In 1979, when the Absecon Social and Athletic Club first lowered the basketball hoops at the original H. Ashton Marsh Elementary School in Absecon for its third- and fourth-grade Marsh Madness basketball tournament, it was the first program of its kind for the area's youngsters.
In more than three decades since, elementary and middle school rec sports have blown up throughout Atlantic County, but come March, the Marsh Madness tournament is still the biggest name in basketball in Absecon.
Absecon resident Stash Marczyk, who coaches the city's third-fourth grade team and whose four sons have grown up in the program, said the games always draw a big hometown crowd.
"The kids are into it, playing on the home court in front of their friends," Marczyk said. "It really brings the city together."
The tournament, which over the years added fifth-sixth and seventh-eighth grade levels, started March 9 and runs through March 22. The third-fourth grade final will take place at 6 p.m. March 14. The dates and times of the fifth-sixth and seventh-eighth finals have yet to be determined. All 66 games of the tournament at all three levels are played at Marsh.
The tournament is populated by 35 teams from throughout the area, spread out among the three levels. Progression is bracket-based and double-elimination.
The hometown teams typically have a lot of success in the tournament, said eighth-grader Travis Stoll. This is Travis' fourth year in the program. His fifth- and sixth-grade teams were tournament runners-up, and last year's seventh-grade squad was champion.
Travis said the road to the championship will be a tough one this year, with top squads from Linwood, Galloway Township and other towns in the way, but said the challenge is what makes participating worthwhile.
"There's a lot of good kids around the county," the 13-year-old said. "The championship game is where you want to be at. That's when you're playing against the best competition, to make you better."
Many of the towns that participate in the tournament - Absecon among them - have entire leagues at each of the three age levels, allowing them to cherry-pick the top talent for their travel teams.
Chris Stoll, Travis' father, said the high skill levels of participating athletes makes the games good experience for the players and a fun time for those in the stands.
"The competition is good," Stoll said. "Usually you have the best teams throughout the county repeatedly coming back here, year after year, and the finals are always great games."
The tournament serves many purposes for the Absecon community, event director Pete Higbee said. It's a fundraiser for ASAC, which runs many rec programs for kids, teens and adults all year long. It also helps its participants improve their game through facing the stiffest competition the area has to offer.
But while fundraising and skill development are great, it's the fun of the tournament - on the court and in the stands - that keeps the crowds coming back each year.
"It's something for the kids," Higbee said. "We try to make this a big-scale (event) for them. We have refs, paid refs. It's just like watching a regular high school game, but with little kids. It gets pretty crowded."
Contact Braden Campbell:
If you go
34th Annual Marsh Madness Basketball Tournament
Various dates/times through March 22. Third-fourth grade championships, 6 p.m. March 14. Fifth-sixth and seventh-eighth TBD.
Marsh School Gym, 800 Ireland Ave., Absecon