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Phoenix St. Mary’s girls hoops coach wins Naismith Award

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Tuesday, while traveling with his daughter Courtney to a visit to the University of Connecticut, he learned there was one more bit of hardware on the way — he is the Naismith Award winner as the nation’s top high school girls basketball coach.

“This is my fifth year as the coach of St. Mary’s and it has taken us a while to get the culture of the program to where we want it,” Ekmark said. “We just have a really good group of kids and obviously with the history and tradition of this award, I’m honored to get it, but you don’t get this type of award without really good players and I’m blessed to have that as well as support from the (St. Mary’s) administration.”

St. Mary’s is No. 1 in the USA TODAY Super 25 rankings and defeated five teams that have been ranked in the Super 25 this season. The team, and others in the state may have benefited from the high-profile exposure to top teams in the annual Nike Tournament of Champions, which is held in Phoenix.

“I took my daughter and several other kids to watch that tournament when they were about eight years old,” Ekmark said. “It has been incredibly beneficial to Arizona. Instead of every once in a while seeing a Nicole Powell or Kayla Pedersen (two Arizona prep players now in the WNBA), every year, we get to see an influx of great players around the country and that gave the kids something to shoot for.”

It has been a steady climb for Ekmark, who is 120-20 at St. Mary’s. His girls finished runner-up at state for two consecutive years before winning the state title the past two years. He has eight players on the team with Division I scholarship offers, including five juniors. His daugther, one of the top players on the team, is a sophomore.

“I really believe the reason for our success is the fact we have a group of kids who have bought into being something that is bigger than themselves,” Ekmark said. “They’ve bought into being great teammates. Because of focusing on being a team, they all have had more individual opportunities.”

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