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East County Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 3 months ago

Braden River star tries to balance her life outside of basketball

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O'Mariah Gordon, a top-30 recruit nationally, uses work and family to keep her mind off the on-court pressure.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

The piping hot French fries are a sweet temptation, but O'Mariah Gordon knows she can't eat too many. 

Not only because the Braden River High junior tries to watch what she eats, but because she doesn't want to get in trouble at work.

Gordon, ranked as the 26th-best girls basketball player in the country by ESPN, works in the kitchen at McDonald's. Well, she works a lot of different positions, but the kitchen is her favorite. It's where she is most in her own space. She doesn't have to talk much, to customers, coworkers or fans. The 5-foot-4 Gordon likes being anonymous. 

It's been impossible for her to stay that way.

Gordon, a junior, is the reigning Florida Gatorade High School Player of the Year. She has helped the Pirates to a 17-9 record against a murderous schedule, and has her team in the state semifinals. On Thursday, the Pirates will play Wekiva High (23-7) at 6 p.m. in Lakeland for a spot in the state title game (5:30 p.m. Saturday).

Her accolades have made waves beyond Braden River High and East County. 

"People have told me, 'I'm going to go to McDonald's and get you to sign my McGriddle,'" Gordon said. "It just makes me laugh."

It's not only the fans getting in a Gordon-fueled frenzy. College coaches, too, have begun their attempts to get her to sign. Gordon said she is taking her time with recruitment. She has heard from North Carolina, Florida State and Mississippi the most so far, talking to each staff over the phone about once a week, but has no timetable for making a final decision or even cutting her options down to a top five. Gordon will begin scheduling visits after the season and go from there.

While the process has not been fun — "I'm not much of a phone person," Gordon said — it has forced her to think about her future and what she wants out of the collegiate experience. 

O'Mariah Gordon (3) is the 26th-ranked player in the country in her graduating class, according to ESPN.

"When you go to college, you are still a kid," Gordon said. "When you leave, you are supposed to be a grown woman. You are going to step into the real world, whether that is to the WNBA or to live my life somewhere else. I need to go to a place where I can grow as a basketball player and also grow as a woman, as a person. I need a coaching staff that will help me get there."

In the 15 months she has remaining at Braden River, Gordon is determined to find a way to remain a kid, despite the pressures on her. She uses her McDonald's money to purchase basketball shoes, her biggest addiction. Gordon said she has approximately 70 pairs, of all shapes and colors. Her family purchased her a Buick LaCrosse to drive to work, to school and to the YMCA for practice. Those are the main places she goes, Gordon said. Her life is basketball, school, work and family. It's one reason why she's so great.

Finding a mentor

Gordon is not alone when it comes to recruitment. Braden River coach Stephanie Smith is her No. 1 supporter. Since Gordon works Sundays, the big women's college basketball day of the week, Smith purchased the women's basketball television package and tapes multiple games at a time. Smith said she has notebooks full of scouting reports on all the top programs, compiling the players graduating each program this year and next year, the players Gordon would be playing with and the playing styles of each team. Sometimes, Smith said, it feels like she is the one being recruited. She would know: Smith played Division 1 basketball at Northern Illinois. 

"I want 'O' to be able to be a kid," Smith said. "As much as we love basketball, as much as we want to be the best of the best, we also need a release. Go find something different to do. Take your mind off the sport."

Smith took the Braden River job in 2018 to be able to coach Gordon. Smith said she has more than lived up to the hype, though she wasn't sure how it would go at first. Smith said it took Gordon four days to introduce herself to Smith in the basketball office when she first arrived. Gordon was, and remains, quiet everywhere but on the court. Eventually, the two struck up a friendship. They hold private shoot-around sessions twice a week. They eat lunch together. They talk about basketball, but also discuss news articles and the life struggles they face. 

Gordon's biggest hurdle is one a lot of teens face — waking up. Smith said Gordon nearly napped through the start of a game last season, so Smith bought her an alarm clock. Gordon has yet to put batteries in it, Smith said, but Smith will keep reminding her. 

Doing it all

Gordon is averaging 23 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 4.2 steals per game. She leads the Pirates in each category. She can seemingly take over a game at will, but Gordon prefers to let the game dictate what she needs to be doing. In the Pirates' 60-48 win against Fort Myers High in the regional finals on Feb. 21, Gordon had just 12 points (going 5-for-6 from the floor) but contributed six assists and four rebounds.

Part of that was because of foul trouble. An aggressive defender, Gordon was charged with three fouls in the first quarter. She had none the rest of the game, backing off after seeing how tight the officials were calling things. 

The Braden River High girls basketball team is headed to Lakeland and the state semifinals for the first time in program history.

Having a teammate like Gordon makes things easier on everyone. Pirates senior Julia Rodriguez, a Kennesaw State signee, said Gordon has opened up lanes for her on offense. Rodriguez is averaging 20 points per game and had 24 against Fort Myers. She was the main beneficiary of Gordon's assists, as she has been for three years. Rodriguez and Gordon also play on the same AAU team, the Florida Future, and are close. 

"She's always calm, no matter the situation," Rodriguez said of Gordon. "She is fun to watch. It is an honor to play with her."

Eyes on the prize

After practice Feb. 20, the day before the Fort Myers game, Gordon ended practice by helping Smith put the basketballs back in their carts. Ever working on her game, Gordon used the opportunity to work on her shooting more. When she clanked one off the front of the cart, Gordon hustled it down and shot again, this time making it. 

She is never satisfied.  

"A lot of people think I'm perfect," Gordon said. "I promise you, I'm not. I make a lot of mistakes. It takes hard work to get to where I am and to where we are as a team. You have to constantly be getting better, or you're getting worse."

When the Pirates play Wekiva High on Thursday, Gordon said, she will be ready to do whatever it takes to reach the title game. 

Braden River fans, like Gordon's employer likes to say, will be loving it.

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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