“I just try to zone it out completely,” Peterson said. “But sometimes I’ll catch myself looking in the crowd, seeing who’s around. But I don’t want to be one of those players that changes his game for people watching.”
While the WCAC has the power to bring Division I coaches out for a regular season game on a Thursday night, the brightest lights still shine when programs such as O’Connell hit the road for showcase events and tournaments. This holiday weekend, four WCAC teams, including Peterson’s Knights, stepped onto one of the biggest stages high school basketball has to offer: the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass.
Put on by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Hoophall Classic has taken place annually since 2002. It has grown from a midsize event that featured strong East Coast schools to an elite, nationally televised showcase that attracts the country’s best players and teams.
“If you’re a high school basketball player, you want to play at Hoophall,” DeMatha Coach Mike Jones said. “No question about that.”
Jones has taken his Stags to Hoophall 18 of the past 19 years. This season is the first time he can remember four WCAC schools being invited — a testament to the conference’s sterling reputation.
DeMatha, top ranked locally, will tip things off Saturday afternoon with a game against Simeon Career Academy (Ill.). No. 4 Gonzaga also plays Saturday, facing La Lumiere (Ind.). Monday’s slate features three WCAC schools playing in consecutive games against opponents from California: O’Connell will face longtime power Mater Dei; DeMatha will take on the No. 1 player in the Class of 2020, center Evan Mobley, and his Rancho Christian teammates; and No. 3 Paul VI will challenge the buzziest high school team in the country, Sierra Canyon.
Sierra Canyon has packed gyms all season because its roster includes sons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — Zaire Wade and Bronny James — as well as several top-ranked prospects. But the Trailblazers’ talent will not necessarily stand out at Hoophall, where every game will feature elite programs and Division I players. The weekend’s slate includes 12 of the country’s top 25 teams and seven of the top 10 players, according to ESPN’s rankings.
For the WCAC teams that received an invitation, it was an easy decision.
“It’s part of our job as coaches to put our kids in a position to be seen, to be exposed, to play against high-level competition,” Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner said. “We have to put them in places where college coaches are going to be.”
For Peterson — a gritty defender who has skill and potential but is not considered one of the area’s big names — it would be easy to get lost in the glitz of Hoophall, but a good showing could have long-lasting implications.
The junior guard, who has mainly drawn interest from mid-major programs, tries not to think about all of the exposure this event affords. He has always approached recruiting with the idea that if he plays well, everything else will follow. There is no sense in worrying about anything except your team and your game.
“I just try to focus on playing my game each night,” Peterson said. “And when people notice me, they notice me.”
But trips such as this one are one of the reasons he attends O’Connell. Exposure is everything, and at Hoophall there will be plenty of influential people to impress.
“When we went to Hoophall my freshman year, I just remember it as a place where everybody loves basketball,” Peterson said. “Fans everywhere, coaches — it’s a crazy atmosphere to play in.”
He got on the court in that game and spent the first few minutes battling his nerves. Eventually he settled in and was content with how he and his team played.
Days before O’Connell’s flight north for this year’s showcase, Peterson said he was aiming for a similar experience. Like every player who hits the court in Springfield this weekend, he was hoping for a good game at the right time.