RANCH CUCAMONGA, Calif.—As the NCAA tightens their certification and evaluation belts, the number of events being run outside of their recruiting calendar continues to grow in numbers, quality and participation. One such event that has been a staple over the past six years is the West Coast Spring Invitational run by Brian Crichlow and the West Coast Premier. This year 88 teams with players representing over 10 states were on hand to compete in four separate divisions.
While the tournament itself was a well-run, first class event, the hosts were somewhat less than hospitable with their opponents taking home top honors in the challenging Super Elite Division. The West Coast Premier utilized a 41 -24 second half to break open a 31 all halftime tie in the championship game with the Cal Stars to claim the title. Both teams posted impressive wins in the semis with WCP getting by California Storm Team Taurasi 43 – 39 and the Stars edging Jordin Canada and the Cal Sparks 57 – 52. When you consider that pool play included the likes of Cal Swish Black, Wiggins Waves, NY Gauchos, DFW T-Jack , Cal Ballaz and the East Bay Explosion, it’s easy to place a premium on the bragging rights that come with the championship hardware.
West Coast was led by USC commit Chyanne Butler’s dynamic play at the point and the often eye-catching efforts of forward Monique Billings. Add in some solid low post production from Amy Okonkwo and a deep bench and you’ve got a winning combination. In defeat the Stars, following up their Silver Division title efforts earlier this spring at the Boo Williams Invitational, were paced by steady playmaker Natalie Romero, talented swing Kelli Hayes and a polished performance from Mariya Moore. West Coast’s entire roster is made up of 2014’s as was all but two in uniform for the Stars.
In the 17 Elite division the Cal Sparks Blue 2015 squad took honors with a 56 – 44 win over the San Diego Sol. In the 17 Open bracket the Cal Ballaz HS team took down Salesian Select 52 – 41 in the final. The 15U Gold championship contest saw Cal Swish take a four point win over Salesian Force 49 – 45.
For pool results as well as complete championship brackets go to
Good competition always leads to good performances. Here are just a few of the standouts from the action in SoCal last weekend.
If you’ve been on the club circuit the past several years you got used to the Arizona Warriors and their trademark light blue T-shirts and some quality basketball. Seeing Courtney Ekmark (Ariz. - St. Mary’s – Cal Swish Black) in a different uniform is an odd sight. However what hasn’t changed are the skills, instincts and production she brings to the floor. Mother Nature has done her part with the UConn verbal commit topping out at over six feet tall and a more mature and physical build that serves her well in traffic. The reliable perimeter scoring is still in place but she’s become more efficient in her penetration and creation of both shots and passes. Swish was playing without the services of injured Katie Lou Samuelson but the thought of the she and Ekmark on the floor together with the rest of the Swish roster at some point down the road should put a smile on the face of Coach Russ Davis.
The West Coast Premier got a lot from several players on the roster. Playing at the higher elevations Monique Billings (Calif. – Santiago – West Coast Premier) is making impacts at both ends of the floor. Across the weekend the 6-3 forward demonstrated a level of athleticism we’ve seen in the past along with a continued advancement in her skill set that will make her a prime asset to any program at the next level. Standing out this weekend was a dominance on the boards that would have any coach smiling. She was effective in finishing WCP’s defense as well as creating some second looks on the offensive end. Add to that the ability to run the floor with the guards at 6-3 and you have something opposing defenders will be cringing at come game time. Billings still needs to add some depth to her already growing arsenal of post moves to keep opponents honest but the progress is obvious and impressive.
Recruiters value the combination of size and perimeter skills almost to a fault. At the same time it’s easy to rationalize when you find an athlete bringing both qualities to the table. Ashley Bolston (Ore. – South Medford – East Bay Explosion) is one of those prospects. Having been listed at 6-1 in the past, she looks to have added additional size along with some confidence to her attack. While not a point guard by any means, she took the ball from the top using individual skills and found her way to the rim time and again. Bolston also has calls on some effective body control in traffic helping to get her looks or leading to multiple trips to the line. While she didn’t “light it up” away from the rim, the stroke and form are in place to serve her well and keep defenders closing out. The foot speed is there to defend on the perimeter as well as to be an asset in any pressing situations. Bolston is parlaying an exceptional high school season into a promising spring and summer effort.
Power guard is not an unheard of position in recruiting circles but it is difficult to find an athlete who truly fits the description. Standing 5-10 to 5-11, Mariah Williams (Calif. – Vanden – Cal Ballaz) is constantly on the attack and doing so with a relentless approach. She understands the need to get defenders out of their stance and can call on a well-honed change of direction to leave them behind. The assertiveness and effort Williams plays with puts her in position to make plays in transition as well as the half court. Her instincts for the ball put her in a position to be a strong asset off the ball defensively as well as on the boards from the perimeter. It would be much better to play with her than against her.
