School records have fallen. State marks have been broken. Region championships have been won. State runner-up banners have been raised.
Still, as the final state tournament in their stellar four-year high school careers begins today, Phoenix St. Mary’s guard Jerryd Bayless and Mesa Red Mountain forward Kayla Pedersen can’t lay claim to membership on a championship team.
They’ve been close. Bayless played in the 2005 title game as a sophomore. Pedersen did last year as a junior.
Playing in one and winning one. Very different.
How much does that eat at them with the clock ticking down?
“It’s essential,” Pedersen said last week after breaking the 5A state career scoring record in a region tournament victory over Mesa Dobson. “I won’t be satisfied if we end up not winning a championship.”
Many top Arizona high school players have gone to college without winning a state title in their prep career: Phoenix Mountain Pointe’s Nicole Powell, Chandler Seton Catholic’s Christina Wirth, Tucson Salpointe’s Sybil Dosty, Phoenix Desert Vista’s Monique Bribiescas to name a few.
But that is no comfort to Bayless and Pedersen.
Pedersen, a 6-foot-4 senior, is headed to Stanford this fall and has school records for scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots. The Mountain Lions won region titles her sophomore and junior seasons.
This year, Red Mountain was the odds-on favorite to take the 5A-I crown primarily because its entire starting lineup returned. But some lackluster play many nights gave it the look of a team lacking the desire for the title.
The Mountain Lions have learned a couple of hard lessons in their 22-6 journey. Losses to four tough out-of-state teams in two national tournaments helped forge experience. Their only two losses to an Arizona team — East Valley Region rival Mesa Mountain View twice in January — forged resolve.
Pedersen and the Mountain Lions earned a large measure of revenge last Saturday when they thumped the Toros 61-32 in the region tournament final.
Down the stretch, Red Mountain spread its focus to helping Pedersen secure the career scoring title for 5A. In the first part of the season, she averaged 23.3 points per game. In 11 region games — culminating with the record-breaking night against Dobson — she averaged 27.4 to surpass Powell, who now plays for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs.
Pedersen admits being mentioned in the same breath as a player the caliber of Powell is nice, but if it means scoring less to win a title or not having broken Powell’s record and won a state title, she’d trade it.
“Teams have known me for a while, and the last couple of years I’ve become more of a threat,” Pedersen said. “They got used to the rest of the team last year. They can’t concentrate so much on me that they don’t guard our guards.”
That statement turned prophetic as Red Mountain beat Mountain View with Pedersen scoring the fewest points of any starter through three periods Saturday .
“The losses to Mountain View were motivating,” Pedersen said. “Right now we’re on a high, and playing pretty well. That’s all that matters. And winning our last game.”
The hoopla surrounding Bayless has existed for most of his four years at St. Mary’s. He was the East Valley’s leading scorer for a second consecutive season with more than 30 points per game. He can also rebound, pass and defend.
He hung around NBA star LeBron James at a recent Suns-Cleveland Cavaliers game. He’s been on a half-dozen high school sports magazine covers and committed to the University of Arizona as a junior.
And, in the spirit of former Knight and Wildcat Channing Frye, the individual sideshows don’t interest him this month.
“You’re not any less of a player or person if you don’t win a state title,” St. Mary’s coach David Lopez said. “I hope he’s not being judged on that. It’d be a big mistake.”
Mostly because of Bayless’ presence, the Knights have traveled cross country to play elite teams in Massachusetts and New Jersey, with the idea that a supporting cast of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores would play brutal competition and grow up quickly.
After a slow start, the Knights surged through the final month of the region schedule and are the No. 5 seed after playing the most difficult schedule in the Valley.
“The only thing left has been my main goal for four years,” Bayless said. “Obviously it hasn’t happened, but we have a good chance at it.”
“Above everything, I like to win. A lot of people can’t say they’ve won a state title.”