CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Hard as everyone tried, the termination notice on the two-year reign of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) at the top of the high school girls' basketball world never quite could be delivered.
As late as last Thursday, Nirra Fields, the senior guard who scores as easily as some people blink -- and sometimes just as quickly -- didn't know if her career with the aptly nicknamed Monarchs actually was over before it ever began. Awaiting word from the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) on a transfer appeal, she was taking part in a shooting drill when coach Kevin Kiernan walked up and told her, "You're eligible." That's when, according to her, "everyone started going crazy."
The celebration was in anticipation of Fields' first-ever game in a Monarchs uniform -- on Monday, opening day of the Nike Tournament of Champions.
Heck, until last Wednesday, Jordan Adams, the 6-foot-1 point guard with two national-title rings and a USA Basketball resume, still was hopping around on crutches to keep the weight and pain off her injured right knee. And just a few days ago, her father, Jerald, tried to veto her plans to play. She says she simply ignored him -- and he says he lived to fight another day.
"Either we could have fought all week," Jerald Adams explained, "or she could have played."
It was the latter, and the newly christened backcourt duo picked up where the past couple of star-studded Mater Dei teams left off -- winning Joe Smith Invitational Division games, this one 60-47 over Buford (Ga.), ranked No. 12 in the POWERADE FAB 50, and declaring itself, once again, as a national-championship contender.
This version of title contenders is not like the past two, which included the country's top prospect, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, now at Connecticut, and last year had around-the-rim nationally ranked workhorses Alexyz Vaioletama and Karina Alofaituli, both now at USC. This team is more like Kiernan's deftly crafted squads at Troy (Fullerton, Calif.), which crushed wills with searing fullcourt defensive heat and unrelenting long-distance shooting.
The difference is that this Mater Dei team, ranked No. 10 coming into the TOC, is led by a pair of elite college prospects who exude mental and physical toughness.
How else to explain Fields torching Buford for 29 right-as-rain points in her first game of the season with a brand-new set of teammates? She'd moved to Southern California during the summer from Cleveland with new Lakers coach Mike Brown, who'd become her guardian. His sons enrolled at Mater Dei, a private school known for its academics and athletic prowess, and it made sense for her to follow -- except, at least temporarily, to the CIF.
Whatever turmoil or rustiness the UCLA-bound Fields felt (she says none), she answered the bell the very first time Mater Dei rang it, sandwiching a pair of 3s around an almost shockingly smooth pull-up jumper. Those quick eight points ignited a firestorm of confidence that the Monarchs rode to a surprisingly convincing win over a much bigger Buford team.
"She's just a natural scorer," Kiernan said of Fields. "If she took a year off and met you at the gym one day, she'd still be able to score. She's so hard to guard. It's like she's on skates out there."
Fields' offensive explosiveness was a devastating complement to a Mater Dei defense that stuck a period on almost any offensive sentence Buford tried to write. The Monarchs held the Lady Wolves, whose attack includes Kaela Davis, the nation's No. 2 junior prospect, and Kristina Nelson, the No. 30 junior, to just one field goal in each of the second and third quarters. Davis tried to will Buford back with 14 of her team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter, but it was too late and the virus she showed up with to the gym rendered her too ill.
Kiernan isn't certain how long Mater Dei can sustain its defensive intensity. But he is certain it will depend on the health of Adams, whose length, especially on such a smallish team, and competitive fire sets such a tone for the Monarchs.
Adams said everything she tried, from running to stopping to jumping and landing, was painful. She landed a spectacular jab and step-back jump shot in the second quarter and said, "that hurt, too." Everything hurt, it seems, except the victory, which Adams says further convinces her to play Tuesday against No. 3 Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.).
"She's a really tough kid," Kiernan said of his USC-bound star. "She probably shouldn't even be out there. But 50 percent of Jordan is better than 100 percent of a lot of other players."
The Monarchs slipped easily into a topsy-turvy day that turned much of the top two TOC brackets upside down. They are the champs supposedly on their way to being former champs, now with renewed designs on another championship. The way the Monarchs figure it, they can keep the dream alive by turning a deaf ear on the naysayers until it's too late for them to be denied.
It's worked so far for their two best players, after all.
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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 email@example.com.