Championship caliber at every turn

Two-time Naismith winner Maya Moore was mistakenly assigned her fifth foul during the epic double-overtime loss her Collins Hill (Suwanee, Ga.) team suffered at the hands of Christ the King. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

Singers and dancers dream of Broadway. If you're hoping to leave your mark in country music you haven't really made it until you appear at the Grand Ole' Opry in Nashville and almost every lawyer hopes to one day argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Those venues aren't an absolute prerequisite for success but doing your thing on the "big stage" for any performer is a special experience and a validation that you're doing something right.

In high-school girls' basketball the "supreme court" is the annual Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz. No event during the academic year brings together more nationally ranked teams or a deeper pool of talent, thus making it the place to be in mid-December every season. Fans, families, recruiters and media all flock to the Valley of the Sun to see how some of the nation's best fare as they face each other in the closest thing you'll find on the scholastic level to a national championship. Just like Broadway, Nashville and Washington, D.C., just being there isn't enough to make you the best, but it's an opportunity to state your case with the whole basketball community watching.

Even for participants the TOC presents a tremendous opportunity to watch your peers at the highest level and take away something with which to sharpen your game. The best of competitors know that they can learn from their opponents by competing against them or in other games in an ultra-competitive environment like the one in Chandler. One of the most encouraging things to see every year are the coaches smart enough to embrace the opportunity to expose their kids to the highest level of competition not only on the floor, but by watching other games from the stands as well.

And who can argue with the talent level that might be on the floor? Going into this year's event, 15 participating teams are ranked nationally in the Powerade Fab 50 while six other teams bound for Arizona are recognized in regional rankings. Depth of talent has never been an issue for the Tournament of Champions. Eleven past TOC participants during the past 14 years have gone on to claim a national title. That includes the defending champions and currently top ranked Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.).

To fully understand and grasp the magnitude of the Tournament of Champions you have to embrace a little holiday spirit and rely on the "Ghost of Tournaments Past." Christ the King always has been a recognized East Coast power but its national reputation has been solidified with its record of five Tournament of Champions titles. Six players on the current USA roster have played in the TOC during their scholastic careers. Twelve of the 24 combined players who suited up for Connecticut and Stanford in the NCAA championship game competed in the TOC at some point in their high school playing days.

If you were to travel back and look at some exciting championship games it would be hard to get beyond the 2005 final in which Tina Charles and Maya Moore combined for 75 points as Charles and Christ the King edged Moore's Collins Hill team in double overtime. Go back just one more year and you would enjoy another Charles and Christ the King win on Lorin Dixon's last-second lay up over Piedmont High School with Courtney and Ashley Paris. Just a year ago the final featured the eventual national champs from Mater Dei holding off a second-half rally from eventual national runner up St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.). Charles Dickens himself couldn't have written a better script.

If top-tier competition brings out the best in an individual player then a glance back to 1999 is in order to appreciate WNBA star and Olympian Diana Taurasi's four-game run when Santa Barbara was home to the Tournament of Champions. All the Don Lugo High School legend did was nail three last-second game winners and, for good measure, added a game winner with 20 seconds remaining to seal another win. More impressive still was the fact she got up off the floor and took care of business after being "clotheslined" by an opponent's cheap shot, leaving her writhing on the floor while opposing fans seemed on the verge of some WWE action.

Another impressive individual performance that should never be forgotten should be that of the late Shawntinice Polk for Hanford High School during the tournament's one-year venture into the brisk Midwestern climate of Evanston, Ill. in 2000. (We're all still working on forgiving tournament director Steve Kozaki for that one)! The future honorable mention All-American and three-time, first-team All-Pac 10 performer demonstrated skills, potential and instincts that had college coaches who were not even recruiting her at her games just to watch. It wasn't the stats or the results of the games, but simply one of those moments where an athlete hits her stride and demonstrates something special against the best competition. The folks on the West Coast already knew what she could do but after her performance in the TOC, so did everyone else.

It would be virtually impossible to get all the best teams together on the high-school level and, as it is, not all the top programs are able to make the trip west. Some teams have their hands bound by state sanctioning bodies while others are limited by financial resources. But those who can and do find their way to Chandler, Ariz., have the opportunity to compete for and experience something more than just a tournament title.

More than 12,500 athletes have competed in the Tournament of Champions over the years, representing 41 states and Canada, according to Kozaki. Tournament participants have also gone on to capture an incredible 113 state championships. While not every team brings a national ranking, future college All-American or WNBA star to the table, they do bring the desire to line up against the best and challenge themselves. Those kinds of teams create memories worth visiting over and over again and offer lessons that even Ebenezer Scrooge could learn from.

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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 mark@hoopgurlz.com.