The Dons’ Amber Melgoza’s Full-Court Press
The Ponytailed Practitioner of Hardwood Heroics
Thursday, March 5, 2015
She’s been posting numbers never before seen in the Santa Barbara High School scorebooks. You think of Pistol Pete Maravich at Louisiana State University. You think of Kobe Bryant when he was carrying the Lakers. Here are some highlights of junior forward Amber Melgoza’s 2014-15 basketball season through last weekend:
• High game: 50 points last Saturday night in an 89-76 victory at Fontana’s Summit High, sending the Dons into the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA semifinals. It was the third time Melgoza broke the school record, following December games of 48 and 47 points. Holly Ford had set the previous record of 45 points in 1980.
• Season total: 962 points in 28 games, a 34.4 average, the highest reported in the state. “It’s a big deal when a player scores 1,000 in her entire career,” Santa Barbara coach Andrew Butcher noted. Only three other CIF-SS female players have exceeded 1,000 points in a season. (Cheryl Miller, the leader with 1,197 in 1981-82, did it twice.)
• Career total: 1,950 points, eclipsing the school record (1,804 by Lisa Willett, 1997-2000) in her second season as a starting player, with at least one more play-off game and another full season ahead of her.
But the cold figures do not completely represent the excitement Melgoza foments on the basketball court. On the night she surpassed Willett’s record, scoring 39 points in a 68-62 victory over Buena, I charted every play she made. Here are some of my notes:
“Wins the opening tip (at 5‘10”, she is the Dons’ tallest player) … fires a 40-foot pass to Jada Howard, who scores.”
“Breaks away at half-court and is collared by a flagrant foul. Makes both free throws.”
“Air-balls a three-pointer, bites the collar of her jersey in vexation.”
“Leaps to snag an offensive rebound, scores the put-back while falling on her butt.”
“Forces a Buena dribbler into a back-court violation.”
“Dives on the floor to save a loose ball under the basket.”
“Drives at breakneck speed, banks the ball in as a hard foul sends her sprawling. Converts the three-point play.”
“Outruns the defense and takes a 50-foot pass from Kimberly Gebhardt to the hoop.”
“Scrambles on all fours, trying to retrieve a loose ball. She leads the league in self-takedowns.”
“Another shot goes in off the glass as a foul knocks her down … and one.”
Just where did this ponytailed practitioner of hardwood heroics come from?
By Paul Wellman
GETTING IT DONE: Not only were junior forward Amber Melgoza’s skills essential in the Dons’ 68-62 victory over Buena this season, but the 39 points she scored during that game put her career total at 1,950, eclipsing the school record of 1,804 by Lisa Willett (1997-2000).
Amber Constance Melgoza is a fourth-generation native of Santa Barbara. Her middle name honors her grandmother Connie Rivero. “My mother was a hard worker. She raised five kids on the Eastside,” said Jaime Melgoza, Amber’s father. “She was an amazing fan of Santa Barbara High sports.” Rivero died last May at 92. “She would go to every single game,” Amber said. “I know she’s watching over me now.”
Jaime played football at Santa Barbara High in the early ’80s, and after going into business as a plastering contractor, he came back to help coach the Dons. He and his wife, Robin, have three children — an older daughter, Candace, who played soccer through high school; Amber; and a younger son, Buddy.
Amber’s first sporting passion was BMX bikes. “She got on a bike before she was 2,” Jaime said. She also had a favorite article of clothing. “I’d give her a cute dress to wear before going somewhere,” Robin said. “She’d come out of her room in a Lakers outfit.”
At age 6, Amber rode in BMX competitions around the country and won a national trophy in Kentucky, racing against boys. “I knew the attitude of boys toward girls,” she said. “I wanted to destroy them all and make them shut up.”
With that mind-set, she was not intimidated by football. “She’s been on the football field since the 1st grade,” her father said. “She loves the game.” She became a ball girl for the Dons. It was in that role that Butcher, the girls’ basketball coach, first noticed her. “It was halftime of a football game,” Butcher recalled, “and on the sideline a coach throws a pass toward a girl. It looks like he overthrows her by 20 yards. She sprints and dives and catches the ball on her fingertips. I said, ‘Why isn’t that girl on our team?’… ‘Coach, she’s Jaime’s daughter. She’s in the 6th grade.’”
She was the outstanding player in 6th-grade flag football, a quarterback and free safety who led her Vieja Valley School team to a championship. “Our whole team got mad: She was so good in football,” said Bolden Brace, who played for Laguna Blanca.
At about that time, Jaime Melgoza asked Oliver Wheeler, a longtime youth basketball coach who worked with former Dons standout Roberto Nelson, among many others, if he would be interested in teaching his daughter how to play with the round ball. Wheeler checked Amber out at a flag football game.
“She was the only girl on the field,” Wheeler said. “She ran for four touchdowns, threw for one, and intercepted a pass. On one play at free safety, she got trapped inside when a kid ran by her. She went outside, chased him, laid herself out parallel to the ground at the 10-yard line, and dove for the flag. She missed it, but then I decided she was a player. She had the mental capacity to quiet everything around her and focus on what she had to do.”
By Paul Wellman
Amber Melgoza (right) stands with her sister, Candace, and brother, Buddy.
Amber’s parents have never had to push her. “I don’t tell her anything,” Jaime said. “I see the lights go on at 4:30 in the morning, and she’s off to practice. It amazes me.”
She showed up at San Marcos High in predawn darkness on a recent Wednesday morning. Wheeler was waiting for her. He was a junior varsity coach at the school and had the keys to the empty gym. For 50 minutes, Melgoza worked on her shooting form under his watch. She took a flurry of shots within 10 feet of the hoop from all angles. “We want to have an intimate relationship with the basket,” Wheeler said. “When there are big players around you, a lot of energy in there, can you keep your shot on line?”
She spent the latter half of the workout shooting free throws. “Two free throws to win, one to tie,” Wheeler said. Melgoza stood at the line, dribbled three times, heaved a sigh, took three more dribbles, and released her shot. It missed, as did the second free throw. Melgoza turned, sprinted to the far end of the gym, and ran back to the free-throw line.
As the simulations continued — “Three free throws, two to get to overtime, three to win” — Melgoza started draining shots with regularity. “She was too speeded up at first,” Wheeler said. “You have to make the free-throw line a sanctuary that no one else can penetrate.”
Besides these personal shooting sessions, Melgoza works on her conditioning and core strength three times a week at Platinum Fitness Summerland. With regular practice, school, and homework, she has scant free time. “I’m used to it,” she said as she left the gym. The sun still had not come up. “I have to clean up and get to English class at 8.”