MONMOUTH — Never underestimate yourself.
That’s what the girls on the varsity Central basketball team learned last week at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Arizona, where they joined 112 teams from Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado in competition, and battled four Arizona teams, clinching victories in two games, and losing by only a handful of points in the last two.
“It was a phenomenal time,” said head coach Julie McDonald. “They had so much fun.”
They also played better than they had expected.
“I was expecting it to be a lot different of an outcome because there were so many teams there, like really good teams, and the fact that we went and competed and competed well was good,” said senior Mariah Hyre. “I’m proud of how we did. We handled ourselves.”
Junior Abygayle Mabry agreed with Hyre, who said she never thought a small-town team like the Panthers would go to such a large tournament, competing against bigger, out-of-state teams.
“We were going into the tournament thinking we were going to get killed,” she said, chuckling. “The first game, there was this girl, 6-5, 6-4, so we were like, OK, we’re going to get killed. We came out, we beat them by 30.”
The first team the Panthers (6-4 overall, 1-1 Mid-Willamette Conference) went up against was Williams Field, a 5A high school from Gilbert, Arizona, that Central took down in an explosive 61-26 onslaught.
That victory propelled them to another triumph, this time a 61-40 offensive assault against Casteel High School, from Queen Creek, Arizona.
“The third game, we came out and played really well,” Mabry said. “(Junior) Meagan Mendazona scored 30 points each game, and she showed them what was up. It was a close game. They were really good at shooting their threes, so they got the advantage of that.”
Collectively, Mendazona averaged 23 points per game, seven rebounds, and shooting 82.6 percent from the free throw line.
Senior Annika Riddell shot 69 percent from the field, and averaged 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, and Hyre averaged 68 percent from the free throw line.
The Panthers fell to Pinnacle, a 6A high school in Phoenix, Arizona, by six points, 42-36, and lost by just five in their final contest against Highland, another 6A school located in Gilbert, Arizona, with a total score of 57-52.
The losses didn’t seem to put too much of a dent in the team’s overall experience, which also included a trip to the movies, spending time together in hotels and riding rides at Castles N’ Coasters amusement park.
“We went and we realized we can compete with other teams, even if it’s from out of state,” Riddell said. “They were really good ball players, but we also competed well.”
The Panthers’ tallest player is Riddell, who stands at 5-10. The rest of the team is 5-8 and shorter. In basketball, height can be a significant factor in how the game is played. In this tournament, many of the girls on the teams the Panthers played against were 6-feet tall and taller.
“It was just different,” Mendazona said, on what it was like playing against such tall opponents. “Anytime you go into the key, you’re getting swatted, so it kind of changes your play, because you have to shoot from the outside more, and you can’t just take it in; you have to get it over a 6-5 girl.”
She said it was a good experience getting to go up against opponents like that.
“I think it’s good to get outside of what you’re used to and see what else is out there,” she said.
Now that they’re back home and preparing for the rest of the regular season, the team is eager to use their experience as a way to improve their performance on the court.
“We’ve had a bumpy start, not necessarily bumpy, but I don’t think we’ve been playing our full potential,” Hyre said. “And I think going to Arizona, we showed ourselves what we had, and I think that was good for us, and if we keep moving that way it’s going to be a good season.”