SportStars Magazine

Perfect Storm

  Story by CLAY KALLAM | Photos by NORBERT von der GROEBEN

  You may have heard of Kerri Walsh — but not that many are aware that the Olympic volleyball star was a superb basketball player at San Jose’s Archbishop Mitty High back in the day. And she wasn’t alone in 1995, as nine other girls who became Division I college athletes were also on that state championship roster.

  Then in 1999, Mitty went 31-0 with players like Rometra Craig (Roger Craig’s daughter), Aimee Gryzb and Kristin Iwanaga, among others, and won another state title.

  But it’s not like coach Sue Phillips doesn’t have a memory bank full of teams that most coaches would be ecstatic to coach just once. After all, she’s got 28 league titles, 25 Central Coast Section titles, 11 NorCal titles and six state championships.

  So when Phillips is willing to say that her 2016-17 edition of the Monarchs “has the potential to be her best team,” that is saying something.

  Let us count the ways…

  TALENT: Usually when a team has four Division I seniors, that’s where the talent is concentrated — but not at Mitty. The consensus is that the underclassmen (led by Haley Jones and Karisma Osborne) are even more talented.

  Still, Madeleine Holland will be playing at Saint Mary’s College next year, Tahlia Garza and Daniella Guglielmo will be at UC Irvine, and Heleyna Hill will go to San Jose State. That group, in and of itself, is a top-three team in Northern California, but when you add in shooters such as Krissy Miyahara and inside players such as Nicole Blakes, not to mention Jones and Osborne, you have as talented a roster as has ever taken the floor in Northern California.

Heleyna Hill, left, pushes the ball up the floor during a Mitty November practice.  VERSATILITY: It’s one thing to be talented, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit. If a coach has three really good point guards, that’s great — but only one can play the point at any given time. This Mitty team can go in numerous directions, as Phillips can deploy a small, quick, pressuring lineup, or she can roll out a group that can pound the ball inside, or anything in between.

  The obvious advantage is that Mitty can dictate to opponents how they must try to play, but of equal value is the ability to handle any kind of opposition. The press is on? Get the small guards in there. A frontline where everyone’s 6-3? Phillips can handle that too, which leads to …

  SIZE: Versatility and talent will take you a long way, but basketball is a game that rewards the tall. If necessary, Phillips can put five players on the floor all taller than six feet and have a lineup that makes sense. Jones, at 6-1, and Ortiz, at 6-0, can both play the point, and the 6-2 trio of Garza, Blakes and junior Julia DeVine can step in up front. Or maybe Phillips feels like going with 6-1 Kate Conaway or 6-0 Camille Morales.

  CHEMISTRY: Perhaps the hardest thing for any coach to control, or even have an influence on, is how the players get along. The buzzword is “chemistry,” but it’s a lot more complicated than three syllables. It’s about leadership, it’s about followership, it’s about accepting roles and it’s about that magical connection that turns a disparate group of individuals into a team.

  One advantage Phillips has in her situation is the aforementioned versatility. Because she’s going to be able to do a wide variety of things, she’s also going to be able to employ a wide variety of players. “You have better buy-in,” she says, “because everybody is going to contribute.”

  “We mesh so well,” says Holland. “We have such great chemistry and we get along very well.”

  Garza seconds that emotion. “We have a great group of girls,” she says. “There’s no barrier between the different grades and the different ages — we can’t have any of that cliqueiness.”

Daniella Guglielmo flicks a pass up the floor during a Mitty November practice.  INTELLIGENCE: Phillips is a very cerebral coach — for example, she has a “hierarchy of turnovers.” The categories range from bad decisions, bad timing, to even acknowledging a great defensive play by the opposition, but Phillips expects her players to understand the system, and understand the game.

  And she allows her players to develop their basketball IQ through the course of the season. At the start of the year, Phillips and her staff will dictate which option to use from an offensive set; but by season’s end, the players are expected to be able to read the correct option from how the defense sets up.

  “You can teach kids to play without handcuffing them,” says Phillips, and that in-season teaching has always made Mitty a better team at the end of the season than at the start.

  DEPTH: It’s a rarity when a high school coach has a fully healthy roster to play with every night out. It’s a long season, and depth is a necessity. Not surprisingly, Mitty won’t have to worry on that score. The Monarchs have plenty of size, lots of people who can run the point, shooters everywhere and solid defenders. Though injuries could certainly derail the Mitty train, the Monarchs are definitely better equipped to handle the inevitable injuries than any other team in Northern California, or perhaps in the entire West.

  SENIORS: Veteran coaches will tell you that motivated seniors can elevate a team — and with the chance for a high national ranking (Mitty will start at No. 2 for MaxPreps) and a state championship, leadership and a sense of urgency will not be hard to come by.

Sue Phillips  COACHING: Phillips is obviously a superb coach, as her USA Basketball and high school achievements attest. But she also has an experienced, veteran staff, with Joe Guerra, Tami Monson and Brett Nichols making key contributions behind the scenes at the varsity level, and four more coaches to call on at the JV and frosh level.

  Add to this staff a supportive administration, and a long tradition of success, and it’s easy to understand why quality players are attracted to Mitty.

  OPPORTUNITY: Rankings, like those here in SportStars and on MaxPreps, are fun — but they’re also revelatory, and on the national scene, getting that final No. 1 ranking is a special, special accomplishment. Mitty will start the season very high in those rankings, behind only Paul VI of Virginia, but given its brutal schedule — the Iolani Tournament, the Nike TOC, the Eastside Prep Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and the ultra-competitive CIF Open Division playoffs — it is in position to be named the best team in all the land. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often, if at all, and doesn’t always coincide with all of the pieces of the puzzle in place, but this year for Mitty, it’s a perfect storm of opportunity.

  It’s also an opportunity for Northern California girls basketball fans to see one of the best teams ever to come out of an area with a rich tradition of exceptional girls basketball. From Kerri Walsh to the Paris twins of Piedmont to the run-and-stun St. Mary’s-Stockton teams, there have been many special moments to savor — but this year’s Archbishop Mitty might just turn out to be the best one ever.

  Get your tickets now.

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