When the Miami Hurricanes’ women’s basketball team upset reigning national champion Notre Dame last week, one high school girl who was among the many fans who rushed the court towered four inches over even the tallest Miami player.
That high school kid is 17-year-old junior Chantell Gonzalez, a 6-8 center for Miami Country Day, the No. 1-ranked girls’ basketball team in the nation, according to ESPN.com.
Gonzalez, who is a starter in her first season at Miami Country Day, is still a project with modest statistics of 4.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. But the Key West native is one of the tallest female basketball players in the nation — at any level.
The only players taller than Gonzalez appear to be three college women who are all 6-9: Oregon State freshman Andrea Aquino, who is from Paraguay; Rice sophomore Nancy Mulkey, from Texas; and Virginia junior Felicia Aiyeotan from Nigeria.
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Gonzalez, who lacks speed but has a sweet shooting touch, is improving rapidly, according to Spartans coach Ochiel Swaby.
“When she first got here, her reactions were slow,” Swaby said. “But her reactions are getting sharper.”
Gonzalez’s next opportunity for improvement comes on Thursday, when the Spartans (22-1) play The Benjamin School in a Class 4A regional semifinal.
The Spartans are considered favorites to win their sixth consecutive state title. In addition, they have gone to New York to win two national titles — most recently in 2017 — and they are keen on a potential third bite of the Big Apple April 5-6.
There’s work to do before the Spartans get there, of course, but Gonzalez and her family have already overcome numerous obstacles just to reach this point.
Gonzalez’s father, Ray is from Cuba, and he is 5-8. Gonzalez’s mom, Cecilia, is 5-5, and she’s from Oklahoma.
Their two other children are also in that height range as Chanell, the oldest, is 5-5, and middle daughter Michell is 5-3.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, zoomed past them and was 6-foot tall by the time she started the fifth grade. She was growing at an alarming rate — four inches per year on average.
Concerned, Gonzalez’s parents took her to Miami Children’s Hospital, where a battery of tests were performed to make sure there were no tumors. Fortunately, there weren’t, and doctors ultimately performed surgery in an attempt to stem her growth when she was in the sixth grade.
“They put two plates and four nails in each knee,” Gonzalez said. “They also scraped the growth plates on my ankles.
“My bones had started to bend. That’s why my fingers are bent — I grew so fast that my bones couldn’t keep up. It was weird. Bones bending? I thought they were always supposed to be straight.”
Two years after the initial surgery, the plates and nails were removed. Gonzalez believes she is done growing in terms of height, but she hopes to add weight from 200 pounds up to 250 by the time she finishes college.
Gonzalez’s first athletic love was swimming, and she was also a cheerleader. She was the girl who held up the smaller cheerleaders.
But when Gonzalez was in the sixth grade, her father took her to a gym, where she started putting up shots.
“All of a sudden, a coach came up to me and said, ‘You should play for my team’,” Gonzalez said. “I’m like, ‘ummm.’ I was just air-balling everything.”
Gonzalez, however, stuck with basketball. As a seventh-grader, she would travel an hour each way from Key West to Marathon in order to play basketball. On weekends, she would make a four-hour trip, each way, to play travel ball with the Miami Suns.
By the time she was a freshman in high school, Gonzalez’s oldest sister got an apartment in Hialeah so that Chantell could continue her career. Gonzalez played at Archbishop McCarthy as a freshman and St. Thomas Aquinas as a sophomore before finally passing the admissions test at Miami Country Day this past August.
By the way, Gonzalez doesn’t speak Spanish — she does a lot of pointing at menus at the Cuban restaurants that dot her Hialeah neighborhood.
Gonzalez is not the focal point of the team. The stars are 5-7 senior point guard Maria Alvarez and 6-0 senior forward Koi Love.
Alvarez is jokingly nicknamed “Grandma” because she has been on the team so long, earning a role as the Spartans’ three-point shooter since she was in the seventh grade.
A native of Colombia, she signed with the University of South Florida and is averaging 14.8 points and a team-best 4.5 assists. She was named MVP when the Spartans won the Tournament of Champions in Arizona earlier this season.
Alvarez hopes to earn her sixth state championship ring next month and then will be off to Thailand this summer as part of Colombia’s junior national team.
Love, a native of Atlanta, joined the Spartans last season and leads the team in scoring (16.9) and rebounds (10.6).
A Vanderbilt recruit, Love was named MVP when the Spartans won the Naples Holiday Shootout.
The Spartans also have a rising star in 5-6 freshman point guard Sydney Shaw, who recently drew a scholarship offer from Miami.
But, even with all that firepower, it’s still Gonzalez that earns the most attention when the Spartans travel.
“When we go out to eat,” Love said, “little kids always ask to take pictures with her. She’s famous.”
Gonzalez’s game, meanwhile, is a work in progress.
She broke her right arm as a sophomore, setting her back. She is shooting 59.1 percent on free throws and 45.5 percent on field goals this season.
Gonzalez had a season-high 10 points to go with seven rebounds against her former school, St. Thomas Aquinas on Jan. 26, and she had a season-high nine rebounds against IMG on Feb. 2.
So far, Gonzalez has gotten recruiting interest from Princeton, Cornell, Columbia and Florida. She considers herself a big-city girl and also likes the Hurricanes, but it remains to be seen if she can reach that level.
“She’s definitely a Division I player,” Swaby said. “If I were a mid-major college coach, I would recruit her because she blocks and alters shots — especially in a zone defense — and she can shoot the face-up jumper. She’s not a stiff you just put under the basket.
“The main thing college coaches have told me is how much she has improved. She works her butt off – I can’t think of one negative thing about her.”
Contact Walter Villa at firstname.lastname@example.org.