Juju Watkins is the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year.

The USC commit, who also won this year’s Naismith High School Player of the Year award, received with the Gatorade award Monday during a photoshoot. WNBA star Candace Parker presented the Sierra Canyon high school senior with the award.

“This is one of the most prestigious awards you can get,” Watkins told The Athletic. “Just to get it and end it off the right way is really special for me. And it just gives me a lot of motivation going into next year at USC.”

As a senior, Watkins led her California high school to a 31-1 record, averaging 27.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Last summer, she earned MVP while helping the U-17 U.S. women’s national team to a FIBA World Cup championship.

“Although we already had a legacy and winning culture at Sierra Canyon, Juju took this program to a different level,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki told ESPN. “She propelled us to win at the absolute highest level of competition. She took everyone’s best shot and delivered night after night.

“She made our program better… She made her teammates better. She made me a better coach. I truly believe she is one of the best to ever play high school basketball and her legacy will not just be about statistics and championships but how she handled being a superstar.”

As Watkins begins her college career next season with the Trojans, she has her sights set on one thing.

“I hope to add some hardware, some championships,” she said. “Just bringing USC back to what it was.”

USC won NCAA women’s basketball titles in 1983 and 1984 but has made just four March Madness appearances since 2000, including this year.

“Juju had the courage to stay home and is driven to bring USC women’s basketball back to prominence. What a monumental day for all of us in the Trojan family,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said when Watkins announced her commitment to the Trojans in November.

USC commit Juju Watkins headlines the trio of three finalists for the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year award.

Hannah Hidalgo, a Notre Dame commit out of Paul VI (New Jersey), and Jadyn Donovan, a Duke recruit out of Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.), round out the group of finalists.

For California native Watkins, the award comes after a rollercoaster week. The Sierra Canyon guard and her team lost in the state regional final on Tuesday night, ending their quest for a perfect season and a state championship. But on Friday, she was named the Naismith Girls’ High School Player of the Year.

The rising star grew up just 10 minutes from the USC campus, and she’ll stay close to home as she continues her basketball career. She announced her commitment to USC in November in front of fiends and classmates at Sierra Canyon.

“Juju is the best and most decorated player of her class both in the country and internationally, ” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said in a press release at the time. “I could talk for days about her skill set: her shot-making ability, creativity to the rim, dominance on the boards, defensive tenacity and her elite court vision.”

The 6-foot-1 guard led Sierra Canyon to a state title in her junior season with 24.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per game.

An Alabama girls’ basketball team won the title in a boys’ league but was not recognized as the champion, AL.com reported Friday.

Hoover city administrator Allan Rice, though, chalked up the incident — and the online uproar that followed — to a misunderstanding.

The fifth-grade girls’ team competed against boys’ teams in the local recreational league. Jayme Mashayekh, whose daughter plays on the team, said the team did so to ensure it could use local gyms for its practices.

Half way through their season they were told they could not use the Hoover gyms for their practices unless they paid to play in the Hoover rec league,” she wrote. “They were told to stay together as a team they had to play up a level in competition and play the 5th grade boys… Playing the boys was a challenge they rose to meet. It made them better players and a better team.”

The girls’ team ended up winning the league championship but did not receive the championship trophy, Mashayekh wrote in a viral Facebook post.

“What did they do to get disqualified?” she wrote. “Did they not pay their dues? Did they not play up a level in competition? Oh, it’s because they’re GIRLS?!?!”

For the youth league, though, such a move is standard operating procedure, Rice said — not due to the players’ gender but due to their roster composition. The girls’ team is considered an “elite” team, with players selected based on their skill level, as opposed to the recreational boys’ teams they faced.

The girls’ team did not have to play in the boys’ league but chose to do so at the discretion of their coaches, Rice told Insider.

“These elite teams come in and they request to participate in the tournament and they’re told you can participate, but you’re not part of our league, so you can’t be named the champion for your grade level,” Rice said. “They agreed to that. The coaches knew that.”

A boys’ team was affected by the same policy this year, Rice said. The policy has been in place “for probably 15 years,” he said, but Hoover likely will rethink the policy and instead will bar elite teams from competing against recreational teams.

In an update to her original post, Mashayekh said the city reached out about “making things right for the girls.” The team has been invited to a city council meeting on Monday to receive recognition for their victory, Insider reported.

Thirteen members of the Albany (N.Y.) High School girls’ track team were suspended in May after wearing sports bras during practice.

Seven months later, their fight for dress code equality has reverberated in their own school and well beyond.

“I’m proud to say at school I definitely see a difference in the dress code. I see a lot of people wearing different styles of hair and clothing,” said Jordan Johnson, one of the athletes involved. “I’ve definitely seen a lot of changes.”

Johnson and her teammates wore sports bras during a May practice due to a heat wave pressing down on the city, the Albany Times Union reported. On the same day, members of the boys’ team were practicing without shirts.

The Albany High athletic director told the girls’ team that sports bras were inappropriate and distracting to their male coaches, multiple members of the team told the Washington Post. After team members protested the school’s dress code, they were suspended and missed a key competition.

In the aftermath, the athletes started a petition on Change.org to “protest the gender-biased dress code.” The petition garnered 51,507 signatures and their fight for change received national attention.

