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Michelle Esparza Aims for the Hoops and a Chance to Go to College


Michelle Esparza often accompanied her father, who coached the boys' and girls' basketball teams at Monrovia High School for nine seasons, to practices and games as a child.

But neither Michelle nor her father had any thoughts of her taking up the sport.

"I was little and just remember he would take me to go as a water girl and hang around big old basketball players," Michelle, 17, said. "I'm surprised he never asked me to play."

Michelle, though, probably would not have accepted the offer. "I thought swimming was my sport," she said.

Although Michelle, a senior at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, still competes on the school's swim team, basketball has been one of her favorite pastimes since she began playing in a parks and recreation league in the eighth grade.

A 5-foot, 9 1/2-inch guard, Michelle led the CIF Southern Section in scoring this season, averaging 29.7 points a game. She scored more than 30 points 12 times and had a school record 58 points--the most in a girls' game in the state this season--in a victory over Whitmont League rival Montebello.

El Rancho's leading scorer for both boys and girls, Michelle ranks seventh on the all-time Southern Section scoring list with 2,246 points. She scored in double figures in 59 of the last 60 games, including all 26 this season.

"I never tried to push her into (basketball)," said her father, Alec Esparza, an assistant at El Rancho for the past two seasons. "She used to just play on the court at halftime like other kids, but I never had any idea she had the desire or interest to play competitively."

Now Michelle, who was selected to the Southern Section Division I team for the second year in a row and to The Times' All-Southeast team for the third consecutive season, is attracting the interest of several NCAA Division I universities, including UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, USC and St. Mary's.

The youngest of three children, she is hoping for the chance to become the first in her family to attend college.

"My parents never went to college and my mom did not graduate from high school," said Michelle, also a member of the volleyball and track and field teams at El Rancho.

"They are excited and proud of me wanting to go to college. I'm motivated to do good in school. I wasn't real big about academics and I didn't realize how important it was until I got into athletics."

She averaged 27.6 points as a junior and entered the season as the top returning scorer in the state. She achieved her totals despite facing frequent double-teaming, which began as a sophomore when she averaged 22.7 points.

"The thought used to be if you stop Esparza, you stop El Rancho," Frank Llanes, El Rancho's coach, said.

"People misinterpret her scoring as an unwillingness to pass, but she gets a lot of points off steals and she's not handling the ball that much. She is so used to being double-teamed that she doesn't feel right unless two people are hanging onto her during a game."

Michelle believes she has become a better player because of her opponents' defensive pressure. This season, she also set school records for rebounds and steals in a game with 22 and 16, respectively.

"I felt a lot of pressure but wanted to bring my team up and, in the beginning, I made it a goal to average five assists and not only be a scorer," said Michelle, who averaged a team-high 4.8 assists. "I came close, but I didn't get it."

It was good enough, though, to contribute to her selection as the Whitmont League's most valuable player.

Michelle did help her school reach another goal.

El Rancho shared the Whitmont League title this year with Santa Fe. It was El Rancho's first league championship in the school's 40-year history. The Dons (18-8), who were winless in 20 games in Michelle's freshman season in 1989, also set a school record for wins in a season. El Rancho had finished seventh in the eight-team league in 1990 and fourth in 1991.

"Winning the league title is probably the highlight of my career and more important than any of the personal things I have done," Michelle said. "That was a goal in itself. I didn't think we could do it my freshman season, but I never thought about quitting because I enjoyed basketball so much."

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