Last February, after SoCal powers Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei took turns beating up on a road-weary Whitney Young team from Chicago, Poly coach Carl Buggs ventured that "the best basketball is on the West Coast." He ought to know -- his aptly-nicknamed Jackrabbits have played a lot of it the past few years. And though Buggs' team again will be a force this season, it will be left to its two neighbors down in Orange County -- Mater Dei and Brea Olinda -- to duke it out for national supremacy.
When the blows will be delivered is not yet known. The fact that they will be is not at question.
As if it weren't enough to squeeze two ultra-talented programs into a single county, the rivalry was lifted to DEFCON 1 when guard Taylor Spears jumped sides, from Mater Dei to Brea (she's eligible this season), then Brea derailed the Monarchs' perfect season with a 47-43 upset in January. The previous year, Brea's Ladycats knocked Mater Dei, then ranked No. 1 in the country, out of the postseason and out of the national top spot, dealing it a 44-38 defeat in the CIF Southern California Division II Regional finals.
Mater Dei rebounded, avenging the losses with a 51-46 victory in a regional finals rematch, went on to win a state title, finish 32-1 and was the consensus pick for No. 1 in the country.
Whether there will be another two acts in this Orange County drama this year is up in the air. The first could take place in Chandler, Ariz., in the top (Joe Smith) division of the Nike Tournament of Champions. That matchup nearly occurred last year, save a last-second shot by St. Mary's of Stockton, Calif., which knocked the Ladycats out in the semifinals.
Still, much as we'd like to strike up Katy Perry's "California Gurls" as the soundtrack to the 2010-11 high-school girls' basketball season, we're going to hit rewind on a David Bowie cassette instead. There are many ch-ch-ch-changes in the offing that could influence the national high-school championship picture. The bigger ones include:
• Except for Spears, Mater Dei's mainstays return, but the Monarchs regain Alexyz Vaioletama, the No. 14 prospect in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100 and USC signee who missed last season with stress fractures in her left shin. They also add Karina Alofaituli, the No. 26 prospect in the 2011 class and Arizona State signee.
• Not to be outdone, Brea welcomes back post Justine Hartman, the No. 7 prospect in 2011 and UCLA signee, plus adds rocket-powered Spears to an already fleet team.
• One of the best freshmen in the country, Brianna Turner, already is off to a fast start, averaging 23.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.5 steals in her first six games for Westbury Christian in Houston.
• Twins and juniors Nia (6-foot-3) and Anaya (6-1) Moore have transferred into Bolingbrook (Ill.).
• In one of the country's major breakups, pals Kaela Davis and Diamond DeShields, arguably the top two prospects in the 2013 class, parted ways when Davis transferred to Buford (Ga.), joining fellow Tennessee commit Andraya Carter, the No. 17 prospect by ESPN HoopGurlz in the 2012 class.
• DeShields remains at Norcross (Ga.) and is joined by DeArica Hamby, a 6-foot-2 forward, Wake Forest commit and No. 93 prospect in the 2011 class who brings more of an inside presence to the team.
• In maybe the biggest flip of all, the girls' basketball program at now-defunct St. Michael Academy in Manhattan moved, nearly lock, stock and barrel, to Brooklyn and Nazareth Regional, immediately making that school a national contender.
• The No. 5 prospect in 2011, Krystal Forthan, an LSU signee, is eligible for varsity play after transferring last year to Georgetown (Texas), which finished 30-3 without her last season.
When all heads have stopped spinning, the following 10 teams, comprising the top of the Powerade Fab 50 high-school team rankings, should be best positioned for the national-championship race:
1. Mater Dei (Sana Ana, Calif.): Returning is the top senior in the country in UConn signee Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, as well as the No. 5 junior in Jordan Adams. Alofaituli and Vaoiletama give Mater Dei the most powerful foursome assembled in a while at one school, allowing last year's "season-saver," Jessica Duarte, to come off the bench. The question is whether the Monarchs have enough overall quickness to pressure and defend as they have in the past.
2. Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.): Hartman, the most fundamentally sound post on the high-school level, will give the Wildcats a weapon few teams of their caliber possess. However, the addition of Spears may be even more significant because adding her to the likes of Alexis Perry and Keitra Wallace gives Brea the kind of up-and-down that used to be the pride of the Monarchs. And now with Hartman anchoring the paint, the Brea wings and guards can extend even more.