“All of a sudden, people were coming together about this. We got a lot of media attention,” Kayla Huba told the Albany Times Union. “I thought there was going to be a lot more opposition to this … but family and friends were the first to step up and be like, this is not cool. They were very, very supportive and told us to keep going.”

The team also received support from the ACLU and its state-level affiliate, the New York Civil Liberties Union.

By July, the Albany school board approved a new dress code — one that allows athletes to wear sports bras.

This fall, Huba appeared with ACLU attorney Linda Morris on a podcast episode titled “How to Fight Your School’s Sexist Dress Code,” as the members of the Albany track team look to support other teams facing similar battles.

The track team also has seen the impact they have had in their own school community.

“I know that I’ve seen a lot of athletes with sports bras on, like cheerleading and not just track,” Johnson said. “It was just really good to see.”

Evelyn Shores may be labeled a left back, but to those closer to her, those two words don’t tell the full story. Yes, Shores often patrols the left side, running up and down the field all game, known for her work ethic and desire to win.

But when her parents and high school coach speak about Shores, the words they use to describe her game are much broader: creative, playmaker, unpredictable.

Wherever the high school senior is on the field — defense, midfield or forward — she brings that magic which can unlock defenses and make observers marvel.

“She just amazes me all the time,” says Sharon Loughran, Shores’ coach at Westminster (Ga.) High School and a former Olympic Development Program coach. “She’s hard to defend because you’re not quite sure what she’s going to do.”

Shores has been turning heads on the soccer field since she was 4 — even at that young age, her mother Debbie recalls there being something special about her daughter. Thanks to her ingenuity on the ball and a tireless work ethic, Shores is ready to take the next step. The No. 7 recruit in the Class of 2023, according to TopDrawerSoccer, Shores was a first-team selection to the inaugural Just Women’s Sports All-American girls’ soccer team last spring. She signed with UNC earlier this year, an integral part of their No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

A part of the U.S. youth national team set-up since the U-14s, Shores has one more season of high school soccer left. Her position may be fluid at times — she plays attacking midfield for Westminster — but her talent is undeniable.

“She’s an extremely creative player,” Loughran says. “We need more creative players in the U.S. and that’s one of her strengths.”

Shores, for her part, credits the different positions she has played with her growth and improvement.

“Playing forward and attacking mid has really unlocked a new part of my game,” she says. “It really showed me how the attacking side works and how to join the attacking play as an outside back.

“As I continue to learn how to play in the attack, it’s helped me as an outside back.”

‘Always been an amazing player’

Loughran used to scour the state for Georgia ODP, searching for standout players. She has seen plenty of talented players excel at the youth level, including two-time World Cup champions Morgan Gautrat (née Brian) and Kelley O’Hara and World Cup winner Emily Sonnett.

Even with that decorated history in the sport, Shores caught Loughran’s eye from a young age.

“She’s always been an amazing player since she was little,” Loughran says.

Shores, the youngest of three siblings, started playing for Atlanta’s Tophat Soccer Club at age 4. She still plays her club soccer there today, a rarity among youth players. Her earliest memories include Debbie coaching her teams and the joy at getting to play alongside her best friend.

“From there, my love for the game took off,” Shores says.

Debbie recalls her daughter’ precocious coordination and balance, the ability to look behind her and keep dribbling.
When an opponent suddenly appeared in her way, Shores blazed past them. In fact, she usually went too fast, often dribbling the ball out of play.

“Gosh, if the kid ever learns to turn the corner, she’s going to be great,” Debbie recalls her co-coach, a mother of one of Evelyn’s friends, saying.

‘She outworks everybody’

Perhaps just as important as Shores’ athletic and technical ability is her desire to constantly improve.

She is always exploring ways to get better, quizzing her coaches and mentors on speed and agility training or soccer drills, and even picking up yoga to increase her flexibility.

“She’s always been very competitive with others and herself,” says Shores’ father, Steven. “She’s had an internal desire to always perform at the best and highest level.”

That desire was further fueled by her first national team experience, a U-14 camp in California. Training alongside 23 other standout players, Shores began to form bonds and friendships with girls who had similar dreams and desires to compete at the top level.

“The amount of time and commitment that athletes put in, especially around that age, is unique,” Debbie says. “To be able to meet other athletes who had similar goals and similar mindsets and a similar mission was really formative.”

Shores watched the U.S. women’s national team growing up, cheering them on during the World Cup and Olympics. After that camp, she started consuming soccer at a voracious level, learning a little more each time she turned on a match.

That passion for the sport is evident to Loughran each day in practice. Sometimes, it’s too much.

When Shores was preparing for a U-20 camp, she trained with the Westminster boys’ team to stay sharp. She got so competitive during practice, Loughran worried she might pick up an injury. Go home, Loughran told her, and rest up ahead of her national team trip.

“She outworks everybody,” Loughran says. “It’s relentless.”

‘The total package’

Shores aspires to compete on the international stage with the U.S. Already this past summer, she helped lead the U-20s to a Sud Ladies Cup title and just missed out on a spot at the U-20 World Cup.

Her dreams also include winning a national title at UNC, her mother’s alma mater and her favorite school since she was little. But first, she has more immediate goals. She aims to lead Westminster to an eighth consecutive state title this spring, this time as a captain. It’s an unusual role for Shores, who never took the captain’s armband while playing up with girls two or three years older at Tophat.

