PHOTOS BY GLENN NELSON
As always, the caveat: Who the heck knows? Picking the best high school basketball team in all the land is pretty much a fool's exercise, but that hasn't stopped me from doing
it for the past ten years.
In that time, I've developed some criteria that help me come up with these lists, misguided though they may turn out to be.
Talent. Teams in the top ten must have at least two upper-level Division I prospects, or else five or six total D-1 players. Sometimes, as in the case of Ursuline, one superstar
can elevate a bunch of pretty good players into a high ranking, but then the second major part of the formula must be met:
Strength of schedule. Even a school with tons of talent that beats up only on its in-state rivals isn't going to get much love in these rankings - if you want to be considered one
of the best, you have to beat the best, plain and simple. So teams that go out on the road, as Ursuline does, and play other elite teams, will get a boost in the preseason
rankings. Of course, if the Raiders go out and lose to every other elite team, their stay in the rankings will be brief. On the other hand, beating a ranked team, or a borderline
ranked team, will offset a loss to an unranked team. And, consequently, a team with a creampuff schedule better not lose to any chocolate eclairs, because there's no way to
make up any ground.
Tradition. Why does tradition matter? Because some programs stay at the top of their game year in and year out, defying the law of competitive gravity. Christ the King is
exhibit A, and though on talent, the Royals may not deserve to start as high as they do, they have the schedule and they have this funny way of just winning and winning and
winning. So until somebody beats them, they get an edge. Is that unfair to teams that burst onto the national scene with a talented group and a solid schedule? As a matter of
fact, it is, but since it's so difficult to really nail down whether Red Mountain can play with Fenwick, a program that has been there and done that is given a break.
A lot, of course, will be decided on the floor, at the several outstanding tournaments over the Christmas break and the shootouts over Martin Luther King Day weekend. In the
end, though, the formula is simple: Play ranked teams, and beat them, and your place in the top five is assured.
And now, here's this year's guesses:
1. Long Beach Poly, Long Beach, Calif. (31-5): National titles aren't won by beating up on questionable in-state competition and an occasional foray across a state line. No,
teams that want to be No. 1 have to go out and get it, and that's exactly what the Jackrabbits are going to do. They play in the two toughest tournaments in the country -
the Nike TOC in Phoenix before Christmas and the Three-Point Play Holiday Tournament at the University of Maryland after - and then will return to California to
defend their Division I (largest schools) state title. Leading the way is Jasmine Dixon, who must play hard every night if the Poly is going to survive that brutal schedule.
Candice Nichols, Brittany Brumfield and Taja Edwards are experienced and talented, but watch out for freshman twins Ashley and Brittany Wilson, who will make the Poly press
deadlier than ever.
2. Collins Hill, Suwanee, Ga. (31-1): Yes, Maya Moore, the consensus No. 1 senior in the country, is back. So is sharpshooter Jordan Jones. And ultratalented 6-foot-1 junior Taylor Dalrymple may be ready to emerge. But even so, the Eagles lost point guard Shantell Black to the SEC, plus two other starters, and it will be hard for them to be as good as last
year. Of course, they were really, really good last season, losing only to eventual national champ Christ the King in the Nike TOC, and they still have the marvelous Moore, who
most resembles a young Tamika Catchings. But lack of depth and a question mark at the point drops them to No. 2 to start the season.
Maya Moore of Collins Hill
3. Providence Day, Charlotte, N.C. (29-1): That one loss last year came at the hands of Collins Hill, and by only three points. With three starters back, including senior point
guard Epiphany Woodson and junior twins Britny and Whitny Edwards, the Chargers have plenty of weapons. If sophomore center Janee Johnson lives up to her reputation,
Providence Day will be just as good, if not better, than last year - and the Chargers were one of the best in the nation in 2005-06.
