SportStars Magazine

Collision Course: 2 National Powers, 1 State Title

Archbishop Mitty And St. Mary’s-Stockton Are On An Inevitable Path •

Story By CLAY KALLAM | Photos By BERRY EVANS III

Since Valentine’s Day of 2006, Archbishop Mitty and St. Mary’s of Stockton have played six times – and though there’s plenty of respect, no candy grams have been exchanged.

Of those six meetings, the two teams have each won three times — and the average margin of victory has been 2.7 points.

This year, the two Northern California girls basketball titans are on track to meet once again, but not until the NorCal finals in mid-March — assuming that both manage to get that far. Of course, since St. Mary’s is starting the season No. 2 in the nation, according to MaxPreps, and Mitty begins at No. 5, they are unlikely to be derailed from that collision course.

Haley Jones and Aquira DeCosta will have plenty of opportunity to flex their muscles in 2017-18.

In fact, most of the other top teams would like nothing better than to avoid both powerhouses in postseason by staying out of the Open Division. The reason is simple: Both Mitty and St. Mary’s are extremely well coached and loaded with talent, and unless they’re playing each other, will be prohibitive favorites in every game played in Northern California — except when and if they meet. And in that case, it’s the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, and given their wildly divergent styles, it’s pretty much an impossible choice.

“They’re very different teams,” said Salesian-Richmond coach Steve Pezzola.

Coach Sue Phillips and Archbishop Mitty are deep, disciplined and versatile, while coach Tom Gonsalves and St. Mary’s possess elite talent and athleticism, but lack depth.

“Sue can mix and match,” says Pezzola. “She can go big or small, she can dictate tempo.” As for St. Mary’s, “I hope no other team has five starters better than them — there’s nowhere to hide a bad defensive player.”

There’s also nowhere to hide a shaky backcourt, even though Gonsalves probably won’t be able to unleash his devastating full-court press for 32 minutes this season. Though St. Mary’s starts three NCAA Div. I-level seniors — Aquira DeCosta, one of the top players in the nation who play at Baylor; Neenah Young, who turned down multiple major offers to play at Princeton; and Ariel Johnson, who will go to Florida — the feared 2-2-1 zone press will likely not be seen as much as in the past.

“We won’t walk the ball up court,” Gonsalves said, “but we will play a lot more half-court defense. Still, I can’t coach without applying pressure, though we may have to pick and choose when we press.”

As for depth, “I have to get the other players better,” Gonsalves adds. “That’s my job.”

But it looks likely he will lean heavily on the three seniors, transfer Anna Blount, returner Jada Moss and Neenah Young’s sister, Nicole. Yet in all honesty, DeCosta and Neenah Young are a one-two punch few teams could match, and by themselves would make St. Mary’s a state title threat.

Princeton-bound Neenah Young is a matchup nightmare for Rams opponents.

“Aquira’s relentlessness on the boards is remarkable,” Pezzola said, “and she can get to the rack from anywhere on the court. But Neenah for some teams is the toughest matchup. She’s really strong and she can get to the rim, but if you put a bigger player on her, she’ll just shoot 3s.”

Mitty has its own superstar in Haley Jones, one of the top juniors in the country. “In practice, she plays every position on the floor,” Phillips said. “The beauty of Haley is her versatility. You can build around that.”

And Phillips has plenty of building blocks, starting with Penn State-bound Karisma Ortiz, a 6-footer like Jones, who is long, skilled and versatile. Then there’s 6-2 Nicole Blakes, who can guard one through five, and a deep supporting cast.

And yes, there’s a lot of depth even though Mitty graduated four Division I seniors from the team that lost to Clovis West-Fresno in the CIF Open Division finals last season. And as if returners such as Krissy Miyahara and Ashley Hiraki weren’t enough, two 6-footers with serious college potential will move up from the powerful junior varsity and freshman Hunter Hernandez should also make an immediate impact.

All of this means Mitty epitomizes modern basketball, combining the ability to switch all screens in a man-to-man, going big when necessary and small when necessary, and possessing a roster filled with 3-point shooting threats. Translation: Expect the unexpected. “You could see us one night,” says Phillips, “and the next night we could look completely different.”

Well, there won’t be a night you don’t see Haley Jones leading the way, especially now that last year’s four seniors are gone.

St. Mary’s coach Tom Gonsalves.

“Last year, I had a different role on the team,” Jones said. “A lot of times I was deferring to the seniors.”

And though the seniors were very good, there are those who feel Mitty might have been better last year — and maybe won that    state championship game — had Jones asserted herself more.

“We think back on that game, and we’re able to be critical of ourselves,” she says. “We want to get back there and win — it’s a  revenge season.”

Did someone say “revenge”? A battered St. Mary’s team lost by 17 to Mitty in the NorCal playoffs last March, and don’t think anyone in Stockton has forgotten.

“There’s for sure a rivalry,” DeCosta quipped. “We all want to win a state championship.”

Adding spice to the rivalry is the fact that DeCosta, Young, Johnson and Jones all played on the same Cal Stars club team during the summer. It was Jones’ first year with Cal Stars, and she was a little uncertain how things would work out — but the team quickly accepted her. That said, they all know which high schools they play for.

“There was some trash talk,” Jones said, “and at the end of the summer, they said ‘We’re going to whip you.’”

But will they? What would it take for St. Mary’s to win? What does Mitty have to do to get past St. Mary’s and back to the state championship game?

“I gave the girls three weeks off,” said Gonsalves, fully aware he has to keep his team healthy and enthusiastic.

Mitty coach Sue Phillips.

Almost the first words out of DeCosta’s mouth were these: “The main goal is to stay healthy.”

And though Phillips knows Mitty has more depth, she says, “You can only play five at a time, and their five create a lot of problems.”

Gonsalves has a similar respect for Mitty and its deep and versatile roster. “They’re more structured than we are,” he said, “but whatever they do, they do it well.”

Of course he couldn’t help adding “Whatever we do, we do well,” which is why the potential matchup of these two elite high school teams is so compelling. There’s definitely respect, but there’s definitely an edge as well, as neither side will even consider backing down. And no one will be sending Valentine’s cards.

And though Mitty may be looking for revenge in the state championship, the road to Golden 1 Arena is going to go through St. Mary’s, and no one in that program has forgotten what happened last March.

“We really want revenge for last year,” DeCosta said.

If NorCal basketball fans are lucky, the debate will end on the court in March.

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