It’s a role that comes naturally to her, though.

“What I notice most is she has probably the most national accolades of all the (Westminster) players, and you would never know it,” Loughran says. “Because she inspires all those around her.”

When Shores is on the field, she always smiling. Her joy for the game comes through in her play. Sometimes at Tophat, Shores is tasked with controlling the entire left side of the field. She’s given free rein to surge forward and drop back.

Shores’ trickery on the ball, the ability to pass through a defense or run by a defender, is an embodiment of that happiness she feels each time she steps on the field, whether it’s a practice or game.

“Evelyn is just a playmaker,” Debbie says. “She doesn’t have to take the glory. She just loves to create.”

Loughran marvels at Shores’ versatility, recalling a time she put her at forward after the starter got injured, and she proceed to score a goal “in two seconds.” Loughran does envision Shores playing left back at the collegiate level and beyond. But put Shores anywhere on the field, and she is going to produce.

“She’s the total package,” Loughran says.

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.

There’s no singularly obvious reason for Courtney Ogden’s success. JWS’ 10th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2023, Ogden is confident, focused and patient. She values her coaches, mentors and teammates. She puts in a tremendous amount of work both on the court and in the classroom.

The Stanford-bound guard has everything it takes to become a franchise player at the college level and beyond.

Ogden’s basketball journey began in elementary school. As a third grader, she was the only girl to attend the annual Dell Curry Camp in Charlotte, N.C. In an interview with Jr. NBA’s Elevate Series, she said that, despite her best efforts at the camp, none of the boys would pass her the ball. Ogden’s parents, Christopher and Carla, and Dell Curry himself encouraged her to keep working. If she persisted, they said, she would improve.

The term “Basketball IQ” is regularly thrown around in today’s game to describe athletes who have an elite ability to see plays develop before they unfold and to adapt at a moment’s notice.

Courtney Ogden exemplifies Basketball IQ. As with her commitment to the game, she has polished and developed that skill over time.

One influential teacher in Ogden’s life is trainer Dorian Lee, the CEO of B’Ball 101 who specializes in player development at all levels. Ogden began working with Lee in elementary school. The talented guard is one of thousands of players who have trained with Lee, and his impact is evident in her adaptability on the court.

While training with Lee, Ogden also joined an AAU team before she entered fifth grade.

In the state of Georgia, there’s a clear choice for young girls looking to improve their game on the AAU circuit: Atlanta-based program, Finest Basketball Club. Creator and coach Alfred “Mo” Motton has helped catapult young basketball players to the next level for nearly two decades.

FBC teams have collected hundreds of wins over the years. To play for a program of that caliber, and to shine while doing so, attracts attention no matter how old you are.

So, in the sixth grade, just three years after nobody would pass her the ball at the Dell Curry Camp, Ogden picked up her first Division I offer from then-coach MaChelle Joseph at Georgia Tech.

That same year, she enrolled at the Westminster School in Atlanta, where she played for the JV team as an eighth grader and moved up to varsity as a freshman. That season, she averaged a double-double while shooting 42 percent from the field. As a sophomore, she increased her field goal percentage to nearly 50 percent.

Ogden also excels in her community and in the classroom, prioritizing her education off the court. In 2021, she earned her a spot on the inaugural Jr. NBA Court of Leaders, a youth leadership council that connects student-athletes with opportunities to develop. In school, the senior has studied Mandarin since around the same time she got that first DI offer.

When she gets to college next year, Ogden can continue to grow at one of the world’s top universities and on a team that excels at developing guards while regularly vying for titles.

“Courtney is, plain and simple, a pure and excellent scorer,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said after Ogden signed with the program. “She’s a very physical player on both sides of the ball, loves to look for her 3-point shot and can knock them down.”

Ogden committed to Stanford in December of her junior year of high school, just months after breaking her ankle during the summer. The injury required surgery, causing her to miss the beginning of the Westminster season. After making a full recovery, Ogden exceeded expectations, averaging 18.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game that season.

She was named a 2022 GHSA All-Georgia Honorable Mention and GHSA Class AAA First Team selection in addition to leading Westminster to the state semifinals.

Around the same time, she was also invited to her first USA Basketball roster tryout. Ogden earned a spot on the roster for the U18 Women’s Americas Championship in Argentina, despite being a year younger than most of the other players on the team.

Playing for Team USA is a unique learning experience due to the specific style of play the coaching staff demands. Those who make the roster must demonstrate their adaptability and talent to stick around.

U.S. U18 assistant coach DeLisha Milton-Jones, also currently the head coach at Old Dominion, describes Ogden as a skilled player with good size at the guard spot.

“Courtney is a triple-level scorer with good handles that allow her to penetrate the rim and finish through traffic,” she said.

Ogden and the U18 team, entering the Championship on a nine-tournament gold-medal streak, won gold again in Buenos Aires. Ogden averaged 2.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 14.5 minutes across five games as the U.S. went 6-0.

She returned to the States and wrapped up her club career this July at the GUAA U17 Championship, marking the culmination of more than a decade with FBC.

Though Ogden’s squad fell in the title game after four overtime periods, she and her teammates — including Alabama signee Essence Cody, UNC signee Reniya Kelly and 2024 standouts Jaloni Cambridge and Zamareya Jones — demonstrated just how effectively FBC prepares and develops its players for the next level.

