When Long Beach (Calif.) Poly players rushed the floor after a 58-54 win over Notre Dame Academy (Middleburg, Va.) in the finals of the Nike TOC's Black Division in Phoenix, they weren't the only ones celebrating.
In San Francisco, Sacred Heart Cathedral was also cheering because that result put them in line for Northern California's first-ever national championship.
OK, we'll back up.
Choosing a national champion in high school sports is always a complex process because the best teams seldom play each other. The Mississippi state titlist may be unbeaten, but is that team really better than the school that lost once, or even twice, in a super-competitive tournament like the Nike TOC?
Usually, the answer has been no. Generally, the teams that play in the Nike TOC, or one of the other major tournaments, get more credit than those that stay home, and of course the winners of those major tournaments are first in line when it comes to picking the top team in the nation.
So doesn't that mean Poly should be No. 1? After all, nine of the nation's top 25 teams were in the Black Division of the TOC last weekend, and Poly's four-game sweep -- capped by a win over SI.com's top ranked team -- is a pretty impressive achievement.
Except for this: Poly had already played in another major tournament, the Nike Northwest Invitational in Oregon. The Jackrabbits got to the finals in that event as well -- but lost to Sacred Heart Cathedral.
On the most simplistic level, that makes it clear which is the better team: Sacred Heart Cathedral beat Long Beach Poly on a neutral court. End of story.
Maybe. But one game, after all, may not really tell the tale. Maybe the Irish got lucky. Maybe Poly was beaten down after two tough games to get to the finals. Maybe not. It was Sacred Heart Cathedral that played the two tough games before getting to the finals. The Irish first beat Highlands Ranch of Colorado and then Southridge, on its home court, to advance -- and those two wins were just as significant as the win over Poly. Why? Because both of those teams were in the winner's bracket semifinals at the Nike TOC in Arizona, and wound up playing for third place.
So of the top four teams at what is considered the top tournament in the country, Sacred Heart Cathedral has beaten three, two at a neutral site and one on the opponent's home court. So when Long Beach Poly knocked off Notre Dame Academy, it made it pretty clear how the pecking order should go: Sacred Heart Cathedral first, Poly second and Notre Dame third.
The other candidates for the top spot haven't played close to this level of competition, and unbeaten or not, can't claim the caliber of wins that those three teams can.
Sacred Heart Cathedral go to Phoenix for the second session of the Nike TOC (they couldn't come to the first because they were taking finals), and play solid teams from Tennessee and Pennsylvania on the first two days -- but neither is a national power. The last game will be against one of three pretty good teams, but again, none that are in the top 25.
Down the road, the Irish -- who have no starter taller than 5-foot-10 -- must play through the very tough West Catholic Athletic League and then likely meet Central California power St. Mary's of Stockton in the playoffs, but it will be an upset should they lose.
Long Beach Poly will have a tougher time running the table, as the Jackrabbits first play in the T-Mobile Invitational in Albuquerque with one of Ohio's best teams, Chaminade-Julienne, and Hampton (Va.), and then travel to Minneapolis to play Minnesota's second-best team, St. Paul Central.
Notre Dame Academy doesn't have it easy, either, with a trip to the Bojangles Shootout in North Carolina and games against Archbishop Carroll of Pennsylvania (2-2 at the Nike TOC) and a host of high-quality teams in the Washington, D.C. area.
Of course, it's possible that all three will stumble, and another candidate will emerge, but even then, the original question returns: Should a one-loss Sacred Heart Cathedral, say, with its big wins at top tournaments, be placed below an unbeaten that never played another nationally ranked team?
It says here the answer is no. All three teams have proven themselves against the best in the country, and one should emerge as the national champion. Of course, there are a lot of games left to be played, and this is high school girls' basketball, so uncertainty comes with the territory. Still, expect at least one of the top trio to take care of business and close out the season by running the table -- and claiming a national championship.