Hawthorn Woods kid tops in ESPN bracket challenge, but can't claim prize

A Hawthorn Woods sixth-grader can lay claim to being the best bracketologist in the country after he beat more than 11.5 million other entries to tie for first in the ESPN college basketball bracket challenge.

The bad news for Sam Holtz is because he's only 12 years old, he will not be one of 115,000 people entered into a random contest to win a trip for two to Maui or a $20,000 Best Buy gift card. ESPN's rules state bracket challenge participants must be at least 18.

"The great thing is that this kid beat all these experts out there," ESPN spokesman Kevin Ota said Tuesday. "He beat all of our commentators, all these celebrities, all the college experts. That's what makes this so awesome. The prize really is secondary."

Those experts included basketball analysts Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas, along with celebrities Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart.

"That's what makes this thing so fun," Ota said. "You have 11.57 million people who have a chance to win this, and it's a 12-year-old kid who has one of the number one brackets."

Sam finished tied for first among those who entered brackets on the ESPN website, after Duke beat Wisconsin 68-63 Monday. The win gave him 1,830 points, and a tie with a user named Grant3326.

Sam missed only six games on the entire bracket - and scored an amazing 100 percent on games played in the sweet 16, elite 8, Final 4 and championship rounds.

"There is no secret," said Sam, who attends Lake Zurich Middle School North. "There was some luck, and I studied I just picked the teams that I felt had the best players."

The ESPN contest states the top 1 percent of the bracket contest entries are eligible for the grand prize.

Sam said ESPN officials told him he's ineligible to be part of the drawing, but that they would send him a goody bag of ESPN items for coming in first.

The decision "irritated" him, Sam said, but he was "still proud of myself."

His mother, Elizabeth, kept him home a half-day from school Tuesday while he was interviewed by ESPN, and other media outlets regarding the accomplishment.

She admitted she didn't believe him when he first told her he was in the running with the best bracket in the nation, but came around after seeing the results for herself.

"He called me at work and said he was number six, and I initially dismissed it," she said. "When he showed me that night, I said, "Wow, this looks legit."

Elizabeth Holtz said it was "pretty cool" watching him get to the top spot in the nationwide online contest.

"It's still quite a feat," Elizabeth said of her son. "Oh well, It was a fun ride while it lasted."

  Sam Holtz, 12, of Hawthorn Woods picked Duke over Wisconsin in the ESPN NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket contest. Paul Valade/
The Holtz family of Hawthorn Woods from left Butch, Joey, Sam and Liz are getting some media attention after Sam's ESPN NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket picks. Courtesy of Holtz family
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