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NEW YORK -- A weekly preseason workout finds the Christ the King girls basketball team at nearby Rockaway Beach. Coach Bob Mackey extols the virtues of running on sand as he jogs side-by-side with his players.
Mackey likes the oceanside run "because it forces runners to lift their legs higher, giving them a better workout. Besides it's only a few blocks from where I grew up."
The working-class neighborhood at the southern tip of Queens, N.Y., is where the team's work ethic and camaraderie are forged.
Once school starts, Mackey takes his team on Wednesdays for the five-mile run. They go 2 1/2 miles on the boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean before looping back.
Leading the pack of 20 players is Mackey, who says, "If I'm making them do it, then I have to be part."
And that is how Christ the King, No.1 in USA TODAY's preseason Super 25 rankings, prepares for the upcoming season -- physically and emotionally, fostering a tight-knit squad.
"We're a family," junior guard Sky Lindsay says. "Seems like we hang out 24/7. Whether it's joking around, playing summer ball together or running the beach, it's about being close friends."
Further galvanizing the team are movie nights or team meals, with Mackey running the kitchen. "Usually it's a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs," he says.
"And don't forget the cheese bread," Lindsay says. "That's what makes the meal complete."
Complete describes the team.
"Everyone knows their role," says Mackey, who was named USA TODAY's girls coach of the year after leading the Royals (27-0) to the state Federation Class AA championship in 2005.
When CTK beat Murry Bergtraum (Manhattan, N.Y.) 66-59 in last season's federation final, guard Lorin Dixon put on a dribbling clinic, breaking down an aggressive press that had haunted the Royals when they lost in the 2004 federation final. Dixon, a 5-3 junior, is one of two starters who return.
The other is 6-4 center Tina Charles, considered the nation's top player. Charles, who signed with Connecticut last week, averaged 21.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 6.2 blocks.
After a strong run on the summer club and camp circuit, Charles stamped herself a "franchise player," says analyst Winston Kelly of Gameball Magazine.
Lindsay (10.1 points), a 5-11 junior, and 6-1 forward Kelly Barrett, who signed with Division II Bentley College, round out the lineup. Lindsay is being recruited by such schools as Miami and Georgia Tech.
Mackey says 5-9 junior Aimee Levine, 5-6 junior Nicole Caldera, 6-5 Natasha Morgan, 5-9 Kera Streat and 5-3 sophomore Jael Pena will have expanded roles and add depth for CTK's up-tempo style.
But Dixon's energy level "keeps the team together (on the court); she's our catalyst," Charles says.
Christ the King, as usual, will play a challenging schedule. It plays four games at the Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., where it could play Collins Hill (Suwanee, Ga.), which is ranked second in the Super 25.
A regular-season matchup with Bergtraum on Jan.15 will be played at Madison Square Garden. "That's one game we'll be ready for," Dixon says about the city rival.
Christ the King has been in USA TODAY's Super 25 final rankings 15 times since 1983, when the ranking started, including eight top-five finishes and three in the top spot.
*The next girls basketball Super 25 appears Dec.14
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