December 20, 2004
For years, prep basketball fans have watched out-of-state schools dominate the Nike Tournament of Champions and wondered when they'll get to see an elite Arizona girls team beat some of the nation's best.
They'll get their chance this week.
The tournament, which features 96 teams from as far away as Alaska and New Hampshire competing in seven divisions, will be played at several Chandler district schools through Thursday.
Phoenix St. Mary's — the Tribune's No. 1 5A team and No. 9 in USA Today's latest Super 25 rankings — will compete in the tournament’s elite White Division.
Six East Valley teams are entered — Corona del Sol, Desert Vista, Hamilton, Mountain Pointe, Mountain View and Saguaro.
St. Mary's opens tournament play at 7 p.m. today against unranked Narbonne (Calif.) at Hamilton High. The White Division features five of USA Today's top 10 teams, including No. 1 Christ the King (N.Y.) and No. 2 Piedmont (Calif.). Phoenix Thunderbird, ranked No. 4 in 4A by the Tribune, is also in the White Division and will play Piedmont today in the opening round.
A year ago, Thunderbird carried the Arizona flag into the elite division but suffered two injuries just prior to the tournament and was manhandled.
Corona del Sol coach Pat Reed is optimistic about how well Arizona teams will do this year.
"I think we're going to give Arizona a better name," said Reed, who also wants to see how St. Mary's fares in the elite division. "I think we're going to be better represented. St. Mary's is going to be challenged in that top bracket. They have talent and speed and things like that. They don't match up as well with bigger teams."
Corona will play in the Green Division. Reed is fired up because the tournament's media guide, she feels, slighted her club for others in the division, including Ursuline, today's opponent out of northern California. Despite a 9-1 record that included an overtime loss to St. Mary's and winning the Highland tournament title, Corona is not ranked in the USA Today’s Top 25.
"I think we're going in as an underrated team here," Reed said. "I think we're going to surprise some people. I think we're going to put up some Ws."
Clay Kallam, the author of the tournament's media guide, had nicer things to say about St. Mary's.
"For the first time, a local team has a legitimate shot to make some serious noise," wrote Kallam. St. Mary's could give the tournament “the one thing it's been missing over the years: A loud crowd cheering hard for a home team."
The tournament, in its eighth year, has been frustrated in its attempts to attract top Arizona schools, which are either bound to other tournaments this time of year or are not allowed to compete due to district rules and limitations.
Henry Bribiescas, coach of 5A fifth-ranked Desert Vista, says that St. Mary's and several Arizona teams could surprise.
"I think (St. Mary's) can play with the big schools," said Bribiescas, whose 5-2 Thunder fell to St. Mary's and Highland.
"They play in the summer competitively. They've been in big tournaments. Their kids are ready mentally. We've not done very well (in the tournament in the past). This year we're going in with the attitude that we want to show that we can compete in this type of tournament.
"I think most Arizona schools are going in with an attitude. We're getting stronger every year, and we're on the rise."