Even at Thanksgiving, the postseason basketball tournament isn't far from local high school coaches' minds.
With the prevalence of holiday tournaments surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's a good opportunity for teams to get reps in game situations, as well as work on things that may come in handy as the season wears on.
But there's another reason why coaches like their teams getting experience in those early-season tournaments, one that might not be readily apparent.
"If you want to win in the playoffs, you have to have success on short turnaround time between games," Dixon boys basketball coach Jason Mead said, "and you might have to do it against teams you're not as familiar with.
"Holiday tournaments are a good way to simulate that, to help you get used to the experience of not having a lot of preparation time for different styles and personnel."
That being said, Mead has his young-ish Dukes squad playing in three holiday tournaments, as well as a Saturday shootout this season. It's a great chance for the less-experienced Dixon players to hone their ability to run the Dukes' offensive and defensive schemes, as well as getting a different look at various styles of opposing offenses and defenses.
On the other side of the coin are the Sterling Golden Warriors. With the boys' portion of the Sauk Valley Thanksgiving tournament being abolished, the Warriors' lone tournament this season is the Chuck Dayton Tournament in DeKalb. Since that spans Christmas – Sterling played three games before and two games after the holiday – that left no room for a second tournament to end the 2013 calendar year.
Sterling coach Jim Preston said things weren't intentionally planned that way this season, but "it's just the way it all fell."
Like Mead, Preston is a big believer in preparing his team for the short turnaround that comes in the postseason, and is also a fan of the tournaments to give his players something to look forward to in the moment.
"It's all about instant gratification these days, and tournaments are good short-term goals to achieve," Preston said. "It's part of human nature to want to see results quickly, and when the conference season stretches on for 7 or 8 or 9 weeks, it's such a grind and tough to stay focused on the long run.
"But playing tournaments, there's the potential to not get a trophy in 2 or 3 months, but 3 of 4 days. That's something very tangible to set your sights on, and it breaks up the monotony a little bit."
But both Preston and Mead agree that the drawback is not having as much practice time to iron out the kinks they might see from their teams. Instead of practices between games in such a confined amount of time, it usually comes down to discussions and mental adjustments more than anything.
Oregon coach Quinn Virgil agrees with that, at least to a certain extent. About 3 years ago, he went from entering his Hawks in two tournaments each year to three, partly because he felt he was losing some of the focus and intensity from his team during a longer Christmas break away from games.
"There were times our last game before the break would be Dec. 16, then we wouldn't play again until Jan. 6 or 7," Virgil said, "and that kind of made it feel like we were restarting our season. It's hard to keep the kids keyed up when you give them a week off completely, then 2 weeks – or longer – off from games.
"Plus, I think it's fun for the kids to play in these tournaments; it helps keep them loose and relaxed, but also sharp and on task."
Players seem to agree. The first word out of their mouths is "love" when it comes to playing holiday tournaments, mainly because they get to see some different faces than they will throughout their conference slates.
"It's different competition than your conference, a different challenge," Prophetstown senior Karlie Stafford said. "It's easy to get fired up to play new teams and competitive games, and it's a confidence boost when you win."
The Prophets have done plenty of that, taking third at the Oregon Thanksgiving Tournament, then winning the title last week at the Polo Tournament.
Stafford and teammate Heather Strike agree that they don't look at holiday tournament games as a way to relax or let up – but the losses don't sting quite as much.
"You always want to play to win, and you always want to play with intensity," said Strike, a junior. "But if you don't win a holiday tournament game, it's not as big of a deal as losing a conference game that could cost you a chance to win the championship."
That's all well and good, but one of the underlying reasons players love tournament games so much is that it gets them out of practices. Instead of getting up early in the morning during their break from school and going through a monotonous practice, they get to sleep in a bit (usually) before getting on a bus and playing a much-more-exciting game.
"I love playing game after game, getting out of practice and actually getting some competition other than ourselves," Polo senior Brian Cavanaugh said. "You don't have as many nerves in these games as you do in some of the bigger conference ones later in the season, plus it's good to see how you stack up against different teams and different styles."
That's where scheduling comes in. Different coaches see tournaments as a way to learn different things about their team, or to provide them with different experiences and opportunities. Every team approaches this in its own way, and every coach will tell you there's no wrong way to go about it.
"Sometimes you play tournaments to build confidence and morale, and sometimes you play them to challenge yourselves," Mead said, "and others are meant to do both. And every coach has to figure out the best way to use those for his team.
"Since our record has been so poor the past few years, I was looking for fields with some smaller schools, to hopefully get a taste of winning; next year, we're going to play a bigger-school tournament, so we can see better how we stack up against teams we'll maybe see in the postseason."
The switch will be moving from the West Carroll Holiday Tournament at Christmas time to Sterling's Martin Luther King Tournament, which will play its first installment next season.
That will also give the Warriors a second tournament – and at the Homer Dome, no less. Preston knows his players will respond well to that … but also to getting out of a few of those pesky midseason practices, as well.
"Heck yeah, that's no joke," Preston said with a laugh. "I was like that when I was a player: 'We need to be in more tournaments, let's go play some games.'
"As a coach, I'm happy to get a few more practices under our belts, but I know our guys will be excited to play in another tournament next year … especially at home."