Ogden continued to shine at the Elite 24 game in Chicago, where she put on a show alongside other dynamic five-star recruits.

She was also selected as one of nine athletes — and the only girls’ basketball player — to participate in UA Next’s The Workout. The Workout is an annual performance development weekend at Under Armour’s headquarters designed to push invited participants from a variety of sports through different workouts and activities, demonstrating what college athletics has in store.

And now, the 1,000-point scorer has begun her final season in a Westminster jersey as one of 10 student-athletes named to the 2022-23 Naismith Girls’ High School Player of the Year Preseason Watchlist.

The Westminster Wildcats have started the 2022-23 season 8-4 and resume play in the New Year. Ogden leads the team in scoring (21.3 points per game), rebounds (10.7) and steals (2.5).

Caroline Makauskas is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also covers a variety of sports on her TikTok @cmakauskas. Follow her on Twitter @cmakauskas.

A few months ago, 17-year-old Victoria Safradin from Eastlake, Ohio, was doing homework in her room and refreshing her email when she heard a ping.

Safradin opened the new message in her inbox to find, in all capital letters, the message “CONGRATULATIONS.”

This was the moment she had been waiting for. With tears in her eyes, the 5-foot-11 goalkeeper ran down the stairs to deliver the news that she, the daughter of Croatian immigrants, was going to don the red, white and blue at the U17 Women’s World Cup in India.

Safradin’s family was just as ecstatic.

“For me, my big motivation is to make them proud,” Safradin says. “For me, everything I do is to make them not regret coming to the United States … to reassure them that everything they did isn’t a waste.”

On Oct. 11 in Bhubaneswar, India, Safradin took the pitch as the U.S. goalkeeper in front of 12,000 people. When the opening whistle sounded, Safradin’s nerves faded away as she settled in between the posts and focused on the task at hand. She recorded a clean sheet, ushering the U.S. to a commanding 8-0 victory over India in the group stage.

“I just had to take a minute to take in the moment and realize what I just did,” she says. “I just want to remain humble. I was trying to not take it for granted. I know there’s a lot of girls who would dream to be in the position like any of us on the national team.”

Safradin and the U.S. advanced to the World Cup quarterfinal, where they fell to Nigeria in penalty kicks after ending regulation in a 1-1 tie. It was the team’s second-best finish since the U17 tournament began in 2008 and a defining moment in Safradin’s own soccer journey after making two World Cup starts.

Safradin began playing soccer around the age of 5. By age 7, she found her calling through a process that started with a simple hand raise.

“I was in recreational soccer, and they needed a goalkeeper. I raised my hand,” she recalls. “The next thing you know, I played so great, my dad from then on was like, ‘She’s going to be a goalkeeper.’”

Around age 11, Safradin started to draw attention from elite club teams in Ohio. She joined Internationals Soccer Club after being identified as a top-tier talent by Zdravko Popovic, the club’s president and founder.

In the years since then, Safradin has not only developed physically and technically, but she’s also also improved her mental toughness. Once afraid of making mistakes, the Eastlake North High School senior has learned that failure can often be the only way to get better.

“She’s a great leader. She’s respected by her teammates,” Popovic says. “She’s a general in the back of the field. She’s my team captain.”

In the last two years, Safradin has really hit her stride, showcasing her evolving skill set against tougher competition and ultimately earning call-ups up to U.S. Soccer camps.

Last season, with Safradin in net, Internationals SC U17 went 19-1-5 and won the 2022 Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) Ohio Valley Conference. In May, Safradin was named the Best Goalkeeper in the U17 Concacaf W Championship after recording three clean sheets and allowing just one goal the entire tournament.

“That was my first big achievement. The hard part with the national team is you’re never guaranteed a spot,” Safradin says. “You never know. One mistake can cost you.”

From Concacaf to the World Cup, Safradin is trying to take every milestone one step at a time. Currently, she’s focused on her last season of club soccer before she joins the University of Virginia soccer team next fall.

For Safradin, committing to play for the Cavaliers was an easy choice. As soon as she stepped on campus in Charlottesville, she could hear Popovic’s voice.

“Always look at the picture in black and white. Don’t just look at the soccer piece. Act as if you weren’t a soccer player — would you still want to go there?” Popovic told her.

At UVA, the answer was an immediate yes. She plans to study healthcare management, combining her interests in healthcare and business, while playing for the university’s storied soccer program. The Cavaliers have made 28 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and four College Cups, with their best result a runner-up finish in 2014.

Safradin is intent on turning her journey into a professional soccer career, and in a few months, she’ll take the next big step toward her goal.

“I always tell myself I’m going to do whatever it takes to get to that level. But obviously, before pro comes college,” she says. “I want to do very good with my team there, go to the NCAA Tournament, possibly win a national championship.”

Nika Anschuetz is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @nlanschuetz.

The 2022-23 high school basketball season is officially underway, and varsity teams across the country are looking to make a name for themselves on a national stage.

At Just Women’s Sports, we’ve ranked the top 25 teams from coast to coast, each one of them poised to make waves in their home state and beyond.

