is contagious.
There was something else that provided a little more for Christmas tournament fans this year — most of the games came down to the wire.
In the girls’ bracket, five of the 10 games were decided by nine points or less and three had a final score with a margin of less than five points. The boys’ run had seven come in less than 10 points and four with a difference under five.
The average margin of victory from all of the boys’ games was 9.1, underscored by thrilling wins by Model’s boys against Pepperell (57-56), and Darlington, which had the Blue Devils come from behind to win 56-50 in the semifinals.
Model’s girls completed one of the biggest single-quarter performances in Christmas tournament history (just my opinion) in the semifinals when they held Darlington scoreless in the final period to go on a 16-0 run that gave them the lead and a spot in the championship game.
And these are just quick hits of a tournament that every year seems to produce buzzer-beaters and individual heroics. They’re moments in players’ lives that have an extra bit of emphasis, not just for the ones who get to hold that Gold Ball on the final night.
I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and hope you get a little time away from the courts, the mats and the fields to spend with family and friends this holiday season.
Jeremy Stewart is the sports editor of the Rome News-Tribune. He can be reached at JStewart@RN-T.com.