Curtis Ekmark is coaching the highest-ranked team at the Nike Tournament of Champions. The most prestigious tournament in high school girls' basketball is being held essentially in the backyard of his school, St. Mary's (Phoenix, Ariz.). The core of his team has been together since they were 9-11 years old and, if they navigate what is perhaps the strongest field in TOC history, they could have almost clear sailing to a mythical national title.
In the face of all this, Ekmark is worried most about one thing.
His players started taking finals on Thursday. They will have tests first thing in the morning on Monday, the first day of competition, and again on Tuesday. Taking the exams lightly is not an option. This is a team that takes academics seriously. One of its seniors, Shilpa Tummala, the No. 68 prospect in her class, is signed to play next season for Harvard, after all.
"This is something we have to go through every year," Ekmark said. "This is why we're 0-for-the-first-round."
At last year's TOC, the Knights lost to Monarch (Louisville, Colo.) on the first day, then re-grouped to win their next three.
St. Mary's opens the 2011 Joe Smith Invitational with Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.), which it beat at last year's tournament. If they win, the Knights would advance to play either Wesleyan School (Norcross, Ga.), which is No. 11 in the POWERADE FAB 50, or Good Counsel (Olney, Md.), which is No. 13. The highest-ranked of possible semifinal opponents includes No. 6 Bolingbrook (Ill.) and No. 7 St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.), neither of which are strangers to the late rounds of the TOC. Bolingbrook already has two victories over teams, Riverdale (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) and Twinsburg (Ohio), which at the time were ranked in the top 15.
This year at least, the Knights' biggest tests should come on the basketball court.
"I'm hoping we're a veteran enough group to survive the first day, then fight through the second," Ekmark said. "After that, we'd have our legs and be in good shape -- except, of course, the competition only gets tougher."
This is a tested (so to speak) group, which is a major reason for its lofty ranking, No. 2 in the FAB 50. Ekmark's daughter, Courtney, one of the top prospects in the 2014 class, was part of an AAU U9 national championship team with junior Chantel Osahor and the twins, Danielle and Dominique Williams, both of whom also are juniors. The team picked up seniors Tummala and Cortnee Walton, the No. 53 prospect and a Louisville signee, and finished second in the next two AAU nationals.
Ekmark also chooses to carry just eight players on the varsity roster. All eight will earn Division I scholarships, he reasons, which makes for difficult, competitive matchups in practice. He will suit up another four junior-varsity players to offer them the TOC experience.
The team also plays the club circuit in the spring and summer as the Arizona Warriors and, since the players all were in middle school, attracted attention across the country for the precision with which it runs its offenses and defenses.
"We really don't care where we play," Courtney Ekmark said. "We just want to play the best teams and would go wherever we needed to in order to play them."
As her father points out, playing a national tournament at "home" can be a double-edged sword.
The team hopes to attract some of its usual fan base to provide atmosphere. And the players can sleep in their own beds. However, while the TOC is in nearby Chandler, Ariz., several of the Knights live about an hour away in the western part of Phoenix.
"In some ways, I'd rather us all be in a hotel five minutes away from the gym," Curtis Ekmark said. "But it beats being on the East Coast and getting a 9 a.m. game. Overall, I'll take it."
Ekmark and his team also will accept the pressure of being the highest-ranked team in the most prestigious tournament, with the perceived advantage of doing it at home.
St. Mary's also would have the inside track to a final national No. 1 ranking. After the TOC, the Knights have one national-level opponent, Windward (Los Angeles, Calif.) with No. 10 senior Imani Stafford and No. 4 sophomore Jordin Canada. That game will take place in L.A. on Martin Luther King Day, and the rest of St. Mary's schedule is comprised of local Arizona opponents it steamrolled last season.
"Our team has an incredible opportunity to do something that no other team in Arizona has ever done," Walton said. "Our team goal at the beginning of the year was to become national champions, and we know in order to do that we must win the Nike Tournament of Champions."
Tummala said, "We are all extremely excited (about) the possibilities ahead of us. Obviously, there is a sense of pressure that we feel as a team. We have worked especially hard and we are hoping that all those hours in the gym will pay off. But, regardless of what happens, at the end of the day, I can honestly say that I am so lucky to be playing with such great teammates and we are very blessed to be given the chance of winning a national championship."
St. Mary's certainly has a chance, and maybe the best chance, but far from a guarantee.
Fourteen of the 16 teams in the Smith Division are ranked in the FAB 50, No. 35 or higher. Seven, including St. Mary's, are in the top 10. Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) is just behind the Knights in the national rankings compiled by ESPN HoopGurlz at No. 3, but just added DeJanae Boykin, regarded by many as the top freshman prospect in the country. Riverdale may be one of the most overall athletic and talented teams to ever play in the TOC.
And should St. Mary's get through the TOC minefield safely, the game against Windward is a dangerous one. The Wildcats also are playing in the Smith Division next week, but are just outside the FAB 50 because Stafford is just returning from a hip injury and has been playing limited minutes. By Jan. 16, Windward, a defending state champion, should be playing better.
And, oh yeah, though Walton gives St. Mary's good size at 6-feet-3, Stafford is 6-6 and a USA Basketball national team selection.
"It would be naive to try ignoring all the expectations," Curtis Ekmark said. "We have to just welcome them. This is the type of group that loves those challenges. They are great life lessons. It sure beats the alternative: As I told the team, 'You could not have been invited.'
"We're excited. All the kids and I wish it started tomorrow."
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.