Vanessa Murphy admits she’s not much of a dancer.
Basketball, though, is a different story for the 6-foot freshman forward at St. Mary’s (Phoenix).
On a team that is ranked No. 1 by ESPN HoopGurlz, is the reigning national champion, has won 48 consecutive games (including four en route to the title at last year’s prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions) and boasts six players who already have committed to a Division I college, Murphy is a regular contributor.
As a freshman.
Murphy and St. Mary’s (8-0) are back at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix this week hoping to defend their title, starting with Thursday’s game against Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.).
“She’s a rare freshman who understands how hard you have to work at this level,” St. Mary’s coach Curtis Ekmark said.
Given the program’s past and present, it’s easy to see why Murphy, 14, was “so nervous” when she started on opening night.
“I had butterflies, but once I got in the game, it got easier,” Murphy said. “I think my teammates sensed I was nervous. They were reminding me of the plays so I wouldn’t mess up.
“They kept telling me that I was doing great -- they’re really supportive girls.”
Murphy said the Knights’ pregame rituals have helped her fight off the nerves.
“We play music and have locker room fun,” Murphy said. “People will dance, and we’ll all just talk. I guess I’m not that great of a dancer -- [seniors] Chloe Johnson and Brandee Walton are the best ones.”
Johnson is a San Diego State recruit, and Walton is headed to New Mexico State, and they are not even the highest-ranked prospects on the team.
That honor goes to 6-foot junior wing Courtney Ekmark, the No. 13 prospect in the 2014 class and Coach Ekmark’s daughter. She already has given a verbal commitment to Connecticut.
In addition, senior twins Dominique and Danielle Williams are committed to UCLA and Michigan, respectively, and senior forward Chantel Osahor will play for Washington next year. All three are Top 100 recruits.
Curtis Ekmark said Murphy fits right in with this veteran group that is attempting to win its third straight state title.
“We do some complex things,” he said. “And she picks them up quickly.”
That should come as no surprise when you consider she is the youngest of five kids, all girls and all former high school basketball players.
“It’s like having a lot of mothers,” Murphy said of her four older sisters.
One sister, Samantha, played at Grand Canyon University and has competed as a pro in Iceland.
The Murphy girls learned to play basketball in the driveway in front of their house, which is about four miles from St. Mary’s.
Vanessa was in second grade when her sister Mallory helped lead St. Mary’s to a state title.
“I would go to the games decked out in [St. Mary’s] green,” Murphy said. “It inspired me to play the game. I wanted to win a trophy just like [Mallory].”
Last year, when Murphy was in eighth grade at St. Thomas the Apostle, three of her sisters joined forces with a couple of teachers and challenged the kids on the school’s outdoor court.
The adults won.
“It was quite an experience,” said Murphy, who estimates she scored 15 points in the informal game. “There were some fouls thrown around by my sisters -- I won’t lie. Samantha took it the most seriously; she’s very competitive.”
Samantha, 24, who retired from basketball after last season’s Icelandic experience, said her little sister is just as competitive.
“She’s not better than me right now,” said Samantha, a 5-8 guard. “But, skill-wise, she has potential. I’ve been trying to help her with her shot. When we play, it gets heated.”
Vanessa, though, doesn’t back down. She’s played against older girls her whole life, and she has learned to rebound and take care of the ball against intense pressure.
She’s a rare freshman who understands how hard you have to work at this level.” -- St. Mary's coach Curtis Ekmark
on Vanessa Murphy
“She’s a strong kid,” Curtis Ekmark said. “She goes to the boards well and is not afraid of contact.”
Ekmark said he has seen Murphy improve “dramatically” since the first day of practice, attributing that to her intelligence, her competitiveness and the fact that she is working against so many talented players in practice every day.
The coach also has another top freshman, reserve point guard Jessica Hodge-Green, whom he said is already one of the best on-ball defenders in the state.
“She’s maybe the quickest kid we have in our program,” Ekmark said.
Murphy, meanwhile, figures to get major-college recruiting attention fairly soon. If so, it would follow a trend.
Last season, St. Mary’s graduated two players who signed with Division I colleges: 6-3 forward Cortnee Walton (Louisville) and 5-11 guard Shilpa Tummala (Harvard).
In addition, former St. Mary’s star Davellyn Whyte is a three-time All-Pac-12 player at Arizona. Add the six current recruits, and it’s truly an impressive list.
“We’ve had so many college prospects come through here that I can tell when I have another one,” said Ekmark, who is in his sixth season as coach of the Knights.
“I don’t think [scouts] have seen Vanessa yet because she didn’t play on elite club teams last summer, but when they see her, they will find a gem.
“Kids on our team love her. Every time I yell at her, she giggles. It’s not disrespectful. It’s just her nature.
“It’s pretty tough to get mad at her because she’s such a positive girl.”