These girls play hoops beyond their years
Team Concept Heat is tall, talented - and very young
OREGON CITY - The present of Oregon high school girls basketball flexed its muscles Friday night at the Nike End of the Trail Tournament at Oregon City High.
The future, too.
Mercedes Russell of Springfield, Jaime Nared of Westview and Kailee Johnson and Jordan Reynolds of Central Catholic led the way as the Team Concept Heat trounced Wiggins' Waves of La Jolla, Calif., 62-31 to advance to the U-17 semifinals of the national tourney.
All of them could have played in a U-15 division, too.
The 6-5 Russell, the 6-4 Johnson and the 6-1 Reynolds will be juniors in high school next season. The 6-2 Nared will be a sophomore.
Together, they won a national U-15 tournament in Arizona the last two years.
It's a startling array of youth, size and talent that left a coach of another team after Friday's game to remark, 'It was like a college team against a high school team.'
And the Waves - sponsored by WNBA standout Candace Wiggins - are one of the better travel teams on the West Coast.
They had no answer for Russell, who dominated the interior with a nice blend of post moves, scoring 24 points against the undersized and outmanned Waves.
Russell, who has already been offered scholarships by Tennessee, Louisville and Kentucky, among other schools, is ranked No. 4 nationally among incoming prep juniors by Hoopgurlz.com. Johnson, who played Friday night with a sore ankle, is ranked No. 5.
Reynolds and Nared - both free-wheeling guards who can handle, see the court and get to the basket - are on the top-50 national watch list for their classes.
Though none are seniors-to-be, it's an unprecedented crop of players in our state's girls basketball history.
'This is by far the best group of talent ever assembled in Oregon,' says Michael Abraham, who coaches Team Concept with brother Todd Abraham. The quartet of underclassmen 'are national-caliber. Several of them will represent the USA one day.'
It's reminiscent of the Oregon boys team, led by Kevin Love, Kyle Singler and Seth Tarver, that ruled the national travel-team circuit a few years ago.
Michael Abraham, who coached two years in the WNBA and 16 years at the college Division I level, knows talent when he sees it. He understands he is blessed to have such a quality group that is well-versed in the fundamentals.
'They've been smart enough to get good training,' says Abraham, 53, who won a state championship as head coach at St. Mary's Academy in 1984. 'Their games are so developed at a young age to go with those tremendous physical skills.'
For Team Concept Heat's first game in the End of the Trail event, about 100 college coaches - including representatives from Connecticut, Tennessee, Duke, Louisville and Vanderbilt - were on hand to get a look.
'I see all the coaches in the stands - there are at least 20 every game,' Russell says. 'That's a good thing for us.'
Nared, Johnson and Reynolds have played in Abraham's program for seven years - since Nared was in third grade and Johnson and Reynolds were fourth-graders.
Abraham began his Team Concept program in early 2001, shortly after being released from federal prison for his role in a cocaine trafficking case.
'I was doing private training out of my backyard (in Laurelhurst), trying to keep my hand in the game, given I was unable to coach at a higher level,' he says. 'I've always enjoyed coaching, whether it's fourth-graders or 44-year-olds.'
In the decade since, Abraham - who says he has been clean since the mid-1990s and enjoys an excellent reputation among his peers - has coached more than 1,000 boys and girls with Team Concept. The Nared-Johnson-Reynolds triumverate, though, 'is the group that elevated our program.'
Through the years, the Nared-Johnson-Reynolds-led teams trained together year-round and have won several age-group national tournaments.
'We have a quality program that is able to get them national-caliber competition at a young age,' Abraham says.
'I know some parents say it's too much, too quick.
'But the way I look at it, if you're going to play a sport, and you recognize your child has unique ability, a lot of programs are set up to handle the recreational players. There needs to be a spot for the kid who is really gifted.'
Abraham has five boys teams and 10 girls teams, from fourth grade on up, along with a regular staff of six to eight coaches. His current girls U-17 squad - which includes top seniors-to-be Jordyn Peacock of Southridge, Rachel Mendelsohn of Jesuit and Anjenae Torregano of St. Marys - is the showpiece.
The group begins practice in September and goes to the start of high school practice in November, playing 16 to 20 games in a local league. The day following the state tournaments in March, the girls start up again, playing in a spring league along with local and national tournaments - getting in another 60 or so games.
'We try to work with the high school coaches,' Abraham says. 'June is high school month, when the kids play with their (high school) teams. I stay out of the way.'
Abraham and his wife, Trisonya, operate a sports agency (TTN) that represents many WNBA and other professional women's players, including ex-Westview standout Kara Braxton.
'I make enough to not have to have a real job anymore,' Abraham says.
He says Team Concept is not a lucrative proposition. Annual expense for the Heat, for example, is about $4,000 per player. There is no team sponsor. Much of the cost is covered by 'the Michael Abraham fund,' he says with a smile.
'We've started a foundation, and some people have been generous enough to donate too our program,' he says. 'We find a way to make it work. If I make a few bucks, it's not much.
'Most of these kids need some sort of (financial) help. If money is the only reason a kid is not in our program, we make it happen.'
Russell joined the team this year and has been a huge addition - no pun intended.
'This team is good, and Michael has been asking me to play for awhile,' she says. 'I came to practice, I liked it and I just stayed.'
The Heat pressure full-court throughout an entire game, and the players get after it at the defensive end. On offense, they are disciplined and organized. On Friday night, they moved the ball, fed Russell when she flashed open and launched only a few 3-point attempts.
'We play an up-tempo game, and all of us share the ball,' Russell says. 'All the players are great.'
Nared says she enjoys 'the chemistry of high school ball,' but has an equal affinity for the travel team circuit.
'We're all pretty close,' she says. 'I like the camaraderie and the idea of bringing great players from the state together to go against the best players in the country. It's great experience and fun to see how we match up.'
For the most part, that is superbly. The Heat were upset in the U-17 semifinals at Arizona in mid-April after leading by 12 points with less than two minutes to go.
'We missed 11 straight free throws down the stretch,' Abraham laments. 'It happens.'
The Heat are seeded second in the summer's biggest national tournament next week in Chicago.
'This tournament is really a tuneup for Chicago,' Abraham says. 'We'd like to win both.'
The best thing is, the core quartet leading the way will be playing high school ball in the state for two more seasons - and in the case of Nared, three more.
The state's girls hoops fans have never had it so good.