A shot to be tops motivates No. 1 St. Mary's
Tom Gonsalves, the head coach of the St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) girls basketball team, has one of those problems that coaches everywhere would love to have.
What do you do when you have your entire roster coming back from the previous season and there are three players coming up you know would be great additions?
"Well, that's tough because we don't want to cut anyone, either," Gonsalves said last week as his team was beginning a conditioning session. "We just had three girls drop because they knew they weren't going to get to play."
Improved depth, however, is not why the Rams are No. 1 in the preseason ESPN RISE FAB 50 national rankings. It's more about their 1-2 punch of 5-10 senior guard Chelsea Gray and 5-11 senior forward Afure Jemerigbe. They are two of the top 15 players in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100 and led St. Mary's to a 31-3 record that included a CIF Division III state title and a No. 9 slot in the final ESPN RISE FAB 50.
Gray, who has committed to Duke, was the CalHiSports.com State Junior Player of the Year with averages of 20 points, six rebounds, six steals and six assists per game. Jemerigbe, who is headed to Cal, had a team-best 23 points in the state final and hit for 16 points and eight rebounds per game.
The three other returning starters along with Gray and Jemerigbe are 5-5 senior guard Alle Moreno, 5-10 junior forward Ali Gibson and 5-11 forward Annissa Garcia. All three of those players had at least one 20-point game last season, and Moreno is a scholarship player headed to Sacramento State.
St. Mary's also is playing its most ambitious schedule yet with trips to the T-Mobile Invitational in Alabama as well as the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona. In addition, the Rams are facing in-state powerhouses such as Hanford, Clovis West of Fresno, Sacramento and Archbishop Mitty of San Jose in nonleague encounters.
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It's the difficulty of the schedule -- especially in Arizona, where St. Mary's could face preseason ESPNRISE FAB 50 No. 2 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) -- that prevented the players from getting too fired up about being No. 1.
The Rams are familiar with being in this position. They started out at No. 1 last season but fell from the top after an early-season loss to Kentwood (Covington, Wash.) at the Nike Northwest tourney.
"We have a little bit more leadership and we're more experienced than last year," Gray said. "I wasn't expecting this last year and I wasn't this year, but we definitely know how good we are. The goal is just going to be to play every game like it's our last."
Although no one made any excuses, the Rams didn't have Jemerigbe at full strength for most of the season because of to an ankle injury. It hampered her during the crucial first month of the season and she tweaked it again in mid-February, although she played well in the state final.
"I feel great this year compared to the same time last year," Jemerigbe said. "I thought in our freshman year we'd have a chance to be (No. 1 in the nation) and this is our best chance. I just want to play with confidence, and as a team we need to play every game with confidence."
One of those new players is Afure's youngest sister, freshman point guard Onome Jemerigbe. Another freshman in which Gonsalves has high hopes is Unique Coleman, also a guard. The third newcomer is 6-2 junior center Kendall Kenyon, who starred on the junior varsity team as a sophomore.
Mark Tennis is a deputy editor for ESPN RISE.
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