1. Sierra Canyon (Calif.), 7-0

Head coach: Alicia Komaki

The Trailblazers finished last season as California state champions and ranked in the national top 5. They return 11 of 12 players from last year’s roster, including two Team USA gold medalists, 2023 USC signee JuJu Watkins and 2024 forward Mackenly Randolph. The team also boasts 2024 guard Izela Arenas and 2023 Northwestern signee Crystal Wang. This season, Sierra Canyon’s motto is “Good to Great,” as the Trailblazers look to follow up last year’s successful campaign with even more hardware.

2. Sidwell Friends (D.C.), 4-0

Head coach: Tamika Dudley

The Quakers took care of business last season, going undefeated and capturing the SCI National Championship. In 2022-23, Sidwell Friends begins a new chapter after graduating top recruit and current UCLA freshman guard Kiki Rice. Led by seniors Jadyn Donovan (Duke signee) and Khia Miller (East Carolina signee) as well as juniors Kendall Dudley, Leah Harmon and Zania Socka-Nguemen, Sidwell Friends is a threat to win it all once more.

3. Etiwanda (Calif.), 9-0

Head coach: Stan Delus

There’s no shortage of elite basketball programs in the state of California, and Etiwanda is strong proof of that. The Eagles’ smallest margin of victory so far this season is 23 points, with eight of their nine wins coming on neutral courts. As a public school, Etiwanda has some of the nation’s top talent: Class of 2024 recruit Kennedy Smith and 2025 recruit Puff Morris are two of California’s most exciting players.

4. Montverde Academy (Fla.), 10-0

Head coach: Special Jennings

The reigning GEICO High School Nationals champion, Montverde carries a rich basketball tradition into the 2022-23 season. The Eagles are long, fast and talented, thanks to a highly touted roster that includes South Carolina signee Sahnya Jah, Mississippi State signee Mjracle Sheppard and 2024 paint powerhouse Lety Vasconcelos.

5. La Jolla Country Day (Calif.), 9-0

Head coach: Terri Bamford

Three names to remember: Breya Cunningham, Jada Williams and Tajianna Roberts. Williams and Cunningham won a gold medal in Hungary this summer as part of Team USA’s U17 squad and recently signed with Arizona as part of coach Adia Barnes’ 2023 freshman class. Roberts is a well-rounded 2024 recruit with her best basketball ahead of her.

6. Hopkins (Minn.), 5-0

Head coach: Tara Starks

Hopkins has won eight state championships since 2004, including in 2022, and is the alma mater of UConn star and 2021 National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers. This season, all eyes will be on Stanford signee Sunaja Agara and Michigan signee Taylor Woodson.

7. South Grand Prairie (Texas), 10-4

Head coach: Brion Raven

While it might seem odd to place a team with four losses at No. 7, South Grand Prairie suffered those losses to Sierra Canyon (57-47), Sidwell Friends (61-49), Montverde Academy (45-42) and La Jolla Country Day (47-44). The Warriors have ranked wins over Conway (Ark.) and St. John’s College (D.C.) and more than a handful of double-digit victories. The losses might hurt now, but the Warriors will be all the better for it later.

8. St. John Vianney (N.J.), 0-0

Head Coach: Dawn Carpell

St. John Vianney will open its highly anticipated season on Dec. 17 against Bishop McNamara (Md.). This season, the Lady Lancers will start three players bound for Division I schools: Holy Cross signee Janie Bachmann, NC State signee Zoe Brooks and Bucknell signee Ashley Sofilkanich. After winning 32 games last season — and falling only once, to Sidwell Friends on a neutral court — St. John Vianney knows exactly what it takes to reach the top.

9. Incarnate Word Academy (Mo.), 5-0

Head coach: Dan Rolfes

The 12-time state champion Red Knights are experts at controlling the pace of a game, regardless of where they’re playing. Led by Nebraska signee Natalie Potts and Illinois State signee Brooke Coffey, they have already overwhelmed their opponents at home in St. Louis and at the recent ‘Iolani Classic tournament in Hawaii. No team in the nation has a longer winning streak than Incarnate Word, with 72 straight victories.

10. Conway (Ark.), 8-1

Head coach: Ashley Hutchcraft

Any time a roster boasts a Gatorade State Player of the Year, it’s safe to say they’re in good hands. The Wampus Cats have the gift of Stanford signee Chloe Clardy as they embark on a revenge tour of sorts after an upset loss brought their outstanding 2021-22 season to an end. Conway lost its undefeated status at the start of December in a 15-point loss to South Grand Prairie and ultimately finished the season 29-2.

11. Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.), 4-0

Head coach: Christina Raiti

Though the Crusaders are only a few games into the season, they have two of the most impressive wins so far — a close victory over Bishop McNamara (Md.) and a 30-point rout of IMG Academy (Fla.). On Saturday, Long Island Lutheran will look to pad its resume in another tough matchup against Paul VI (N.J.). Then in January, they’ll face both St. John Vianney and Montverde Academy. If the Crusaders, led by 2024 star guard Kayleigh Heckel and power forward Kate Koval, can win most (or all) of those games, they’ll have a case for being a top-5 team in the country.

12. South Bend Washington (Ind.), 12-0

Head coach: Steve Reynolds

Indiana’s top team remains undefeated after taking care of business against Michigan juggernaut West Bloomfield. South Bend Washington’s schedule is packed with fierce competition around the Midwest, and this squad is more than up to the task. The Panthers return two of their starters from last season’s state championship team in Purdue signee Rashunda Jones and Maryland signee Amiyah Reynolds, both of whom are sure to make waves next year in the Big Ten.

