The Dons’ Amber Melgoza’s Full-Court Press

The Ponytailed Practitioner of Hardwood Heroics

Amber Melgoza
Paul Wellman

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?

<b>GETTING IT DONE:</b> 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).
Paul Wellman

Gridiron Girl

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.”

Amber Melgoza (right) stands with her sister, Candace, and brother, Buddy.
Paul Wellman

An Intimate Relationship

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.”

<b>TEAM WORK: </b>Melgoza has ratcheted up her game to new heights this season; the Dons are facing tougher competition having been elevated to Division 2.
Paul Wellman

The Team

As a 9th grader, Melgoza made the Santa Barbara High varsity girls’ basketball team, but she saw little playing time early on. She was eager but raw. “She had trouble on defense,” Butcher said. “She would just call for the ball at the three-point line.” But the coach also saw how she would fight for the ball. “You throw any kind of ball toward Amber in a crowd, and she’ll get it,” he said. And nobody worked harder in practice than she did. “We have to try to push kids to put in the effort,” Butcher said. “She’s the opposite. We worry about her doing too much. She loves the process. Her dad has been coaching football for 25 years, and she understands what it takes.”

In the 2013-14 season, Melgoza was a sophomore sensation. She was the leading scorer (22.3 points a game) for a Dons girls’ team that went 30-6, winning the Southern Section title and becoming the first Santa Barbara basketball team to play in the CIF State Finals. Modesto Christian, which defeated the Dons for the Division 3 championship, contested every shot that Melgoza took, fouling her time and again. She scored 20 of her 30 points on free throws, a state finals record.

Melgoza has ratcheted up her game to new heights this season, and it’s a good thing because the Dons (23-5 through last week) are facing tougher competition, having been elevated to Division 2. The only key player to graduate from the previous season was Desirea Coleman, a rugged point guard.

Butcher said Melgoza’s stardom is a product of the team environment. “It helps that she has a better shooting percentage [she’s making 52.2 percent of her field-goal attempts] than anybody else,” he said. “Every score by Amber is a team effort. They understand what’s needed to win the game, and they try to get the ball to her.”

And others pitched in during last Saturday’s high-scoring game at Summit. The Dons got 39 points from players other than Melgoza. Senior Jocelin Petatan scored 19, and junior Jada Howard scored 10. Melgoza had 30 points at halftime, and in the second half, Butcher said, “They played a triangle-and-two defense. Two girls sandwiched her. They were beating on her. It was crazy. Just as impressive [as her 50 points were] her 15 rebounds.”

Melgoza and teammate Jada Howard (right) reveled after a win. “It helps that [Melgoza] has a better shooting percentage than anybody else,” explained Coach Andrew Butcher, but “every score by Amber is a team effort.”
Paul Wellman

Melgoza gave credit to the entire team, from the players on the floor to the end of the bench. “We had such a good vibe,” she said. “This game really showed what we could do. When we lost Desirea, I wondered who was going to be our point guard. Cassandra [Gordon, a 9th grader] has been so important. She stayed calm and composed. It would have been a different game without her.”

The girls’ practices have been enlivened by scrimmages against varsity and junior varsity boys. “I was guarding Bolden Brace the other day,” Melgoza said. Brace, her former flag-football rival and a lifelong friend ​— ​his father, Billy Brace, was a high school teammate of Jaime Melgoza ​— ​is a 6’5″ junior who has helped the Santa Barbara boys (28-4) also advance to the CIF-SS semifinals. The team’s leading scorer on the season, Brace was shut down by the defense of Hart High in Friday’s quarterfinal but did a spectacular job of defending, rebounding, and passing in the Dons’ 62-51 victory.

The tumult has been tremendous in the gyms during these do-or-die play-off games. It takes a tough-minded young person to hold up under that pressure, especially facing hostile crowds on the road. Robin Melgoza saw her daughter emerge victorious under such circumstances last Saturday.

“The Summit girls were pulling on her jersey,” Robin said. “During her free throws, their crowd was yelling, ‘Over-rated.’” Santa Barbara’s fans shouted a response: “Amber-rated.”

That is a very high rating.


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