Out of the water to the top of the rankings for Archbishop Mitty

Courtesy Archbishop Mitty

Nicole Blakes, here being pulled by Haley Jones, was an uplifting presence on the bench after her season was cut short by injury.

Haley Jones and her teammates and coaches looked to the left, and then they looked to the right.

Then they sprinted.

Destination: the fountain just outside the lobby of the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix. The players and coaches jumped in and out of the fountain, at night, before anyone could notice.

"We got completely drenched," said Jones, the star player of the Archbishop Mitty Monarchs (San Jose, California). "We all splashed water on each other."

This was a quick fountain bath -- in and out in seconds -- and it was a reward of sorts for winning the annual Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, beating four opponents in four days, including three that were nationally ranked.

Before the tournament started, Mitty coach Sue Phillips told some of her players that she and her staff would jump into their hotel's fountain if the Monarchs won the title. Word of the promise quickly spread to the rest of the girls, and when the winners' trophy was in their possession for the first time since 1999, there was only one thing left to do.

"I was bringing up the rear," Phillips said of her quick dash to the fountain. "But I held up my end of the bargain."

So, too, did the players, doing everything asked of them all season -- on the court, in the classroom and in the community. They played just like they celebrated, with joy. On Tuesday, the Monarchs (29-1) were named espnW's No. 1 team for the 2017-18 season.

Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire

Karisma Ortiz is headed across the country to play for Penn State next season.

The Monarchs' only blemish was a 78-67 triple-overtime loss to Pinewood (Los Altos, California) in a CIF Open Division state semifinal on March 17.

It was a bitter defeat for the Monarchs, who had beaten Pinewood 76-62 15 days earlier to earn the sectional title.

In the rematch, the Monarchs led Pinewood 39-23 in the third quarter. But Jones was whistled for her fourth foul with 3:34 left in the third quarter and went to the bench. The 6-foot-1 wing and No. 5 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2019 class fouled out with 1:31 to go in regulation. Junior guard Ania McNicholas -- the Monarchs' top perimeter defender -- fouled out as well.

"Haley played only 24 minutes out of a possible 44 in that game due to foul trouble," Phillips said. "There was some debate about the first, fourth and fifth foul calls.

"I would argue that if we had Haley two more minutes, we win that game in regulation."

But, as heartbreaking as that game was for the Monarchs, it did not define their season or their journey, which began with nine weeks of conditioning way back in August.

Strength coach Brett Nichols led the conditioning program, and athletic director Brian Eagleson coordinated the final event, a "boot camp" beach-day workout in Santa Cruz.

Mitty's boy's basketball team also participated in a day in which workouts began at 8 a.m. and left both squads exhausted. And sandy.

Courtesy Archbishop Mitty

Ania McNicholas and Archbishop Mitty started their season with some intense preseason bonding exercises and ended it as national champions.

One of the "fun" drills was called "sugar cookies" in which the players rolled around on the beach and charged down a hill to the water. Once they got the sand off their bodies, they ran back up the hill, and they did this over and over in a relay-race format.

"It was a tough workout for our abs and core," said Jones, a former junior lifeguard. "We literally dragged each other through the sand."

That preseason bonding experience worked wonders throughout the year when the 11 girls on varsity carried each other, emotionally if not physically, through whatever adversity arrived.

Mitty's toughest moment -- other than the loss to Pinewood -- was a knee injury suffered by 6-2 senior center Nicole Blakes, a University of San Diego signee who tore her left ACL in the final regular-season game of the year.

The Monarchs were 25-0 at the time of the injury to Blakes, who got hurt after blocking a shot and trying to keep the ball from going out of bounds. Blakes averaged 14.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals this season, making first-team all-league as well all-tournament at the TOC.

"She was an incredible rim protector," Phillips said. "It was a freak injury."

In honor of Blakes, Monarchs players wore bands on their wrists with the words "Mitty Strong" in school colors, black and gold. Blakes' No. 21 was on each band, and the players wore them every day to school.

During games, players put the bands around their water bottles, serving as constant reminders to play hard for Blakes.

"Nicole was such an inspiration," said McNicholas, who took Blakes' spot in the starting lineup. "She uplifted everyone on the bench, cheering us on. She never made it seem like anything was wrong."

Courtesy Sue Phillips

Just three players graduate from Archbishop Mitty's three teams that combined to go 65-0 in the regular season.

At the end of the regular season, Mitty's three teams -- varsity, JV and freshman -- were a combined 65-0. And of the 35 players on those teams, all but three are expected to return next season.

The three graduating seniors are Blakes, 6-0 guard Karisma Ortiz, who signed with Penn State; and Krissy Miyahara, a 5-3 guard who signed with Westmont College, an NAIA school in Santa Barbara, California.

Phillips and her staff -- assistants Tami Monson and Joe Guerra -- figure to have another outstanding team next season, built around Jones, of course, but also McNicholas and freshman guard Hunter Hernandez.

Jones, who averaged 21.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.5 blocks and 2.0 steals, had a busy month of March. Aside from school and leading her team through a difficult playoff stretch, she and her family also hosted nine college head coaches in what has become an intense recruiting battle.

Three of the head coaches/staffs who made the NCAA Final Four visited Jones' home last month, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Louisville. Also visiting were coaches from Oregon, UCLA, Texas, South Carolina, Stanford and Cal.

Jones, though, said the visits were not stressful for her at all.

"It was nice to learn about their schools and see the coaches' personalities," said Jones, who hopes to trim her list a bit this summer and then make a college choice by November.

Jones' levelheaded approach to recruiting is typical of the Mitty players, Phillips said.

"If you had the pleasure of watching this team play, they displayed an amazing brand of basketball," she said. "We could play up-tempo. We could pound it inside, hit 3s or midrange. Our defense could turn you over.

"And the best part was their joy, whether it was games, practices or even on the bus ride. Every time I walked into the locker room, they were doing karaoke, singing at the tops of their lungs. These girls love to laugh, and they love to work."

They're not too bad at celebrating, either.

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