4. Christ the King, Middle Village, N.Y. (30-0): That's 57 in a row, if you're counting, including back-to-back national titles. And Bob Mackey returns three starters, including
Lorin Dixon, the human blur. So what's not to like? Tina Charles is now at UConn, and with her went the Royals' post game. They need a couple of sophomores to take charge
in the paint, Dixon to hit some jumpers and Sky Lindsay to have a great year. Most wouldn't rank them this high, but they play their usual brutal schedule, and after 57 in a
row, they deserve to be in the top five until someone knocks them out - and it may be harder to do that than a lot of people think.
5. The First Academy, Orlando, Fla. (30-2): It was difficult to get a line on the Royals last season, as they didn't stir out of their home state, but this year they, like Providence
Day, will be making an inaugural trip to the high-intensity competition at the Nike TOC. There, elite talents 6-4 Krystal Thomas and 5-10 junior Alex Deluzio should do just
fine, but senior point guard Tierra Brown and senior power forward Jaimie Givens (daughter of Jack, who had 47 in an NCAA title game) will have to rise to the occasion.
Regardless of what happens in Phoenix, though, First Academy looks like the juiciest orange in Florida.
6. Notre Dame Academy, Middleburg, Va. (28-2): The Dragons lost only twice last year, to solid regional programs Riverdale Baptist and Oakland Catholic, and they return four
starters, including point guard Ebonie Williams and 6-2 power forward Mia Nickson. Azania Stewart is 6-4 and Josette Campbell is 6-1 so if nothing else, Notre Dame is big.
The Dragons will play a very tough schedule (the Nike TOC and the Naples Daily News Holiday Classic) and that earns them an initial ranking number six. After all, a close loss
at one of these events is much more impressive than a 40-point blowout over a neighboring nobody.
7. Ursuline, Wilmington, Del. (21-5): Elena DelleDonne is one of those kids who just makes everything. And she's 6-4. The junior is the recruiting prize of the '08 class, and at the high school level, she is simply unguardable. Put a quick girl on her, and she just shoots over her; put a big girl on her and she starts draining threes. The Raiders play a tough schedule, which means Kayla Miller, Erin Edwards and Shannon O'Hanlon are going to have to rise to the occasion more than once, but with Delle Donne around, the game is easier for everyone.
8. Archbishop Mitty, San Jose, Calif. (27-3): All five starters return for coach Sue Phillips, plus a solid transfer, plus a freshman class Phillips calls the best in her very successful
15 years at Mitty. Danielle Robinson (Oklahoma-bound) is the best known Monarch, but Kassandra McCalister, Nicole Anderson, Lindsay Leo and Jessica Torrecillas are tall and
talented as well. Mitty could be the surprise of the Nike TOC, and conceivably finish in the top five in the nation -- and remember, you read it here first. (Of course, if the
Monarchs crash and burn, my selective amnesia might kick in.)
9. Fenwick, Oak Park, Ill. (32-2): It's difficult to choose between Fenwick and Bolingbrook as the best of Illinois, but it's a truism in high school coaching that seniors win for
you. And since the Friars run four very good seniors out there, they get the nod for a top ten spot. Devereaux Peters and Allison Jackson are the best of that senior quartet, but
Erin Power and Holly Harvey are also excellent players. As long as that group stays healthy, look for Fenwick to gut it out in Illinois.
Elena DelleDonne of Ursuline
10. Bellaire, Texas (33-5): The Cardinals don't get out of state this year, so this initial ranking may be too high given their relatively weak strength of schedule. But oh, do they
have talent. Antoinette and Annette Davis, daughters of former NBA player Antonio Davis, transferred in to join 5-10 point Jasmine Hartman and 6-2 sophomore post Zoe
Rogers, and make Bellaire the clear preseason pick in Texas. Maybe next year they'll get to one of the big national tournaments, and we'll find out how good they really are.
