LAKELAND -- Amanda Mendoza was barely the size of a ruler when she was born.
Even now, at 5-2 and 105 pounds, the Miami High junior point guard is one of the three smallest players among the 32 teams and 400 athletes who came to the Lakeland Center this week to compete for a state championship in girls’ basketball.
But, despite her size, Miami High coach Sam Baumgarten said you won’t find a tougher player than Mendoza, who has started for the Stings since her freshman year.
“She has a lot of heart,” Baumgarten said. “When she was a freshman, I think she was like 4-11 and 85 pounds, and I worried about her. But I don’t worry anymore because I’ve seen how tough she is.”
Miami High (24-5) will need her healthy Friday night, when the Stings take on Orlando Colonial (28-2) in a Class 8A state semifinal.
Mendoza is second on her team in scoring (10.5) and leads in assists (3.5), free-throw percentage (80) and three-pointers made (27).
Beating a Colonial team that has lost only once to a Florida school won’t be easy, but Mendoza, born weighing just four pounds, 13 ounces and measuring 13 inches, already has a major victory in her life, according to her mother.
“Just getting on that court at The Lakeland Center is like a dream come true for her and our entire family,” Jeanette Mendoza said. “Of course, we want her to win, but what she has accomplished already is amazing.”
Given her love for the game, it’s no surprise Amanda Mendoza began dribbling basketballs — constantly — at age two. By the sixth grade, she was a varsity starter at a small school, Horeb Christian, where she averaged well over 20 points.
When she transferred to Miami High to participate in the school’s teaching program, many doubted she could compete at the 8A level in basketball. But Mendoza earned a starting job right away and made the transition to a true point guard at Miami High.
“At first, it was kind of hard because I’m used to taking people off the dribble and shooting,” she said. “Now I set up my teammates and look to score for myself, also.”
When the Stings upset Lourdes last Saturday night in a regional final, Mendoza repeatedly broke down Bobcat defenders with her cross-over dribble and then either set up a teammate or went in for the drive.
Baumgarten said Mendoza, a lefty, has vastly improved her right hand to become a more complete player.
“Before, she would go as far left as she could and turn the corner,” he said. “But you are not going to turn the corner on [upper-echelon] teams like Norland and Krop. She has learned to stay in the middle of the court instead of getting trapped in the corners.”
Baumgarten said he expects Colonial to trap aggressively, putting an even bigger premium on Mendoza’s value.
“Her best asset is her shot — she’s a dead-on shooter,” Baumgarten said. “Against Colonial, she will have open looks because they will press full-court from start to finish. Hopefully, we can attack their press and get to the rim.”
And if Mendoza gets hit on the way to the rim, that’s just fine, she said.
“I’ve been hit before,” Mendoza said. “My teammates will help me bounce back up.”