High school teams generally have to find an out-of-state tournament during the season to get an idea of just where their programs stack up with others across the country. But for girls’ basketball teams in Arizona, that opportunity comes to them.
That’s what the Nike Tournament of Champions, an annual event played out just before Christmas at gymnasiums across the East Valley, provides because the field is extensive and includes many of the best girls’ team around the country.
The TOC tournament in recent years hasn’t reflected particularly well on the status of the sport in Arizona.
To begin with, the participation of in-state programs was down considerably this year. Of the 90 teams that showed up this year, only 15 were local. That’s a considerable drop from the 22 that were entered in the 2014 field, and the lowest in recent years.
Those 15 teams are a very small percentage of the more than 200 programs spread throughout the various small-school and large-school divisions around the state. This tournament is a great opportunity for in-state schools because it’s convenient and doesn’t put a strain on travel budgets.
That, then, begs the question as to whether teams are falling off because it has become increasingly difficult to compete as the tournament has grown in prestige and size in its 18 years – 14 of those years right here in Arizona, most of them hosted by the Chandler School District.
Last year, the No. 1 team in the country, Mater Dei from California, met the No. 4 team, Tennessee’s Blackman High, for the title in the Joe Smith Division, the top bracket. Mater Dei won for a third straight year as it has dominated the event since 2011, the year that St. Mary’s High School in downtown Phoenix was crowned the champion. The Knights were ranked the No. 1 prep team in the country going into that TOC.
St. Mary’s was also the top-ranked team the next year, but could do no better than third in the top bracket. That’s how good the competition has become. There were teams from 21 states competing this year, with many sending their state champions.
There were three local teams entered in the Joe Smith last year. Hamilton High lost in the opening round and Millennium High and Desert Vista High washed out in the second round.
This year, there weren’t any local teams in the top bracket, which was won by the consensus national pre-season No. 1 team in the country, St. Mary’s of Stockton, CA.
Last year, there were no Arizona teams crowned champions in any of the six brackets last year. And this year, just one.
The championship game in the Black Division was between two local teams, Gilbert High School and Peoria’s Liberty High. Gilbert took a 21-15 lead at the half and held on for a 41-38 win behind a 25-point performance from freshman guard Hanna Cavinder. Senior Kayla Macedo, a 5’11” shooting guard, came off the bench to lead Liberty’s scoring with 17 points.
The only other Arizona school enjoying much success was Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, which made it to the finals in the Gold Division before losing to Fairmont Prep. It took the California school two overtime periods to beat another local team, Valley Vista High School from Surprise, in the quarterfinals – but Fairmont had little trouble with Chaparral, winning the title game, 60-37.
Aside from these four local teams, there were only four other in-state schools that got past the first round: Perry High and Westview High in the Diamond Division, Xavier Prep in the Gold Division, and Hamilton High in the Mike Desper Division. All four lost in the second round.