13. Sacred Heart (Ky.), 5-0

Head coach: Donna Moir

The Valkyries of Sacred Heart Academy are not only the best team in Kentucky, but are also guaranteed to put on a show. Top 2025 recruit and the reigning Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, ZaKiyah Johnson, is one of the most impressive players in the nation. This season, the Valkyries are already playing with patience and a high defensive IQ.

14. Lone Peak (Utah), 4-1

Head coach: Nancy Warner

Utah’s defending state champions suffered their sole loss so far this season in a 64-56 battle with Sierra Canyon — a matchup that will surely benefit both teams as their seasons progress. Lone Peak’s potential is through the roof as they return their entire roster from last season. Pay special attention to BYU signee Kailey Woolston and 2024 guard Shawnee Nordstrom, both of whom can impact games in big ways.

15. St. John’s College (D.C.), 6-1

Head coach: Jonathan Scribner

If you must lose a game, a tight one to South Grand Prairie (Texas) isn’t a bad way to do it. Duke signee Delaney Thomas leads a talented Cadets roster that also features 2024 standout guard Kyndal Walker. The gauntlet of a DMV high school basketball schedule is a tall order, but St. John’s College can count on depth and balanced scoring in the journey ahead.

16. Duncanville (Texas), 9-3

Head coach: LaJeanna Howard

One of two Texas 6A district teams on this list, Duncanville girls’ basketball is consistently one of the strongest programs in the country. Due to a three-year probation stemming from recruiting violations, the Pantherettes are unable to participate in postseason play. If not for that, the 11-time state champions would have a real shot at another title.

17. Hoover (Ala.), 12-0

Head coach: Krystle Johnson

The Lady Bucs have hoisted four state title trophies since 2017, and coach Krystle Johnson has won more than 92 percent of her 200-plus games at the helm. Thanks to its high-level discipline and impressive offense, Hoover will be a problem for any team on its schedule. North Carolina signee Reniya Kelly is a major key to their success, which already includes three separate wins over teams with a 5-star player.

18. Hazel Green (Ala.), 10-0

Head coach: Timothy Miller

The Trojans are nearing a 70-game win streak, and they’re ready for more. For half a decade now, Hazel Green has been one of Alabama’s best programs, collecting five consecutive Class 6A state titles. Four of the Trojans’ five starters return this year, including Class of 2024 forward Leah Brooks, so a sixth title may be in the cards.

19. DeSoto (Texas), 9-3

Head coach: Andrea Robinson

The other half of the dangerous Texas 6A district one-two punch, DeSoto has a young roster this season but a host of talented players in the Class of 2026. DeSoto’s three losses so far this season — against Duncanville, Montverde Academy and Summer Creek (Houston) — were all decided by single digits. After two consecutive Texas 6A state titles, the Eagles need to focus on building a strong foundation in this new era.

20. Centennial (Nev.), 1-1

Head coach: Karen Weitz

Centennial boasts seven consecutive state championships and one of the Class of 2023’s most skilled players in Montaya Dew. Her speed and ability to finish from anywhere on the court made her a highly coveted recruit prior to her choice to sign with Arizona. Throw 2024 guards Kaniya Boyd and Danae Powell into the equation, and the Bulldogs are well on their way to success despite losing their season opener to Lone Peak.

21. Paul VI (N.J.), 0-0

Head coach: Oscar Hidalgo

Paul VI has every reason to be confident about this season, including returning most of its roster from last year. Power forward Mikayla Young and Notre Dame signee Hannah Hidalgo, a top-5 recruit in the Class of 2023, are the lone seniors on an Eagles squad that could do some damage. Last season, Hidalgo averaged 21.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 5.4 steals per game and was named the Olympic Conference Player of the Year. The Eagles fell in last season’s state title game, but a shot at redemption seems likely.

22. Archbishop Mitty (Calif.), 6-1

Head coach: Sue Phillips

Not many coaches have experienced the height of success like Sue Phillips has. Her teams are well-rounded and prepared for whatever gets thrown their way. After winning a gold medal this past summer as the coach of the U.S. U17 team, Phillips returns to San Jose with a loaded roster — including first-time Team USA player Morgan Cheli — and a chance at the California state title.

23. Lake Highland Prep (Fla.), 7-1

Head coach: Al Honor

Division I coaches across the nation have their eyes on Central Florida-based Lake Highland Prep, and for good reason. After a nine-point loss to Example Academy Red (Ill.) in theirsecond game, the Highlanders have bounced back with notable wins over St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) and Miami Country Day (Fla.). Class of 2024 guards Lexi Blue and Jada Eads lead the team in scoring with 12.5 points per game and 12.4 points per game, respectively, and 2023 guard Eleecia Carter (12.1 points per game) is not far behind.

24. Clovis West (Calif.), 11-0

Head coach: Craig Campbell

Clovis West has managed to win most of its 11 games comfortably so far this season. Until a single-point win over Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.) on Dec. 8, Clovis West had defeated each of its opponents by a margin anywhere between 21 and 77 points. After its successful run at the recent East Coast tournament, Clovis West has put California programs on notice.

