Unlike the boys, there is no debate about which girls basketball team should be on top of the California preseason rankings. And unlike the boys, the St. Mary’s of Stockton girls also easily rank among the best in the nation. If we were still doing FAB 50 national girls rankings, in fact, they’d be preseason No. 1 for sure.
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Determining a preseason No. 1 high school ranking can be educated guesswork in many sports and coming into many seasons, but there are those times when it’s as easy as flipping on a switch.
This brings us to this year’s St. Mary’s of Stockton girls basketball team, and the Rams are what are called in the business a “no-brainer” No. 1 team.
They’ll be No. 1 overall in the Cal-Hi Sports preseason state rankings (those are the ones done by myself and colleague Harold Abend) and they should be a consensus No. 1 for the nation (combining USA Today, ESPN-W and MaxPreps) unless there’s some 6-foot-5 behemoth that has transferred into some academy team we don’t know about.
The reasons for such certainty include returning just about every player from a 2014-15 squad that went 34-1 and defeated Mater Dei of Santa Ana 76-69 in the CIF Open Division state championship.
No high school team from Stockton in any sport has been No. 1 in the nation to start a season and last year’s St. Mary’s girls were the first to be State Team of the Year in any sport since Lincoln had a dominant statewide softball program in the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
Still, being a no-brainer No. 1 team in the state to start a season is going to be uncharted waters for St. Mary’s. Even though the Rams have won eight CIF state titles (seven under current head coach Tom Gonsalves), this is the first time they’re coming off an Open Division state title and they have more returning talent than perhaps any team they’ve ever had.
“We’re just so fortunate we’re so deep, but we don’t ever talk about winning period,” Gonsalves said at a conditioning workout for most of the players two weeks ago. “We just practice every day to play at a certain level. There’s no way they can rest on anything.”
Point guard Mi’Cole Cayton was the team’s lone finalist to be Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year as a junior, but just selecting her above teammates such as Kat Tudor and Aquira DeCosta was splitting hairs.
Cayton, who is headed to Nebraska, stuffs the stat box in steals, assists, rebounds and points. She also was MVP of the San Diego Classic held in July when a team of St. Mary’s girls won their fourth straight title.
Tudor, who has committed to Oregon State, is mostly known for 3-point shooting but has improved athletically in every season so far. She starts her senior year with 301 career 3-pointers and would need to get to 447 to tie the school and state record of 447 set in 2005 by Renee Roberts.DeCosta had an even more fruitful summer. The 6-foot-3 sophomore and last season’s State Freshman of the Year played on the USA under-16 national team and eventually was ranked as the No. 1 player nationally in the Class of 2018 by ESPN-W. Her list of college finalists, once she figures it out, will likely read like a who’s who of major powerhouse programs.
According to Gonsalves, incoming junior point guard Sierra Smith also will have major college offers and he believes she’s a McDonald’s All-America candidate. Another junior guard, Naje’ Murray, should be recruited heavily while one of the returning seniors, 6-foot forward Sidney Fadal, has committed to UOP.
“People ask, and I tell them we really do have 11 players who will be Division I in college,” Gonsalves said. “These girls just have so much athleticism to go with everything they do.”
Even at 5-foot-9 and playing on the interior with so many super guards, senior Angel Johnson could get college attention due to her defensive intensity and strength. Two other sophomores besides DeCosta that also appear to have D1 abilities are 5-foot-9 Ariel Johnson and 5-foot-10 Neenah Young.
It’s not like the Rams don’t have any new players, either. Freshmen Nicole Young (5-9 guard) and Jada Moss (5-8 forward) were impressive in the summer while Raziya Potter is a 5-foot-10 sophomore transfer from Kimball of Tracy who was one of the state’s top freshmen last season.
“We have all five starters back, but I’m not convinced yet which five are going to start this year,” Gonsalves said. “If there’s someone who doesn’t want it bad enough, we have someone next who may. I don’t care who plays the most. I just want those who deserve it.”
St. Mary’s already has a “national champion” title mentioned alongside the 2009-10 team’s banner inside Morelli Gym. That was not a consensus national No. 1, however, and the Rams were not the Cal-Hi Sports State Team of the Year, either. That was because one ranking, from MaxPreps, had it that way.
That was the year when St. Mary’s lost to Mater Dei at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona, then Mater Dei took a loss to a Brea Olinda team that the Rams had defeated. At the end of the season, both teams won CIF state titles in different divisions but Mater Dei avenged its only loss to Brea Olinda and still had the head-to-head win advantage over St. Mary’s.
Such a scenario couldn’t happen again due to the CIF Open Division, which will be conducted for the fourth time in the 2015-16 season.
For a California girls basketball team to be No. 1 in the nation, the path is rather simple: Win the Arizona TOC title (the Rams already know they’ll be in the top division with a likely top seed) and then win the CIF Open Division crown.
Many teams, however, with as much no-brainer features like the Rams have, just don’t get it done. Seniors begin to think about college, the competition is consistently gunning to knock off the No. 1, injuries can occur and a high school basketball game is just not very long. One poor 30-minute stretch against a competitive opponent can be all it takes.
Tudor says she has placed her championship ring from last season on a desk she sees every day to help her stay hungry.
“When you get rings like that, it makes you want another one,” she said. “We’re still on a high from winning state, but we’ve still got to walk in the gym every day and get the job done.”