One of the more impressive individual performances of the West Coast Spring Invitational came from Mariya Moore (Calif. – Salesian – Cal Stars). This 6-0 standout has been listed as a guard, forward and wing at various points in her career. The mystery may well still be just what position does she play. The one thing that’s not at issue is that she’s a top tier prospect. Baseball often refers to some of their players as “utility” and that may be exactly what Moore is. You need a physical attacking game, she’s got it. Looking for someone to take it herself off the dribble and create in the paint…her again. Even the perimeter shooting is coming along enough to force defenders to stay close enough to contest. Her willingness to mix things up makes her a college ready prospect defensively and on the glass. It doesn’t really seem to matter what position she plays when she provides the production that she does.
Her 6-1 listed height might be a stretch for Kristen Simon (Calif. – Windward – Cal Sparks) but her game seems to be getting bigger each time out. Physical and strong, Simon’s got a bigger frame that she’s more than willing to put to use on either end of the floor. Her posting is aggressive and leads to plenty of entry passes coming her way and some quality looks at the rim. The ability to work out of the high post is giving her game more diversity and making her a more challenging match up for opponents including knocking it down from the elbows. If she’s not initiating the break, the speed is deceptively there to make her a factor running the floor. Consistency will still need to evolve but the steady advancement in her game is obvious and the effort is always there.
If anyone among the underclassman on hand has made a statement over the past year it may well have been Kennedy Burke (Calif. – Sierra Canyon – WCP Valley Elite). Playing with length and athleticism, she has the tools to challenge defenders with size or exploit those with quickness. Burke is comfortable handling the ball on the break and is adept at finding her own looks or improving the opportunities of her teammates. The penetration provides plenty but the pull up is in place as well. Deeper range really wasn’t on display last week but the form leaves no reason to think the threat wouldn’t be there. At 6-0, defensively she’s a coach’s dream. Her reach and lateral footspeed makes her a candidate to lock up opposing threats in man to man half or within full or halfcourt pressure. Strength will have to evolve but with two more high school seasons in front of her there’s plenty of time for that.
While the Gauchos struggled to a degree on their West coast swing, one of their 2015 standouts had some moments playing for both teams they brought to the coast. Jordan Augustus (N.Y. – St. Mary’s – Gauchos) has the tools to be a big stage guard and provided some glimpses of the assets college recruiters look for. At 5-10 she’s got good size plus impressive speed and quickness. Making that even more of a threat is a physical approach to her play highlighted by good strength. Augustus is assertive off the dribble and more than willing to share the ball when helpside rotates her way. The ability is there to score it at the rim or on the jumper. There were times defensively that she completely shut down her match up and with consistency could be a hallmark of her game. Holding her back at times is her approach and focus. She tends to wear her emotions on her face and occasionally let the last play impact the next.
DFW T-Jack didn’t fare much better in Cali than the folks from New York. At the same time there were some individual moments that could lead to a reversal of fortune as the summer progresses. Ashley Hearn (Texas – Sasche – DFW T-Jack) continues to offer flashes of what could be an evolution from potential to reality. The 6-5 post has been on the radar from a young age and has added plenty of size and strength to go with impressive athleticism. Her leaping ability has always made her a force on the boards and put her in a position to finish the looks that come her way. The question mark is still there as to her capacity to create her own opportunities on the catch. On the defensive end she’s a presence and can alter looks matched up or in rotations. Hearn has all the tools to be every opposing post’s worst nightmare, but she’s not…yet.
Some players just catch your eye every time you see them in the gym. This 6-4 post has the size, build and frame recruiters would like to order off the menu. Cierra Porter (Mo. – Rockbridge – PBR Finest Phenoms) is gradually evolving into a versatile and complete post. The stroke is there to step away and force defenders to chase her out of their comfort zone. At the same time those physical attributes put her in a position to make things happen down low. There’s still plenty of work and some rough edges but she continues to add to her skill set offensively and is becoming more active defending down low or reacting to perimeter penetration. There were moments Porter mixed it up physically and she’ll need more of those moments as she looks at the next level.
Already a well-established 2016 prospect, Leaonna Odom (Calif. – Los Alamitos – Cal Storm Team Taurasi) continues to add to her game and advance her skills. Now standing over 6-0 and playing with elite athleticism, she’s a factor anytime she’s on the floor and commands defensive attention and focus. At her age she’s still lean but physical play isn’t an issue as she’s constantly active and hard to put a body on. Offensively she’s utilizing screens more efficiently and continues to work to get open even if the first option is taken away. On the catch she slashes through traffic and can convert near the rim or off the pull up.
Physically strong with good size on the perimeter, Mai-Loni Henson (Calif. – La Jolla Country Day – Wiggins Waves) is quickly establishing herself as one to watch in the 2016 class. At 5-10 she’s smooth and fluid with the ball in her hands and plays with an attacking mentality. She finished off penetration but struggled to find consistency with the pull up. The form is there but somewhat forward and in need of some attention. Henson has the physical tools to be strong defender at any spot on the perimeter with the right focus. Lots of tools, keep watching.