25. Bishop McNamara (Md.), 2-2

Head coach: Frank Oliver Jr.

Frank Oliver Jr. and the Mustangs will look to make their fourth-consecutive appearance in the Maryland state title game. After opening the season with a 25-point loss to Sidwell Friends, and then suffering a two-point heartbreaker to Long Island Lutheran, Bishop McNamara will need to focus on its long-term goals moving forward. In the cutthroat Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, it won’t get any easier.

Caroline Makauskas is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also covers a variety of sports on her TikTok @cmakauskas. Follow her on Twitter @cmakauskas.

Irene Riggs may have been born into a family of swimmers, but from a young age, she loved to run. She didn’t have a walking speed, her father Vic says.

Sometimes, it was to her detriment. “I would often fall,” Irene admits.

One of those tumbles Vic vividly remembers occurred at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. An enthusiastic Irene stumbled when trying to race to a platform a couple of inches off the ground and chipped her two front teeth.

But each time Irene fell, she got back up, showcasing a grit and determination that years later have propelled her to national prominence.

Back then, running was an activity for Irene, a way to expel energy. Irene’s parents were elite swimming coaches and her oldest sister, Abigail, was a star in the pool, later competing for Vic at West Virginia University. When Irene’s future coach, Mike Ryan, first met Irene in the fourth grade, cross-country star was not something he envisioned for her.

But Irene soon found outlets to channel that desire, most notably through the organization Girls on the Run. Middle-school races followed, and by the time she finished her freshman year, Irene’s desire to constantly be in motion had developed into a passion for distance racing.

Today, Irene is the best in the country. The Morgantown High (West Virginia) senior and Stanford commit clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross country history two weeks ago and followed it up this past weekend with a first-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals.

Just like she did as a youngster, getting back up after each fall, Irene overcame setbacks along the way, including a freak foot injury that kept her sidelined for weeks this fall.

“Her competitive drive is what separates her compared to other talented runners that I’ve coached,” Ryan says. “She’s always had that drive to not shy away from running against the best and racing against the best.”

‘The intangible I can’t coach’

It’s a roughly seven-hour drive from Cary, N.C. to Morgantown, W.V., and in November 2019, Irene cried the entire ride home. A high school freshman at the time, Irene had just missed out on qualifying for the Cross Country Nationals. She would instead stay home while her teammates Lea Hatcher and Athena Young, both now with Division I programs, traveled to Oregon for the national meet.

“I would be OK and then I would think about it again,” Irene says. “I would start crying again.”

Irene had a stellar freshman season, running a sub-18-minute 5K at the regional meet in North Carolina. She wanted more, though. Going into her sophomore year, the sting of missing out on nationals kept Irene motivated. Even when the coronavirus pandemic took away opportunities for Irene to compete in national meets, she dedicated herself to getting better.

“That’s the intangible I can’t coach, that personal self-desire,” Ryan said. “She wanted to do more, she wanted to go faster, she wanted to go longer.”
Irene swam competitively through middle school, and she credits that experience with building up her endurance. By the time the high school swimming season rolled around her ninth-grade year, she needed a break.

Her time as a competitive swimmer was done.

‘All of this is kind of surreal’

Vic Riggs is an expert in the pool. He swam at Cal-Berkeley and has coached various club and college swimming teams, including guiding the men’s and women’s swimming programs at West Virginia since 2007. When it comes to cross country, though, he’s a relative novice.

But Vic could see his daughter’s emerging potential as her times began to drop. It all clicked for him last year at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in San Diego when Irene nabbed 14th place, good enough for an All-American nod.

“I realized her competitiveness was going to take her to the next level,” Vic said.

Through her running, Irene has carved out a niche for herself. There are several talented swimmers in the family, including her twin, Caroline, who will swim at Yale next year. Irene enjoys excelling in a different sport.

“We do so much together, and it’s nice to have this little thing,” Irene said.

Vic has also relished the chance to simply be a dad, not a coach, and learn along the way.

“It was really cool to watch that development over the four years,” Vic said. “Every once and a while I would ask, ‘Are you having fun?’ She would always say yes. That was always our main thing.

“All of this is kind of surreal and unexpected. We never really expected this level of running.”

The journey, though, hasn’t been without bumps in the road.

Turning a setback into power

For someone who relishes motion, inactivity gnawed at Irene. When her foot got run over by a car this September, Irene’s daily route changed. While no bones were broken, the foot was badly bruised. She was in a boot for about a month and reduced to cross-training in the pool to maintain her aerobic fitness.

“I did have to take some down time, my foot had gone through such trauma,” Irene said. “When it’s in the middle of your season, you just feel like each day you are losing fitness.”

When Irene’s foot healed, she then had to regain the rhythm of her stride. Through it all, her goals of competing for national titles didn’t change.

“The focus was always on the end of the season championship race,” Ryan said.

Irene first broke a state championship course record by more than 45 seconds, clocking a 16:32, well under her goal of sub-17 minutes. With Irene leading the way, Morgantown captured a fourth consecutive state title.

A month of training followed, leading up to the Nike Southeast Regionals in late November. While Irene tries not to fixate on running certain times heading into races, she had hopes of clocking a time in the 16:20 range. Even she wasn’t prepared for the number she saw as she approached the finish line.

