Before he was tossing up three pointers with the New York Knicks, the Marquette Golden Eagles or even the Brown Deer High School Falcons, Steve Novak made a name for himself on a different court: the Padre Serra Tournament court.padre

In 1998, Novak was named to the boys’ Padre Serra All-Tournament team as his St. Margaret Mary squad finished third in the tourney.

The 54th annual Padre Serra Tournament tips off Thursday, March 1 at Mount Mary College. It’s one of the most anticipated eighth grade basketball tournaments, and boasts that it has featured future stars like Novak.

Bob Roloff, a member of the selection committee for the last 15 years, said he anticipates this being another great year for the boys’ and girls’ teams.

“We are aware of all the teams that are eligible from year to year because we follow what is happening in their league play,” Roloff said of the 36 boys’ teams and 28 girls’ teams invited to the tournament. They represent 70 percent of eligible teams.

The tournament, sponsored by the Serra Club of Milwaukee for 50 of its 54 years, culminates with the championships on March 18. By sponsoring the tournament, the Serra Club raises awareness and money for the promotion of vocations, primarily vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

In the boys’ bracket, St. Catherine, Racine, at 11-1, is the “strong” favorite and overall number one seed, Roloff said.

“They’ve got some of the better athletes, better basketball players from the Racine area going to the middle school and that’s why this team is so good,” Roloff said. “These kids have been playing together on a select team, I think, for a couple of years.”

Kai Days, a 6’4” eighth grader for St. Catherine, along with guard Chase Stulo, will be key players in this year’s tournament.

St. Catherine has lost only once in the last two seasons, that coming this year against Holy Apostles, New Berlin, (10-2), a number three seed. St. Dominic, Brookfield, (14-0), is a number two seed and Waukesha Catholic School System, (10-3), a number three seed. Team records are based on league play and don’t include tournaments.

Roloff said the nine levels of seeding are arranged much like the NCAA tournament.

“We try to match them up so they’re not playing teams from their league right away,” Roloff said. “Even down the road, we try to match it up so they’re not doing that.”

If St. Catherine and St. Dominic were to win all their games, they would meet in the championship.

But Roloff says it’s single elimination just like the NCAA tournament and anything can happen.

“There are other teams here that have a possibility to beat either one,” Roloff said. “Like Holy Apostles did beat St. Catherine so they could do it again.”

Besides Milwaukee-area teams, teams from Waukesha, Sheboygan and Oconomowoc are also represented.

“If you look at the top eight teams, any one of them could possibly win it,” Roloff said.

In the girls’ bracket, St. Alphonsus, Greendale, (11-1), has the number one overall seed but is followed closely by St. Dominic (7-3); St. Matthias, Milwaukee, (11-1); and Our Lady of Grace/St. Lucy, Racine (8-1). St. Alphonsus and St. Matthias split their regular season match-ups.

“There’s more parity on the girls’ side than there is on the boys’,” Roloff said. “There were six teams all a game away from each other.”

Roloff said St. Dominic has a good eighth grade basketball class with both boys and girls being in the top four.

Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to the size of the crowds. Roloff said the girls’ teams have just as big of a following.

“There might be bigger crowds at some of the girls’ games than there would be at the boys’ games,” Roloff said. “It’s all a matter of which school it is and whether they have a good following.”

When it comes to selecting who’s in and who’s not, the Padre Serra is just as selective as the NCAA.

Roloff said teams are determined by league standings; tournament play is the tiebreaker. He added that with a Feb. 14 seed deadline, games and tournaments still go on after which can make things difficult, but he encouraged all coaches to participate in tournaments.

“Not playing in tournaments is not the thing. That hurts them more than helps them,” Roloff said. “It’s not the tournaments, necessarily, that we’re looking at. It’s who they played in the tournament and how they did.”

Leagues like Notre Dame and Parkview Parochial, the two largest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, also have an impact in determining who gets a bid because of the size of the league and talent.

Roloff said he thinks the most exciting part of the tournament will be the quarterfinal games played on March 15 and 16. The winners of those games will play in the final four and eventually compete for first and third place.

“Just winning in that game, Thursday or Friday, gets you two more games,” Roloff said.

There have been a number of great players in previous tournaments. Guys like John Johnson, who played during the early years, and went on to play at the University of Iowa then 12 years in the NBA.

Or other great stories like Kelly Auger, when she was at St. Gregory the Great, and Mike Kelly from St. Mary, Menomonee Falls. Kelly went to Pius XI High School and then to play at UW-Madison and was part of the 2000 final four team. Auger, now Kelly’s wife, also went to Pius XI and played for Marquette University.

The unknown is part of what makes the tournament exciting.

“We’ve had some fantastic games, double and triple overtimes and I see that happening again,” Roloff said. “There’s upsets. We don’t always get it right. Some teams are peaking right now.”