3. Westbury Christian (Houston): It's difficult to argue against a team whose court general, Amber Orrange, the Stanford signee, is so battle tested. Her already talented team gains Turner, who is developing into one of the prep game's top inside-outside threats. Westbury has a little advantage over most Texas teams, which don't venture at all out of the Lone Star State, but didn't take on much of a national schedule and thus is beholden to developments out of its control.
4. Bolingbrook (Bolingbrook, Ill): Moore (Anaya), Moore (Nia), more (guard Kiera Ray) -- how daya like it? Andre True's disco anthem may be a little out of step in these times, but Bolingbrook, already the defending Illinois state champs, certainly are not. Their base is titanium strong with returnees Aerial Massengale, the Tennessee-bound point guard extraordinaire, and Morgan Tuck, the No. 12 prospect in 2012. So the new additions give them a shot at No. 1.
5. Memphis Central (Memphis, Tenn.): The Warriors have some "wow" talent in guard Danielle Ballard, the No. 10 prospect in 2012; Aaliyah Whiteside, No. 35 and on the move in the same class, and Nina Davis, a top, 6-1 point guard from 2013. That goes with a "wow" schedule, however. If they can get through the rest of 2010 -- Turkey Jamm at home, Iolani Classic in Hawaii and TOC -- with just a loss or two, they could close hard.
6. Potter's House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.): Add the inside emergence of Hillary Fuller, No. 28 in the 2012 class, to the perimeter riches, including Antoinette Bannister, Loliya Briggs, Brittany Roundtree and Shalethia Stringfield, and you have one of the game's greatest traveling shows. Unfortunately, the Lions pile up so much mileage in their recreational vehicle, they inevitably blow a tire here and there, thus sabotaging any national championship aspirations.
7. Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.): Like the two teams ranked ahead of them, the Crusaders have plenty of talent -- DI signees Lauren Chase and Tyonna Williams, and Taysia Butler, Jonquel Jones and Jennie Sims from the 2012 class -- which plays at a run-you-into-the-ground pace. Also like the previous two teams, their schedule also is challenging, perhaps the most murderous in the country. A letdown, especially with such a youngish nucleus, seems inevitable.
8. Neptune (Neptune, N.J.): With Rutgers signees Syessence Davis, No. 51 in 2011, and Shakena Richardson, No. 18 overall, as well as post Chyna Golden, a Pitt signee ranked No. 97 in the same class, the Scarlet Fliers can outfit three-fifths of a pretty good college team. But they may not have reached far enough with their schedule, and the Garden State has in recent years been treacherous turf on which to tread. This year is no different.
9. Whitney Young (Chicago, Ill.): With the likes of Linnae Harper, Chanise Jenkins (No. 64 in the 2011 class) and Kiana Johnson (No. 55), the Dolphins have been more like a swarm of bees, buzzing around on defense and turning pressure into easy baskets. But now that swift backcourt has some support upfront, making Whitney Young an even more serious contender on the national scene.
10. Buford (Buford, Ga.): Last year, with Carter leading the way, the Lady Wolves won their second straight Georgia State AA championship and finished 29-4. They've lost three starters to graduation, but gain Davis, her length and do-everything approach to the game. With Davis, their sights would be set a little higher than just a third straight state title and they are traveling West to the TOC.
As many as seven of these teams are ticketed for the TOC. Already the de facto national-championship tournament in most years, the even turns Chandler into more or less a supercollider for girls' basketball, right before Christmas.
Follow us on Twitter, where you can ask questions and get instant updates.
Become a fan of the site on Facebook and get updates in your news stream.
Discuss this on our Message Board
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, 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.
REST OF THE HS RANKINGS PANEL
Lisa Bodine is a national evaluator for ESPN HoopGurlz. A native of Queens, N.Y., she began her coaching career in 1993 with the NY Gazelles, has coached with D.C.-based Team Unique, and in 2009 she was named DAC Co-Coach of the Year after leading Wakefield Country Day School in Flint Hill, Va., to its first-ever conference title. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Rebecca Gray is an intern for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously wrote a column for the website about her experiences as a freshman on basketball scholarship at the University of North Carolina. She transferred to and played at Kentucky and now plays basketball and golf at Union College. A 5-foot-10, sharp-shooting guard out of Georgetown, Ky., Gray was named Miss Basketball in the state of Kentucky after averaging 25.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 4.8 assists during her senior season at Scott County High School. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
Kara (Harrison) Howe founded and coached in the Utah Sky club program, which sent several players, including sister Michelle, a recent Stanford, graduate to Division I schools. She played college basketball at Utah Valley State, was an all-state performer at Alta High School in Sandy, Utah, and coached high school in the Salt Lake area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at email@example.com.