Coach Sue Phillips first remembers meeting Morgan Cheli at a USA Basketball skills academy when the guard was only in elementary school.
She’s also had her in math class and coached her at Archbishop Mitty High School in California.
This past season, the sophomore Cheli led the Monarchs in all categories during a powerful 30-2 season. Now, just over a month after the end of the school year, Phillips and Cheli will pick up right where they left off, but this time for the USA Basketball U17 Women’s National Team, which begins play at the FIBA U17 World Cup on Saturday in Debrecen, Hungary.
“It was a great year,” Cheli said. “You know, I wish we would’ve ended it a little stronger, but that’s our call to get back to where we were. I’m looking forward to next season.”
Cheli and eleven others among the top players from the classes of 2023 and 2024 will attempt to bring home the gold medal. For Phillips, it’s the fifth coaching assignment with USA Basketball. Last summer, she guided the U16 national team to an undefeated record and a gold medal in Mexico.
Returning from that U16 national team are 2023’s Madison Booker, Breya Cunningham, Jadyn Donovan, Juju Watkins and Jada Williams, as well as 2024’s Jaloni Cambridge. The team also boasts names such as Hannah Hidalgo and Mikaylah Williams, the unanimous No. 1 recruit in the class of 2023 who recently committed to LSU. Sunaja Agara, MacKenly Randolph and Kennedy Umeh round out the roster.
“It’s an incredibly talented group this year,” Phillips said. “A versatile combination of young women who can score at all three levels. They can wreak havoc defensively as well. It’s a really fun group to coach, and I think we’ll play an exciting brand of basketball.”
Though Phillips has garnered much success with Team USA, she carries nearly 30 years of experience coaching and teaching math at Archbishop Mitty. She herself is an alumna of the school and basketball program.
“[Teaching math is] what pays the mortgage, let’s be clear!” Phillips said with a laugh.
It’s also greatly impacted her coaching style.
“Empathy and teaching are such integral parts of your interactions,” Phillips said. “Watching film and starting with mistakes is like me handing back your quiz in our math class. You missed Nos. 7 and 15. We have the opportunity to walk through this, so that when we have our test — or playing on the world stage — we have the chance to remedy that error.”
Having the ability to draw parallels between teaching and coaching allows Phillips to diffuse difficult situations. While it may be embarrassing or disheartening to make a mistake, Phillips finds that approaching it with a growth mindset can make all the difference.
“The only way you are gonna get better is if we address those setbacks, those oversights, whatever you want to call them,” Phillips said. “It’s a great way to approach learning, especially during the lowlights. During the highlights, everyone’s having fun with it. But we shouldn’t shy away from opportunities to learn.”
At Archbishop Mitty, she has amassed more than 760 wins and sent 50 players to the next level. This past season, Phillips, Cheli and the rest of the Monarchs team won four championships and finished as state runners-up to champion Sierra Canyon, where Watkins and Randolph attend high school.
Phillips also runs her own non-profit, the San Jose Cagers, a girls AAU club program in the South Bay. It began in 2007 when a former student, Danielle Robinson (now of the Indiana Fever), and her mother spoke to Phillips about the lack of an AAU team in the area. The Cagers have teams for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade teams, as well as three high school teams.
“It’s another way to provide a program that is intended for skill development and a platform for college recruitment,” Phillips said. “It’s about growing the game at the youngest of levels.”
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It was in seventh grade when Cheli played for the Cagers that she first started to connect with Phillips.
“I got to know her through Cagers,” Cheli said. “We started building our relationship then. I got to learn more about Mitty and her program. One of the deciding factors was that I would get to play for her. She would help develop me to get me to where I wanted to go.”
With the choice to attend Archbishop Mitty, Cheli paved her own path.
“Cheli’s older siblings attended another local private school in the area,” Phillips said. “But Morgan played club for us, and she and her folks really connected with my staff and I. And we had a player at Mitty, Haley Jones, who Morgan would watch. I think when you watch a player like that thrive and flourish, you say, ‘Geez, I would love to be in that kind of situation.’”
At 6-foot-1, Cheli is versatile. She’s an elite shooter and has the ability to play everything between point guard and power forward depending on what’s needed of her. She has the ability to fill several roles while on the court in Hungary.
But in order to uphold the integrity of the tryout process, Phillips did not speak on Cheli to anybody on the selection committee.
It was important to Phillips that Cheli was treated like everybody else. She was an applicant; not necessarily a name thrown around at the highest level until this spring. However, once she received her tryout invitation, she stepped up. At one point during camp, Cheli led the group in assists and finished with double-digit rebounds.
“It was nice to have that familiar face there as a comfort that going in, I knew somebody,” Cheli said.
“We kept our distance.” Phillips said. “All of a sudden, we moved to the finalist stage, and I realized she had a real shot. I have no say on the selection process. She earned it. She’s put the time in. She’s continued to make personal sacrifices to make basketball a priority, and over the course of two years, she’s emerged as one of the top players in her class.”
Just as she does on the Archbishop Mitty roster during the school year, Cheli will add to a team packed with talent when Team USA takes the court in Hungary.
“I’m so fortunate to have made the team,” Cheli said, “and it’s really incredible to have my high school coach as my coach here as well. It’s pretty special.”
Expectations are high for Team USA, which opens play against Mali, but Phillips believes in the process and path to reach gold.
“On paper, we are arguably one of the contenders to win gold,” Phillips said. “To be clear, until we take the floor to compete, it still remains to be seen. We are certainly striving to make our mark at the World Cup, but we have to demonstrate our abilities to be the best team on the floor for a particular day.”
Caroline Makauskas is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also writes about college basketball for Blue Ribbon Sports and covers a variety of sports on her TikTok @cmakauskas. Follow her on Twitter @cmakauskas.