Very few high school sporting events anywhere can compare with the Garces Holiday Soccer Festival when it comes to sheer size.
The annual two-day event, which begins today at multiple sites around Bakersfield, bills itself as, "The Biggest High School Tournament on Earth."
This year 134 girls and boys teams from all over the state will compete in the event.
That total includes numerous local entries competing in one of the tournament's 16 varsity-level, eight-team divisions.
Taking top honors in one of the upper divisions could have long-term implications, according to Bakersfield High boys coach Archie Parks.
"We all know that it is important for post-season," Parks said. "Because when they go up there to (Porterville) at the end of the year to seed us (for the Central Section playoffs), it says a lot."
After placing second and first the past two years in the Boys Premier A division last year, BHS is back competing in the Elite-8, the tournament's top level, along with Centennial, Golden Valley, West, Clovis-Buchanan, Clovis West, South Gate and Santa Maria-Pioneer Valley.
Centennial defeated Clovis West, which went on to win the Central Section Division I championship, in last year's Boys Elite-8 final. Pioneer Valley edged eventual Central Section Division II champ Golden Valley 4-2 for third place.
Parks is happy that BHS is back playing in the Elite-8 division and believes the Drillers are ready for the challenge.
"I always want the best competition I can for my boys," Parks said. "I think they can truly play with anybody. On any given day anybody can beat anybody, of course. But I think we are a force. We are a decent team. The last three years we've been pretty strong. I hope to think that if anyone comes up against BHS, they know they have a full game on their plate."
The Girls Elite-8 division, which features reigning Southern Section Division I champion West Hills-Chaminade, is loaded with top-notch teams.
Frontier, Highland, Liberty, Stockdale, Clovis North, Fresno-Central and Newhall-Hart will be shooting to keep Chaminade from winning the Girls Elite-8 title for a third straight year.
The Eagles edged Clovis North 1-0 for the title last year. They beat Stockdale in the Elite-8 championship game by the same score in 2011.
Chaminade (3-0-1), which lost last year in the Southern California Regional Finals, has out- scored its opponents by a combined 12-0 margin this season.
Among the possible biggest threats to a Chaminade will be Frontier, winner of the tournament's Girls Premier A Division championship a year ago.
"I think the key for us is finding our composure, especially in our midfield," Frontier coach Max Bluemel said. "What you want to do, especially early on in the season, is just find a good rhythm and tempo for your team where you're not feeling like you have to race against the clock in a shorter tournament game. Once you find and pick your spots, you really have to capitalize on them because often times these games are at a higher pace."
The Titans (8-2) feature three four-year varsity starters with section title experience in Lauren O'Connell, Julisa Vasquez, and Sabrina Torres.
"I look at this tournament as an opportunity for these girls to start coming together as a team," Bluemel said. "I think we have a good situation going in, where we have a core of girls that started with us as freshmen, and now as seniors they know what the expectations are for big tournaments like this."
The tournament kicks off at 3 p.m. today with games at Kern County Soccer Park, State Farm Sports Village on Ashe Road, and Garces and Stockdale high schools.
Both Elite-8 championship games are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at KCSP.
More information including, site directions, a full list of brackets and game times for each division is available at the following web address: https://www.garces.org/Athletics/GarcesHolidaySoccerFestival/2013Schedule.aspx