For 47 consecutive games now, no team has found out a way to stop the St. Mary’s girls basketball team.
But on Tuesday before the Knights’ toughest competition of the season, coach Curtis Ekmark let the cat out of the bag: The best help defense against them is a final exam.
St. Mary’s did not practice on Monday to allow for more study time, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are filled with the stressful tests. In the past, jumping from academics to game mode has been a challenge for the Knights, especially since the overlap involves the Nike Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious girls basketball tournament in the country.
St. Mary’s has traditionally lost its opening game at the tournament on the same day finals end, but bucked the trend last year. The Knights went on to win their bracket, finish the year 30-0 and claim a mythical national title.
This year, with another stacked roster, they have a chance to do it again.
“We love playing in the best tournament and we love playing against the best teams,” Courtney Ekmark said. “These are the fun games.”
Shilpa Tummala and Cortnee Walton graduated, but the Knights still boast an eye-popping six players committed to Division I colleges. Ekmark, a junior, is committed to Connecticut, while seniors Chantel Osahor (Washington), Danielle Williams (Michigan), Dominique Williams (UCLA), Brandee Walton (New Mexico State) and Chloe Johnson (San Diego State) will begin their college careers next season.
USA Today has St. Mary’s once again ranked No. 1 in the country, and three wins this weekend will put the Knights in the driver’s seat for a second straight national title.
“I think we don’t realize how good we are,” Osahor said. “When I try to think of what we’ve done, I don’t even know what to think. When we’re playing, we don’t even realize it when the scoreboard is going up and up. It’s just amazing.”
It’s a tough reconciliation for the rest of Division I, which knows winning a state title would be nothing short of a miracle. While Pinnacle is undefeated and there are a host of quality East Valley teams in the mix, anyone but St. Mary’s hoisting the gold ball would shock the state.
The Knights are 7-0 thus far and have won every game by at least 18 points, and they can become the first team in Arizona’s highest division to ever win three straight titles.
“I realize that this type of group doesn’t come along very often, if ever, and I’m just enjoying every day with them,” Curtis Ekmark said.
But as cemented as this year’s title seems to be, moving forward is where the intrigue lies.
Courtney Ekmark — Curtis’s daughter — is the sole recognizable threat returning following this season.
And one more year after that, she will be gone, turning the keys to the program over to a group of newcomers.
It’s a similar situation to Highland boys basketball from 2007 through 2009. Matt Carlino was the star, Mark Carlino was the coach, and a host of standouts joined up for a super team.
The Hawks didn’t have the same postseason success as St. Mary’s, getting shocked in the first round one year and losing in the championship game the next. Then it all blew up as the Carlinos moved to Indiana and Nick Johnson transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., and put Highland into a tailspin.
It was a quick drop for one of the state’s best teams, and it’s a logical thought to consider at St. Mary’s.
However, Curtis Ekmark has no plans to leave when Courtney does, as his association with her in college will be from a distance.
“I’ll be able to see every game on TV, and frankly, as a high school coach, I’ve seen enough crazy high school parents,” Curtis Ekmark said. “I don’t want to be the guy who is around all the time. She’s going to go do her deal, and I’m going to enjoy it, but I don’t need to be there or anything like that.”
With Ekmark seemingly in control for the foreseeable future and plenty of playing time opening up next season, it won’t be a surprise to see the Knights reload.
But how good will they be?
Can the program dominate immediately with a new group? Or will the door re-open for the other contenders? Ekmark is excited for the future, but he doesn’t know the answer.
“It’ll be fascinating to see what happens,” Ekmark said. “On one hand, I believe that we have more depth in our program today then I’ve ever had since I’ve been here, by far. Sometimes that depth doesn’t get to show itself because we have six Division I kids in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be starting or playing for other varsity teams.
“Now, with that said, equaling what this group has done — well, to put it into context, it’s never been done before. So it may never be done again.”