No. 1 St. Mary's girls basketball is built for long-term dominance after 2012

Jason Skoda | Thursday, February 23, 2012

Phoenix school rises to the top of the national rankings with a young, committed roster that just might get better over time.

Coach's daughter Courtney Ekmark and the St. Mary's girls basketball team are on the verge of a national title. Teamwork and brutal practices have laid the foundation for Arizona's most dominant team.
Photo by James Conrad
Coach's daughter Courtney Ekmark and the St. Mary's girls basketball team are on the verge of a national title. Teamwork and brutal practices have laid the foundation for Arizona's most dominant team.
Curtis Ekmark smiled, paused and politely declined to answer.

The St. Mary's (Phoenix) girls basketball coach surely could have commented, but it isn't up to him to come up with the formula to somehow contain the No. 1 team in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Girls Basketball Rankings presented by the Army National Guard.

Cortnee Walton
Photo by James Conrad
Cortnee Walton
He only has to coach the Knights, while the rest of Arizona tries to stop what could be a pretty long run of dominance.
St. Mary's enters today's Division I state semifinals against Dobson (Mesa) one win away from making its fourth-straight title game and a shot at defending its state title.

"They can run you ragged," said Desert Vista coach Rachel Proudfoot, whose 25-win team was handled 77-39 by the Knights on Monday. "When you make mistakes like we did (42 turnovers) it makes it hard to compete."

The Knights' roster is hard to match in talent, but that isn't the only thing that has led to 38 straight wins dating back to last season. It is the players' willingness to play defense the length of the court, the will to challenge nearly every single pass by the opponent and forcing teams like Desert Vista, which has good ballhandlers, to get hesitant.

As soon as that second of doubt enters the opposition's approach, the Knights become like a viral video – the defenders pop up everywhere and it doesn't stop until the news cycle, or in this case the game, is over.

"I don't know what it is like to play us but it can't be easy," sophomore guard Dominique Williams said. "No one sees what we do at practice, but it is harder than the games. We are competitive and no one likes to lose a possession. We pride ourselves on playing hard every possession."

The Knights have won by as much as 69 points and have held teams to as little as 10 points this season. They have defeated the national champions from Australia, teams from New York and Maryland while winning the top division at the Nike Tournament of Champions and have won by at least 10 points in all but two of their 28 wins this year.

Dominique Williams
Photo by James Conrad
Dominique Williams
The only thing that might be scarier than St. Mary's average margin of victory is the roster, as there are only two seniors – Cortnee Walton and Shilpa Tummala – so the Knights are going to be just as good over the next couple of seasons.

"Practice is way harder than the games," Tummala said. "We push each other to be better. We have really good chemistry together and genuinely care for each other. It rolls over to the game because we don't want to let each other down."

Ekmark, whose daughter Courtney Ekmark is a sophomore starter, said that the accountability among players is one of the things that is underestimated about St. Mary's when people try to break down the Knights' recent success, which includes runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010.
Yes, a good portion of the team plays on the same club team that is coached by the elder Ekmark, but there has to be some give within each player's mindset as well.

The coach doesn't make statistics available but players don't care about them, and the same goes with playing time. Substitutions can come at any time with so many different combinations that work because of the chemistry built over hours of practicing together.

"I think (their club experience) is part of it, but way more important is that fact that the kids buy into being good teammates," he said. "You can play with each other every day but if you don't have good kids there is going to be resentment or jealousy.

"None of them care who scores, what the stats are and they know they are all going to great colleges and there is no jealously."

It's an attitude that has led the Knights to the top of the national rankings.

"The good news is the kids are locked in, they are focused and they are two games away from the national championship," Ekmark said.

Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer, is a 15-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at or 480-272-2449.