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It's A Slam Dunk

El Toro's Mendiola Raises Her Game for Every Occasion


In the third quarter of a game in December, the shot clock clicking toward zero, pinned in the corner with her back to the basket, Giuliana Mendiola wheeled to her right and threw up a high-arching prayer.

As the buzzer sounded, the ball fell through the net.

"I turned to [assistant coach Lynn Taylor]," said Jim Martin, "and just said 'Wow!' "

Martin, coach of Laguna Hills, knows what a lot of people know. When it came to value--and on-court performance--Mendiola had a season like few in Orange County history.

She averaged 34.3 points against specialty defenses and great teams. She took El Toro to the upper echelon of the county's top 10, and to the Southern Section semifinals.

Is it any wonder, then, she is The Times' Orange County Player of the Year?

She averaged 12 points more per game than any other county player, and at the same time, was among the leaders in assists with 6.3.

Mendiola was phenomenal at putting points on the scoreboard, but she was often overlooked for the other areas of her game; the 5-foot-10 guard also averaged 10.2 rebounds.

A lesser player might have become addicted to the numbers, forcing her shots instead of sharing the ball. But with the game on the line against Esperanza and a good defense converging on her, she passed to Sara Brown, a freshman, who made the go-ahead basket in the final seconds of a two-point victory.

Why should that moment stand out? Because it happened in the second game of the season. Because Mendiola was always all about winning. Because she was demonstrating that El Toro was not a one-woman team, that if it was to succeed, everyone needed to contribute.

On the floor, she led by example. If Coach Vincent Avitabile was late into the gym for practice, it was Mendiola who had her teammates running drills.

With the graduation last year of her sister, Gioconda, Giuliana knew she would shoulder most of the scoring burden. The fourth quarter usually belonged to her, as shown by her performance against Brea Olinda. The Chargers fell behind early, and Mendiola scored 19 of her team's 23 fourth-quarter points, including the last 16, and 31 of the last 34. On that night, the Chargers fell short of victory, but that was the exception not the rule.

El Toro went 23-7. Her junior year, the Chargers were 23-6 and played for the Southern Section Division I-AA championship.

Since her arrival at El Toro, the Chargers have gone 90-25. They went from being a last-place team with a 6-19 record preceding her arrival, to winning shares of two league titles and playing against the best competition around.

She and Gioconda, who put off college this year for the chance to play four seasons with Giuliana, will face a similar task next season at Washington, which was 8-22 this season, 4-14 in the Pacific 10 Conference.

She has been unlike any local player. Remarkably talented, she was a marked person every time she stepped on the floor, not just because she was the best player on the team, but because shutting down Mendiola might also shut up her vocal supporters, largely comprised of family and friends.

But more often than not, she came through, and the cheering hardly ever stopped. She and Chino Don Lugo's Diana Taurasi became only the second and third players in section history to crack the 3,000-point barrier, joining Riverside Poly's Cheryl Miller on the same night.

Mendiola ended her four-year varsity career with 3,069 points (a 26.7 average), which is second in section history and fourth-best in state history. Her 1,031 points this season were eight more than Amy Jalewalia scored for La Quinta in her record-setting 1989-90 season.

Most impressive, however, was Mendiola's performance against good teams. In 10 games against Esperanza, Foothill, Mater Dei, Edison, San Clemente and Brea, she averaged 34.3 points--her exact scoring average against all opponents.

There are those who believe she is the best player Orange County has ever produced. If she isn't, after leading the county in scoring for four seasons, she certainly has earned her way into the discussion.

What most don't realize is that she was probably the county's most improved player. She has always been a great scorer, but most impressive this season were the other facets of her game, the ones developed through hard work and desire. She became a better defender and a solid rebounder. When a game was on the line, it was Mendiola who guarded Kristen Mann, Chelsea Trotter and Whitney Jones.

In 1987, Brea's Carrie Egan set what was then the county scoring record, 56 points, against Anaheim High. Egan broke the record 15 seconds into the second half, then sat out the rest of the game. It was the kind of circumstance, against the kind of team, in which such records are usually set. The final score was 119-26.

If there's a single defining moment for Mendiola, it was on Jan. 22 against Foothill. She scored 55, six points short of Jalewalia's current record, in a 71-62 victory. But unlike those other efforts that kept pushing the record forward, Mendiola's performance came against a team ranked seventh in Orange County, a team that went on to the section semifinals. A quality team.

Mendiola didn't set the record that night, but she might as well have.

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