Not only did she break Katelyn Tuohy’s course record of 16:22.8, but she also clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross-country history, finishing in 16:02.01.

“Literally a year ago, I ran that exact same course,” Irene says. “If anything, it was muddier this year and I ran 17:17 last year. I dropped one minute and 15 seconds this year. That was a little shocking.”

Four years earlier, Irene sobbed in the car ride home from regionals, distraught over missing out on nationals.

“I put that mental picture of her running up the hill her freshman year versus what I saw her senior year,” Vic says. “She was moving.”

But Irene wasn’t finished. A switch had flipped in her head before the season, when she told herself she could win a national championship. That’s exactly what she did on the first Saturday of December with a time of 16:40.9, nearly 14 seconds ahead of the next closest runner.

“To come back and accomplish my initial goal, it was really special for me,” Irene says.

Next up is the track season — she focuses on the 1,600 and 3,200-meters — and then Stanford. It will be hard for Irene to be so far away from Caroline and the rest of her family, but she’s found a second home with the Cardinal.

“They said you’ll always be sad to leave, even though you’re excited to see your family,” Irene says. “You just love it so much.”

Irene is ready for that next chapter, to see what she can accomplish in cross country and track and field. There will be new goals and setbacks, but there will be one constant: running.

As a young child, Irene ran everywhere. Years later, she’s still on the move.

“I think that shows,” Vic says, “her true love for what she does.”

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.

When Cathedral Catholic’s Julia Blyashov steps onto the court, she turns heads. At 6-foot-3, it’s hard to miss her. But during the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Open Division State Championship against Saint Francis on Nov. 19, she wasn’t on the court.

The senior outside hitter and future Stanford freshman suffered an ankle injury in Cathedral Catholic’s semifinal win, forcing her to miss the biggest game of the season. But if Blayshov was feeling cheated or frustrated by the situation, she didn’t show it.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything about that night,” she says.

Blyashov stayed active on the sidelines, offering guidance from her new vantage point as the team rolled to a straight-set victory and handed Saint Francis its first loss of the season.

“Even though I was out, I was still trying to contribute. I was cheering everyone on,” she says. “When I say all these girls are my best friends, they are. Being able to be there, and just being in that environment was awesome. I was so excited during, and especially after.”

Though she didn’t step foot on the court during the state title game, Blyashov made an indelible mark on the team during the season. Cathedral Catholic dropped one set all year on their way to a 42-0 record and the final No. 1 ranking in JWS’ season-long poll. Blayshov led the way from beginning to end, earning 2022 JWS Volleyball Player of the Year honors as a result.

“We got where we were because of Julia … she’d be the one terminating a lot of the plays,” Dons head coach Juliana Conn says. “We need a point, set — Julia.”

Blyashov led the team in kills this year and is often lauded for her powerful swings, but Conn is most impressed with Blyashov’s passing.

“Passing is the hardest skill in volleyball. Throughout the year, her ball control has increased tremendously,” Conn says. “People are going to give the most credit to the kids who are terminating plays. But Julia is more than that. She’s always been more than that.”

Cathedral Catholic had 10 seniors on the team this year, and each of them took on a different role. Blyashov, Conn says, is an approachable leader. Not known for being loud or seeking attention, Blyashov instead instilled confidence in her teammates through her calm demeanor and measured approach to the game.

Blyashov started playing volleyball around the age of 7, after a stint as a rhythmic gymnast. Even when she was young, Blyashov’s height set her apart.

“I realized I was a foot taller than everyone,” Blyashov says. “My parents were like, ‘I think it’s time to find another sport.’”

So they took her — against her wishes — to a volleyball camp. And while she wasn’t excited at first, the moment she felt her hands hit the ball, she knew volleyball was the sport for her.

In the decade since that first camp, Blyashov has amassed a laundry list of accomplishments. In addition to starring on Cathedral Catholic’s indoor and beach volleyball teams and WAVE, a premier club team in California, Blyashov has represented USA Volleyball at the highest youth levels.

In 2021, she won a bronze medal with the U.S. U18 team at the Federation Internationale De Volleyball (FIVB). This year, she went a step further, winning gold at the U19 Pan American Cup and tying for the most kills in the championship match with eight. With the victory, Team USA qualified for the world championships next year in the Netherlands.

“It’s such an honor to be on the team and represent the USA and red, white and blue,” Blyashov says.

With the Dons season over, she’ll turn her attention to WAVE, where Conn is also a coach. The two have known each other for six years now. When that season ends and Blyashov packs her bags to head to Stanford next fall, she jokes that she wouldn’t be surprised if Conn follows behind.

“I’m grateful for everything she’s taught me. She’s tough, but I like tough coaches,” Blyashov says. “I’m expecting her to be there. I love her, not only as a coach but as a person.”

Stanford has always been Blyashov’s dream school. For as long as she can remember, she’s been going to the campus to watch her brother’s water polo tournaments, and she has fond memories of watching two-time National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer win three national championships with the Cardinal.

“I was in love with the campus,” she says. “I just have chills talking about it right now.”

She says she’s looking forward to being challenged by the best teams in the country. With so many of her childhood dreams coming true, Blyashov has her sights set on new ones — a national championship and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

“I’m definitely excited for baby Julia,” Blyashov says.

Nika Anschuetz is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @nlanschuetz.