AZ girls hoops teams take on nation’s best at Nike TofC

Eighteen local high school girls’ basketball teams are entered in the Nike Tournament of Champions again this year, as Arizona is one of the two most heavily represented states in a field of 96 teams from 21 different states.

That doesn’t mean Arizona has more of the better teams in the country.  It just means they don’t have to find a way to pay for travel to the event.  For the 11th straight year, the prestigious national tournament will be held in five high school gyms and a junior high facility spread around Gilbert and Chandler.

The tournament, which starts Monday and is co-sponored by Chandler High and the Chandler Unified School District, gives the teams considered the nation’s best an opportunity to go head-to-head to help determine a mythical national champion.  Seven of the top 10-ranked teams will be competing.

Mater Dei High School from Santa Ana, Calif., which is generally regarded the national champion from last year, will be here.  And so will the team that is ranked No. 1 this year by USA Today, Bolingbrook High from Illinois.

Brea Olinda High won the top division, the Joe Smith Elite, at last year’s TofC.  The California school toppled No. 9-ranked Long Beach Poly, 56-48, to earn the honor.

But Arizona’s hopes are pinned squarely on St. Mary’s High School.  The Knights are ranked as the No. 2 team in the country by ESPN and No. 19 by USA Today.

The small Catholic school in central Phoenix won the state 5A-I championship last year and has all their starters from that squad back on the court this season.

Last year, St. Mary’s took a young team into the tournament and finished in ninth place in the Joe Smith division.  They lost their first game to a Colorado team, Monarch High School, but rebounded for three straight wins, including a decisive win over Christ the King High School from New York, one of the nation’s best teams year after year.  Their first game this year is against Christ the King.

This year, they have veteran leadership that comes from seniors Shilpa Tumala, a guard, and Cortnee Walton, a 6’3″ forward.  And mix in a trio of juniors, guards Danielle Williams and Dominique Williams and forward Chantel Osahor.

But aside from St. Mary’s, there is little buzz about the rest of the Arizona representatives.  None of the other 17 teams are expected to be playing in the top division.

Results each year seem to be mixed, but it did appear after the 2010 Tof C that Arizona was narrowing the gap somewhat on the power teams in the other parts of the country.

Getting past the opening game has always seemed to be a struggle.  In 2009, just four local teams won their opening games, but that improved to seven last year.

Desert Vista High School in Phoenix was the the lone Arizona champion in 2009, going undefeated through its bracket.  But last year the Thunder didn’t finish in the top 10.

Some of the better performers from last year are back to try again next week.  Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Mesa’s Mountain View High School, and Flagstaff High all had fifth-place finishes in their respective divisions.

The TOC is an opportunity for schools to meet top-level competition they wouldn’t find in their own state.  Since 1997, the tournament field has included 119 state champions and 11 of the last 14 USA Today national champions.

For those in Arizona, it continues to provide a way to gauge their progress against the rest of the country.

As such, all eyes will be on St. Mary’s next week.  The Knights will be representing more than just their school.