(photo by Morgan Genser)

SAMOHI — Santa Monica High School’s girls’ basketball team is an ambitious bunch.

Having built the program into a Southern California powerhouse in recent years, Head Coach Marty Verdugo is the type of guy who loves a challenge. To that end, he consistently schedules stalwarts like Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly in the hopes that it prepares his Vikings for the rigors of the postseason.

But, this weekend in Arizona, he may have committed his team to its greatest challenge yet during the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions, which features some of the country’s best squads.

The Vikings won’t have to wait long to see where they shape up on the national scene as they prepare to take on Illinois’ Bolingbrook, USA Today’s No. 2 team in the country. The game takes place on Saturday at Phoenix’s Hamilton High School at 3:30 p.m.

But, to Verdugo and his girls, they are approaching it like any other game, with the exception of the high stakes.

“We’ve been working all week on being strong, on executing,” Verdugo said. “We’ll be trying to take away their quickness.”

While not quite yet noticed nationwide, Verdugo, in his five years as coach, has transformed his team into a SoCal power, culminating in last year’s California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1A championship, the first in the sport in school history. The Vikings are continuing to ride the tide of last year’s title this season, going an unblemished 9-0 and winning a pair of SoCal tourneys.

With a strong showing during the Nike tournament, he feels that the Vikings might just open some eyes. That, and win some games of course.

“This is the moment we’ve been talking about,” Verdugo said. “Life doesn’t give you many chances to be nationally recognized. This is one of those rare things.”

Regardless of wins and losses, the Vikings are scheduled to play four games during their trip to Arizona, but Verdugo hopes those games aren’t in the consolation bracket.

If Samohi is able to advance past Bolingbrook, the road to the tournament title doesn’t get much easier. The Vikings’ bracket of 16 teams, dubbed the Joe Smith Elite Division, includes seven teams ranked on the current USA Today poll. Included in that group are No. 1 Santa Ana Mater Dei, No. 2 Bolingbrook, No. 3 Brea Olinda and No. 5 Long Beach Poly.

With that road ahead, Verdugo is wise to keep the pre-tournament talk to beating Bolingbrook and going from there, a sentiment shared by his team’s top players.

“They’re a good team,” UCLA-bound senior Moriah Faulk said of Bolingbrook. “But, they aren’t amazing. I think it will be a good test for us to see how we compete with this kind of team.”

While the information on Bolingbrook is scarce, Verdugo said, he has been able to acquire a tape of them in action. First off, he said he recognized that they are a fast, physical team led by point guard Ariel Massengale, who has signed to play for Tennessee.

Verdugo said that the responsibility of slowing down Massengale will fall to Kristina “KJ” Johnson, who will play for University of the Pacific next year.

Johnson said she looks forward to the challenge, adding that she’ll have to perform well in the eyes of her teammates who look to her to be the catalyst on the floor.

“There’s a lot of pressure being the point guard,” Johnson said. “The team feeds off me, so I have to have a lot of energy.”

daniela@www.smdp.com

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