NAPLES — Despite falling on lean times recently, the Gulfshore Shootout is taking a giant leap forward with this year's event.
The annual boys basketball holiday tournament played at Golden Gate High School is expanding to a national-level event and hopes to be on par with Fort Myers' City of Palms Classic, which is widely regarded as the top basketball tournament in the nation.
Instead of including mostly area schools and in-state teams, Gulfshore organizers are bringing nationally-ranked programs to this year's event, according to Golden Gate coach Joe Consolino.
“We want to become one of the better tournaments in the country,” Consolino said. “We're not trying to compete with or out-do the City of Palms. We want to provide a similar type of event for the people here in Collier County.”
Consolino declined to name any teams until the entire field is complete. National powers Montverde Academy, Alpharetta (Ga.)-Milton and Newark (N.J.)-St. Benedict's, who have all fared well in the City of Palms in recent years, have confirmed to the Daily News that they will play in the event, now called the Gulfshore Invitational.
The City of Palms is Dec. 18 to 22 at Bishop Verot, while the Gulfshore Invitational likely will begin the following week, after Christmas.
It's a big step forward for the tournament, which just two years ago had to scale back to an almost all-local event because of a lack of sponsorship dollars.
Consolino created the Gulfshore Shootout in 1996 when he was the coach at Barron Collier. It went from eight teams that first year to 16 teams, and soon began inviting quality teams from around Florida and a few from outside the state.
As the economy sagged, the Shootout's sponsors couldn't donate as much, and the tournament couldn't afford to pay teams' travel expenses. That led to a 2010 tourney in which nine of the 16 teams were from Southwest Florida.
The difference this year, Consolino said, has been fundraising. The Titans added an assistant coach this season with connections in the business world and ambitions to raise the level of the Gulfshore. Consolino doesn't want divulge the assistant's name – not yet – but said the coach brought in the sponsorship dollars needed to attract nationally-ranked teams.
David Boyd, who has led Milton to three Georgia state championships in four years, said nearly all of his team's expenses will be covered, including airfare. Of course, none of the teams would be coming if they didn't think it would be an elite-level tournament.
“It seems like the tournament will be more competitive than it's ever been,” Montverde coach Kevin Boyle said. “There are more high-level teams from across the country. If (tournament organizers) get the four or five teams they mentioned to me, then at least in the semifinals it's going to be one of the better final fours nationally.”
Milton finished last season ranked No. 7 in ESPN's national rankings, while Montverded was ranked ninth. St. Benedict's, the 2007 City of Palms champ, finished No. 16 in the poll.
“The tournament has great competition lined up which will give us the ability early on to test ourselves against national-level competition,” St. Benedict's coach Mark Taylor wrote in an email to the Daily News. “The sponsorship also worked well with our school and made it easy for us to attend the event from a cost perspective.”
Consolino said the new-look Gulfshore will be a 16-team tournament, which includes host school Golden Gate. The Titans coach said there also will be a smaller side tournament, similar to what the City of Palms does with its Signature Series, a four-team event played at the same time.
The Gulfshore is looking to follow the path of Collier County's girls basketball holiday tournament, the Holiday Shootout, which usually is played the same week in late December.
Since starting 13 years ago, the Holiday Shootout has blossomed into one of the top showcases for girls talent in the country. Last year's field featured eight NCAA Division I commitments and 14 players ranked nationally among their classes for various recruiting publications. More than two dozen college coaches and scouts were on hand at Barron Collier to watch the event.
B.A. Crawford is in charge of assembling the Holiday Shootout field. He would give the same advice to the Gulfshore Invitational that he got when he was trying to make his a national event.
“Fourteen years ago when I went up to the City of Palms and asked what I had to do, they said, 'You've got to have a lot of money,'” Crawford said. “It costs a lot of money to do it.”
Though the tournaments likely will overlap this December, Crawford doesn't see the Holiday Shootout and Gulfshore Invitational as rivals. Instead he thinks the two can complement each other by bringing quality basketball to Naples. Crawford even said he's had requests in the past from girls teams in his tournament who want to bring their boys teams down as well.
“I welcome it,” Crawford said. “It will be great for the community. Anytime you can provide basketball to Southwest Florida, I think it's great.”