11. Chief Sealth, Seattle, Wash. (29-0): The Seahawks are the twice-stripped Washington State 3A champions after a major recruiting scandal resulted in the loss of head coach
Ray Willis and his staff, plus consecutive state titles. Sealth also lost crafty point guard Colleen Betteridge to graduation and the Pac-10 (Washington State), but the nucleus of
the powerhouse team remains. Christina Nzekwe and Regina Rogers both are 6-4 and ranked among the nation’s top 50 recruits. Guard Nia Jackson isn’t quite as heralded but
is cat quick and often the soul of the team, defensively and in the open court. During the scandal, the team adopted an us-versus-them mentality and likely will approach this
season with a huge chip on its collective shoulders.
12. Bolingbrook, Ill. (31-2): One of the big problems with Illinois schools is that most can't travel, and you just never really know how good they are. The Raiders lost twice last
year, to pretty good Illinois teams, but they didn't play or beat a ranked team. So even though all five starters are back, including Big 10 signees Brittany Thomas and Samantha Woods, it's hard to put Bolingbrook too high because the Raiders just won't go through the fire like the other elite programs. They will play Hickman and Incarnate Word, two
very good Midwest teams, and most likely will get a shot at Fenwick, but to justify this ranking, they pretty much have to go unbeaten. It's not really fair, but when rules
prevent you from playing the big tournaments, there's just no margin for error.
13. Heights, Wichita, Kan. (24-1): Kansas teams too are limited in how far they can travel, but the Falcons have enough leeway to get to the TOC in Fort Smith, Ark,, where
they will be able to show what five returning starters -- topped by 6-0 senior Shekeira Copeland -- from a state championship team can accomplish. Also watch for 5-9 junior
guard Jennifer Lane, though the balanced Falcons don't have anyone who puts up really big numbers. All they do is win.
14. Murry Bergtraum, Manhattan, N.Y. (28-2): The Blazers and Christ the King have gone toe-to-toe in New York for the past five years or so, and Bergtraum has won its share
of battles. But times are changing in NYC, and though Bergtraum and CtK are both in the top 15, they're going to have play as well as they ever have to stay there. Erica Morrow and Amelia Horton are the seniors, and 6-3 Shakeya Leary is the size, but the key is transfer Crystal Parnell, who has to pick up a lot of the slack left when Epiphanny Prince (now at Rutgers) graduated.
15. Lexington Catholic, Lexington, Kent. (35-1): New coach Jess Hans has the unenviable task of taking over a 35-1 team (the only loss to Fenwick) that returns three starters -
but lost two D1 players to graduation. Junior Natalie Novosel is still around, though, and she has able helpers in Keyla Snowden and Briana Green. Hans also inherits a tough
schedule, with games against Tennessee power Mt. Juliet, Hoover of Ohio and Towson Catholic of Maryland, not to mention a possible matchup with Wilson Central in the
Greene County tournament. Welcome to Lexington, Jess.
16. Hoover, North Canton, Ohio (22-3): The Vikings aim high: They play Christ the King, in New York, on Dec. 10, and if they're really a top ten team, they'll prove it that
night. Of course, having juniors Brittany Orban and Kyle Baumgartern (a 6-4 transfer) gives Hoover a fighting chance, but it will be up to senior point guard Steph Gibson to
run the offense and try to slow down Lorin Dixon. The Vikings also play Lexington Catholic in a classic Kentucky-Ohio grudge match.
17. Edison, Alexandria, Va. (28-2): The Eagles return all five starters from a very good team -- but they play in what is arguably the toughest region of the country, near
Washington D.C. Edison's big chance will be at the Three-Point Play tournament in Maryland, where Doreanna Campbell will try to lead a pressing, aggressive team to national
prominence -- but taking care of business night in and night out in northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland is going to be a challenge as well.
