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Ram-bunctious

St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) is as close as ever to being in the image of its head coach Tom Gonsalves -- fiesty and intense. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Some coaches strive an entire career to fashion a team in his or her image. Tom Gonsalves churns them out annually, though some run truer to form than others.

To wit, this year's has a chance to become a Gonslaves masterpiece. Fiesty and intense, like its coach, St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) already has pulled off a minor upset at the Nike Tournament of Champions, scrambling No. 20 Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.) like a batch of eggs with its pressure defense, then turning up the heat from 3-point range for a 74-68, first-round victory.

It was, as performances go, vintage St. Mary's, but highly unexpected. The Rams, to use the parlance of more monied levels of basketball, are supposed to be in a "rebuilding year." After all, they lost nationally ranked prospects Chelsea Gray to Duke and Afure Jemerigbe to Cal, a half dozen players in all who spent a full four years in Gonsalves' mind-bending system, off a team that challenged for mythical national high-school championships for two years running.

During practices this fall, Gonsalves was getting a familiar, but out-of-kilter vibe from his team.

"This is a great practice team," he said, "and the way it was practicing made me think it already was as good as last year's team. But they shouldn't be. No way. We lost too much talent."

Yet, en route to a season-opening, 83-35 shellacking of Bradshaw Christian (Sacramento, Calif.), a team considered good enough to be penciled into a CIF Northern Sectional berth, the Rams forced 20 turnovers -- during the first period alone.

Lacking the blueblood-level talent of last year, this season's team is forced to play harder and more cohesively to succeed. Yet it is not without talent.

With her leadership, ballhandling and effort, senior Ali Gibson is a metronomic glue player. Junior Regina Camera sent last year's TOC semifinal against Brea Olinda into overtime with an almost-impossible three and has ridden that jolt of confidence to become a consistent scorer from all parts of the court. Jemerigbe's younger sister, Onome, a sophomore, is a lightning bolt at the point. Senior Kendall Kenyon and sophomore Courtney Range offer length on defense and inside-outside punch on offense. In all, this Rams team is younger, but it may also be faster.

Plus it is motivated by fear.

"St. Mary's has been so good for so long," said Gibson, an Oregon State signee, "we don't want to be the team that people say ended that success."

It's understandable that others didn't see this coming, but Gonsalves maybe should have. For a given group, his 32-minutes-of-hell, freewheeling style is anywhere from six to eight years in the making. The club teams that feed into the St. Mary's program start running the frenetic defensive traps and taking 500 shots a day in the fifth grade.

By the time players approach their freshman year at St. Mary's, they understand defensive rotations as much as they quaver at the prospect of playing for the head varsity coach who wears all his emotions on his sleeves, collar and even sneakers.

"When I was younger, I used to be so scared of getting yelled at by him," said Gibson, who has played varsity for Gonslaves since her freshman year. "There are girls who hate being yelled at. Those people usually don't make it at St. Mary's. A lot of good players have quit the team. You have to be tough-skinned."

The corollary is that you have to be even tougher-skinned to play against a team that understands intently the chaos it wreaks and is conditioned to understand that the worst thing to fear is not losing, but disappointing your head coach.

Gibson said she has seen Gonsalves break his own glasses and rip the bottoms off his shoes during in-game tantrums. In reaction to his team's mistakes, Gonsalves often resembles a man passing a kidney stone -- or worse.

"People have been telling me that (to calm down) for 25 years," Gonsalves said. "I think I'm a lot more mellow than I used to be."

Hearing this, Gibson, who is waiting down the Hamilton High School hallway, chuckles and shakes her head.

There is a point, she later says, when fear transforms into understanding for a Gonsalves player.

"Now I hear what he says, not how he says it," Gibson said. "And, really, he's calmed down a lot since my freshman year."

His teams, not so much. Which is why they continue to stalk and awe the national elite.

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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 girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.