Mater Dei High School was the crème-de-la-crème of girl's high school basketball a season ago, winning the Nike Tournament of Champions, avenging its only loss of the season to Brea Olinda (Calif.) when it counted most, winning a Division II state championship, and finishing the season No. 1 in the final ESPN RISE FAB 50. Typically such success comes with a wealth of senior experience and a little bit of luck, none of which was the case for the 2009-10 version of the team, but what a difference a summer makes.
The Monarchs of 2010-2011 have a quartet of seniors and a junior duo leading the way on a team ranked No. 1 in the Powerade FAB 50 by ESPN HoopGurlz. All six are Division I talents and there are five FIBA gold medals and countless accolades among them.
Start with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the No. 1 ranked player in the 2011 class according to ESPN HoopGurlz and Connecticut signee. She is approaching 2,000 points and already is the school's career points record holder. She and junior point guard Jordan Adams, the No. 5 ranked player in the ESPNU HoopGurlz Super 60, have spent the past two summers winning four gold medals between them for USA Basketball's U16 and U17 teams. Those two have drawn a majority of the attention from a season ago but this year's team very well could be deeper and better.
With Mosqueda-Lewis, Adams, Cal State-Northridge-signee Jessica Duarte, and junior guard Alexas Williamson all returning, it would be easy to take things for granted. Add the return of the No. 14 ranked senior, Alexyz Vaioletama, the owner of the team's fifth gold medal and a USC signee, and the pot gets sweeter. But there's more. Transfer Karina Alofaituli, an Arizona State-signee and No. 26 senior, joins the Monarch's frontcourt and it begins to become apparent that the most likely competition this season and the biggest hurdle to a repeat of the national and state championships may come from within.
The challenge for head coach Kevin Kiernan and his heavily favored program, one that on paper could give several college programs a run for their money, is pretty simple, yet incredibly difficult.
"Our challenge will be with this talent, who's going to do the little things," Kiernan said. "Who's going to set the screens? Who's going to do the dirty work? Who's going to get the rebounds? Who's going to get people open for shots? Who's going to talk on defense and take charges? We got the big stuff covered and that's the message I've been trying to get across to them the last month and a half."
The three key seniors, Alofaituli, Mosqueda-Lewis and Vaioletama, as well as Adams, are all capable of averaging 20 points per game at the high-school level. The problem for the Monarchs is that it cannot be done simultaneously. Despite the team's dominance and firepower a season ago, Mater Dei scored 80 or more points in a game just five times.
So as Kiernan asks rhetorically, who will do all the little things?
"That's always the issue with a talented team," Kiernan said of finding shots and points for everyone. "If you're going to play at the national level and have the talent that teams that play at the level do, you know, it's always going to rear it's head."
Jealousy is a natural characteristic of high-schoolers but Kiernan stands in the gym with his intense delivery, demanding each of them put the team first.
"We have some seniors that have been through it," Kiernan said. "They've seen the good and the bad and know how the good feels and know why it was bad. To revisit problems like that would be foolish and that's why I think they get along much better this year."
There is evidence from previous seasons as well as Mosqueda-Lewis owns the school record for points in a game, 41, yet doesn't go after that total every game. She concurs with her coach's assessment that the chemistry is better this year and both she and Kiernan credit the energy of the five freshmen on varsity this year.
"So far it's worked just fine," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "Everybody is distributing the ball and we all really have a common goal, we want to win. We want to win a state title. We want to hopefully be the No. 1 team in the nation again."
That chemistry will be tested early and often as the Monarchs take on three tournaments before the New Year -- the Matt Denning Hoops Classic that it hosts Dec. 6-10, the Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., Dec. 18-22, and the Title VI Classic in Washington, D.C., Dec. 28-30.
The biggest test is, of course, the Nike TOC, a tournament the Monarchs won last year. The brackets and divisions are yet to be set but with teams like Brea Olinda, ranked No. 2 in the Powerade FAB 50; Bolingbrook (Ill.), No. 4; Memphis Central (Tenn.), No. 5; Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) , No. 7; Burford (Ga.), No. 10; St. Mary's (Phoenix, Ariz.), No. 11; and Long Beach Poly (Calif.), No. 12; all listed as participants in the event, the gauntlet has been laid to test the team's meddle and commitment.
Kiernan already is aware of the team's weakness, noting that while having five highly ranked college prospects, his team isn't incredibly quick. For a team that deploys full-court pressure, the quickness issue needs to be mitigated if the team draws a hyper-athletic team like Memphis Central or Poly. The team makes up for it with tremendous length. Adams stands 6 feet 1 as the point guard, Mosqueda-Lewis is 6-0 on one wing while Williamson, at 5-8, is the only starter under 6-0.
Perhaps being a little coy, Kiernan also has more than length at his disposal; he has a physical basketball team. Vaioletama has been in the weight room and her coaches and teammates have praised her offseason work. Mosqueda-Lewis and Alofaituli are not strangers to contact and playing inside either.
It's cliché in sports that winning a second straight championship is more difficult than the first, but Mater Dei has more talent than most of the teams trying to test its validity. That and Kiernan is channeling Duke men's coach Mike Krzyzewski and something he said on an ESPN special about his Blue Devils this season.
"You can't defend something you've already won," Kiernan said. "You move on from that."
Time will tell and Kiernan's Monarchs seem poised and ready for the challenge.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.