18. Winter Haven, Fla. (30-2): The Blue Devils are young, but they still return their three key starters, led by Kentucky-bound point guard Amber Smith. Six-foot juniors Tiffany Hayes and Kiara Francisco are also BCS players, while Meche'la Ward and Yesenia Lora are freshmen with tons of potential. Winter Haven has Collins Hill and the First Academy
on the schedule, so the Blue Devils will have a chance to prove they deserve a better ranking than 18.
Lorin Dixon of Christ the King
19. Towson Catholic, Baltimore, Mary. (22-5): Any team that starts off with Marah Strickland has a lot going for it. Strickland is a 6-0, do-everything shooting guard who will
leave the ballhandling chores to senior point Candice Walker so she can concentrate on scoring, rebounding, defending and doing whatever else might be necessary. Six-one
junior Gabrielle Stiles, 6-0 senior Tracy Johns and 6-0 junior Tyler Hill are solid up front, and the Owls will go to the Nike TOC in Phoenix to find out just how they stack up
against the nation's best.
20. Cy-Fair, Houston, Texas (36-1): Nneka Ogwumike is a 6-2 power forward with a hardware store full of tools, and she carried the Bobcats to a 36-1 record last season.
Mansa El and Carli Bakondy handle the backcourt chores and Chiney Ogwumike is Nneka's freshman sister who will see plenty of court time. Though only two starters return,
Cy-Fair is once again considered one of the top teams in Texas - and there's only one senior on the roster.
21. St. Elizabeth's, Wilmington, Del. (24-2): The Vikings lost to instate archrival Ursuline twice last year, but also beat the Bears twice ... thanks in great part to Rutgers signee
Khadijah Rushdan. The 5-10 guard had a great summer, and she will do the heavy lifting for St. Elizabeth's, though Joy Rutland, Symone Woody and Morgan McGill also will
help the Vikings challenge Ursuline again.
22. Wilson Central, Lebanon, Tenn. (32-7): The return of Tierney Jenkins and Jasmine Hassell, plus two other starters from a state championship team, would be enough to get
anyone excited, but when transfer Chelsa Burroughs is added to the mix, the Wildcats look even better. Their big moment will come in the Greene County Bank Ladies Classic,
where they'll have a chance to take on perennial Philly power Archbishop Carroll and Kentucky's best, Lexington Catholic.
23. Incarnate Word, St. Louis, Mo. (31-1): The Red Knights have established themselves as one of Missouri's top teams, and though they might be down a little, they're still a
threat to win another state title. Six-foot post Theresa Davis will do the dirty work inside, while Ashlee Barrett and Bianca Beck will handle the perimeter chores. Transfer
Danielle Hellickson offers athleticism on the wing, so even though two starters left, Incarnate Word is going to be tough again.
24. Red Mountain, Mesa, Ariz. (28-5): Opinions vary wildly on the Lions, who are anchored by 6-4 Stanford signee Kayla Pedersen. Some say they are not only the best in
Arizona, but competitive with lots of the top teams; others disagree, saying they can't stand up to the heat of the elite. We'll find out: They're in the top bracket in the Nike TOC
with nine other teams in the top 25, and after those four games, we'll all know who was right about Red Mountain.
25. Washington, South Bend, Ind. (25-2): Five-nine sophomore Skylar Diggins is a beacon shining bright for every college coach in America, and she leads a Panther team that
is the best in basketball-mad Indiana. Emily Phillips and Ashley Varner are also solid players, but Washington can't travel, and so will have only a Martin Luther King Day date in
Chicago to prove themselves against out-of-state competition.
Discuss This on Our Message Board:
Clay Kallam is the publisher of Full Court Press (www.Fullcourt.com), an online magazine devoted to women’s basketball. The author of the book “Girls Basketball: Building a Winning Program (Wish Publishing, 2002), Kallam has written about the women’s game for several national publications and is a voter for the McDonald’s All-American team, the Parade All-American team, the All-WNBA team and the Wooden Award. He is the coach of The Bentley School girls’ varsity basketball team and formerly wrote for the Contra Costa Times newspaper chain.