John Zant: Senior year showtime for basketball buddies

High school basketball stars Bolden Brace and Amber Melgoza, both signed to Division 1 scholarships, have one more season to play at Santa Barbara High. (Paul Wellman Photo)

High school basketball stars Bolden Brace and Amber Melgoza, both signed to Division 1 scholarships, have one more season to play at Santa Barbara High. (Paul Wellman Photo)

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship when Bolden Brace and Amber Melgoza started bouncing balls as toddlers. They lived on different sides of town, but they were linked by the fellowship of their parents and an affinity for sports.

“We’ve been best friends since we were babies,” said Melgoza, who was born eight months after Brace but caught up in a hurry. They rode bicycles and skateboards together. They shot backyard hoops. When they were in elementary school — Bolden at Laguna Blanca and Melgoza at Vieja Valley — they both played flag football.

“We played each other one time,” Melgoza said. “I was a safety. [Brace] went out for a pass. I came up and picked it off. I heard him go, ‘Oh, shoot.’” As Brace recalled ruefully, “Our whole team got mad — she was so good in football.”

John Zant's column appears each week in the Santa Barbara Independent.

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John Zant’s column appears
each week in the
Santa Barbara Independent

Santa-Barbara-Independent

Santa Barbara High football was the sport that bonded their fathers, Billy Brace and Jaime Melgoza, but it’s basketball that has fired the passions of their children. Bolden Brace did play wide receiver for a couple of seasons, while Melgoza went right into the gym and became a relentless offensive force, leading the Dons girls to the state finals as a sophomore and putting up mind-boggling numbers as a junior last year. The 5’10” forward was the fourth player in CIF-Southern Section history to surpass 1,000 points in a season (with 1,015). She averaged 32.7 per game, topped by 50 points in a playoff game.

Brace, meanwhile, sprouted to 6’5” and became a full-time starter for the boys last season, when he assembled a sterling set of statistics: 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.4 steals. With those two players and their supporting casts, it’s showtime at J.R. Richards Gym whether the boys or girls are playing. The two teams have a combined record of 109-23 over the past two seasons.

That’s what makes the 2015-16 season so special. It is the consummation of Melgoza’s and Brace’s hometown playing careers. They will be heading in different directions with Division 1 college scholarships: Melgoza to the University of Washington and Brace to Northeastern University in Boston. They did go for the same Husky mascot.

Melgoza said it was a relief when Washington head coach Mike Neighbors visited her home in September and, over a pizza, she committed to his Huskies. “The last four months of club basketball were so stressful,” she said. “Two hundred college coaches are looking at your every move.” Vanderbilt was also very interested in her, but she decided to stay on the West Coast and play for an up-and-coming Pac-12 team that went into the NCAA tournament last season.

Brace did not dither when it came to choosing a college. Northeastern was the first school he visited after summer ball. He learned that the Huskies won the Colonial Athletic Association championship and made their first NCAA appearance since 1991, losing by four points to Notre Dame. “Boston’s a cool town,” he said. “I’ll be going to Patriots and Celtics games.”

Now comes the fun part for Melgoza and Brace: prep seniors playing one more season for their school, in front of family, friends, and community fans. “These are the memories you’re going to treasure the rest of your life,” said boys coach Dave Bregante. “Embrace it. You can’t duplicate Santa Barbara-versus-San Marcos in a club game.”

Bregante’s Dons have good size with three returning starters — Brace, 6’4” Nick Busch, and 6’3” Ben Clay — and another 6’4” forward, JM Cage. “We look good in warm-ups,” the coach said. Every guard but Ben Brown graduated from last year’s 29-6 team. That’s where Brace’s skills come in handy. He can play every position from point guard to center.

“Bolden’s a great team player,” Bregante said. “He’s really motivated to do well. He sees the floor really well. If you’re open, he’s going to pass you the ball.”

Santa Barbara’s first home game will be Saturday evening, December 12, against San Luis Obispo. The Dons will play in the Carpinteria tournament December 18-22 and host their own Holiday Classic December 28-31. Those San Marcos games, when Brace will be matched up against UC San Diego–bound Scott Everman, will happen January 15 (at SBHS) and February 3 (at San Marcos).

Melgoza also gets props from her coach, Andrew Butcher, for being a team player. “Amber’s very unselfish,” he said. “She’s a good passer. She surprised people with her scoring last year. It will be hard for her to repeat that. We want to play good defense. That’s hard work, and Amber works as hard as anyone. She doesn’t have an ego that gets in the way.”

The Santa Barbara girls will have to be scrappy. Because of their success in the 2014 postseason, they were elevated from Division 3 to Division 2 last year, and they have been bumped up to Division 1 for the current season. They’ll be facing a lot of big, strong girls, and Melgoza is their tallest starter. “It’s exciting for me to see if we excel,” Butcher said.

The girls return three other starters — Jada Howard, Kimberly Gebhardt, and Cassandra Gordon — and also welcome dynamic sophomore point guard Alondra Jimenez, who sat out last season with a knee injury. They will play in the Gold Coast Tournament December 9-12 at San Marcos and host the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions December 19-23.

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