National powers Mitty and Pinewood prepare for another Bay Area battle

photo courtesy of Pinewood School
photo courtesy of Pinewood School /

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — At the high school level in girls basketball, two programs located just 10 miles apart in the San Francisco Bay Area are ranked in the top five nationally, according to Maxpreps.

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No. 1-ranked Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) and No. 5-ranked Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) have set a standard for excellence in California. But whenever they face off, including in three-straight Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division finals, Mitty has always come out on top.

That one-sided dominance, even with competitive games, leaves a very distinct feel in their matchups to Sami Field-Polisso, the head coach at Mitty’s league rival Saint Francis (Mountain View) and a former Pinewood player.

“It is your ultimate David and Goliath,” Field-Polisso said. “To think that we’re calling the number five team in the country David is unbelievable in it of itself. Everybody is talking about that matchup and, really, they’re excited for it to finally happen.”

But after each school reached the Northern California (NorCal) Open Division finals in the last two years, Pinewood in 2016 and Mitty in 2017, they both got there in 2018, setting up the biggest matchup between the two yet.

The top players for each team, Mitty’s Haley Jones and Pinewood’s Hannah Jump, are both juniors and play together on the AAU circuit for the Cal Stars, with Jump noting they carpool to practices together. Jump verbally committed to Stanford last month, while Jones has had Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame head coach Muffett McGraw, among others, watch her games in person in the past month.

Seeking eternal royalty

Down in San Jose, the Monarchs are just two wins away from a perfect season after defeating Salesian College Prep 75-70 on Tuesday night. They were led by 32 points and 12 rebounds from the 6’1 Jones despite her suffering an ankle injury that kept her off the court for a little while in the first half.

And while Salesian found some success with pressuring the ball, Mitty coach Sue Phillips — who was named the National High School Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association — says her team’s prepared for anything.

“We’ve seen a lot this year, from really really intense pressure, to player-to-player, to box-and-ones and triangles-and-twos, zones, matchup zones, a containment zone press,” Phillips said. “We’ve kind of seen a lot, and that’s great because, as coaches and players, we need to learn how to evolve and adapt our style of play to be effective in those kinds of situations and make the appropriate reads.

“I think sometimes, as coaches, we can be our own worst enemy if we are reluctant to adapt or adjust in mid-game because we are of the philosophy of whatever it might be, ‘This is what we do.’ I have found that is a very slippery slope if you want to stand the test of time and win more of your share. I think the key is to adapt and adjust.”

Currently in her 25th year, Phillips has won 20 league titles in the West Catholic Athletic League, widely considered to be the best league in the Bay Area, and six state championships, including an undefeated title in 1999. The Monarchs have been to four of the six NorCal Open Division tournaments — which takes the best eight teams in the region regardless of school size — including three in a row.

For opposing coaches like St. Joseph Notre Dame (Alameda) coach Shawn Hipol, who faced Mitty in December this year, you enter a game against the Monarchs knowing “you can’t do everything you want to do,” and must adjust accordingly.

“I know you hear coaches say before that you’ve got to play for 32 minutes, but against them, if you don’t play well for 32 minutes, you stand no chance against Mitty,” Hipol said. “You just stand no chance. You have to play 32. You can get a competitive game for three quarters, but then Mitty’s Mitty. They care of business when it counts, and that’s the fourth quarter.”

Small but mighty

Head coach Doc Scheppler has preached outside shooting for decades at tiny Pinewood (enrollment around 210), and over his 23 years in charge, he has led his program to six state titles and four-straight NorCal Open tournaments, which takes the best eight teams in the region regardless of school size.

The Panthers reached the NorCal Open final in 2016 by defeating then-No. 1 in the nation St. Mary’s-Stockton in the semifinals, making 16-of-29 from deep en route to a 72-69 win. That Pinewood team wasn’t ranked nearly as high as this year’s, but No. 5 Pinewood went back to Stockton and again knocked off now-No. 3 St. Mary’s on Tuesday night 59-56 behind 19 points from Jump.

“They are imposing to play against,” Scheppler said of St. Mary’s. “I’m so proud of the girls for hanging in there.”

Pinewood only has one player on its roster that’s taller than 6 feet (6-1 freshman Olivia Williams), but they play a pressure defense that makes life difficult for opponents like Hipol, who lost 64-36 against them in January.

“To us, they are the most difficult type of team to play against,” Hipol said. “Even against teams that have size or have a dominant post player, it is really difficult to play Pinewood. We decided to stay pinned down and play man, force them on the drive, try to really not help on strong sides and make them make the extra pass. But they always make the extra pass, and if you’re not rotating after the second pass, they’re going to get you.”

Time to rematch

In losing to Mitty in the CCS Open finals the past two seasons, Pinewood entered the game with injuries to key rotation players. But two weeks ago, the Panthers were ranked No. 2 by Maxpreps and completely healthy, while Mitty’s senior forward Nicole Blakes was lost to an injury right before the playoffs began. Pinewood jumped out to a 10-point lead after one quarter with excellent shooting, going 9-for-17 in the opening frame.

“You know anytime you’re going to face Doc’s teams, they’re going to knock down the open shot — you cannot play a game of HORSE against one of Doc’s teams,” Phillips said. “Your goal in playing them is to speed them up and not let them get into spaces or spots where they are comfortable in scoring.”

But Mitty made an adjustment in the second quarter and burst out on a 15-0 run to start the frame, flipping a 10-point deficit into a 10-point lead by halftime and winning, 76-62. And now, on the same Santa Clara University court that they’ve lost three straight CCS championships to Mitty, Pinewood will the chance for the ultimate revenge.

“Our whole mindset was to improve week-by-week so we could be put into a position where we could compete against that team,” Scheppler said. “We did really well except for three minutes of that second quarter. And now we get a redo. We get that test again.

“We learned some things from that game that we’re going to apply in the next three practices. I can’t wait for Saturday. Can’t wait. Can’t wait. Really excited.”

Hipol said before the CCS Open game that coaches around the region will be clamoring to get film from the matchup between Mitty and Pinewood, with coaches asking, “What’s Sue going to do against Doc, and what’s Doc going to do against Sue?” The thing that Field-Polisso will be watching is how Scheppler gameplans for the one thing he can’t control.

“Doc’s got a plan for Mitty and it boils down to the size factor. That’s the million-dollar question,” Field-Polisso said. “He knows his team is going to take care of the ball and not be rattled by the pressure and all that stuff, but defensively, how are they going to be able to guard size like that?

“Mitty’s got athletes that can play inside and guard on the perimeter, and not just one big girl, but you have two or three big bodies in there fighting for rebounds. That’s going to be the ultimate test, and I cannot wait for that matchup.”

And it is, as Field-Polisso puts it, one more chance for David to try and take down Goliath when it would matter the most.