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If there's a shot to be had, Estancia's Mendoza ready to take it
Josh Mendoza was one of the top three-point shooters in Orange County a season ago for Estancia. Now a senior, he hopes to pick up where he left off after an impressive showing this summer.
He only needs a little bit of space.
Standing at the three-point line with the ball, Josh Mendoza can hardly see the basket. The guy guarding him has his hand two seconds away from his nose, limiting his vision to the space between the defender's fingers.
And that's only one defender. Mendoza, a senior shooting guard for Estancia, is used to getting his shot off from long distance with two, sometimes three hands in his face. His 63 three-point baskets last season tied him for 10th-best in Orange County. He made 45 percent of the 3-point shots he attempted and averaged 17.1 points per game.
"Once someone ripped the bottom of my jersey trying to grab me so I wouldn't shoot," Mendoza said. "Sometimes teams put their biggest player on me at half court so I can't even touch the ball. It's tough."
Estancia's entire offense flowed through Mendoza. If he had an off night, so did the team. With the pressure of putting up points at just 5-foot-10 and 135 pounds, Mendoza had to develop a few tricks to get his shot off against taller, bigger defenders.
His first year on varsity as a sophomore was the biggest teacher. As a strictly catch-and-shoot player, he struggled to shoot over defenders and, consequently, to get playing time. In practice, he would pass it off to a teammate, rather than attack the paint, if a defender came at him.
After a 74-39 CIF playoff loss to Oak Park in which he hardly played, Mendoza decided to change up his game. When the team returned to Costa Mesa around midnight, Mendoza went to the gym to work on dribbling past a defender and pulling up for a jump shot. He didn't leave until four in the morning.
"I had to adjust my entire game," he said. "It took a lot of those nights."
Mendoza's older brother, Mo Aguilar, was there for most of those nights. He was the one who first put the ball in Mendoza's hands, teaching him proper shooting form when he was 8. Fifteen years older, Aguilar also played basketball for Estancia, graduating in 2000. He is now the JV head coach and varsity assistant coach at Santa Ana High School.
When the two were younger, Aguilar taught Mendoza how to develop a high arc and quick release of his shot. Though many players use chairs to emulate a defender, Aguilar was a little more creative.
"I would cut those swimming noodles you play with in the pool in half, and hold it above my head," Aguilar said. "I'm 6-foot-5. I wanted to make him shoot over an even higher target."
Their years in the gym together paid off. Although Estancia finished fifth in the Orange Coast League this past season, Mendoza shot 46 percent from the field and 86 percent from the free-throw line. He earned second-team All-Orange Coast League honors.
Estancia lost, 67-50, to Tahquitz High School in the CIF Southern Section Division 3A playoffs as an at-large entry in February, but Mendoza scored 25 points, including five three-pointers.
Heading into his final season, Mendoza still trains with his brother.
"Over the last few years, Josh was the one waking me up at 5 a.m. to get shots up before he went to school," Aguilar said. "He's just hungry. He wants to get better."
This summer, Mendoza aimed to become a more complete player. He worked on his ball-handling skills to add a driving dynamic to his game. He also spent more time in the weight room, in addition to improving his on-ball defense.
"I love working out more than I do playing," Mendoza said. "I want to play basketball in college after I graduate, so I'm doing everything I can to get better this summer."
His efforts showed during Estancia's summer games. The team played 30 games in numerous tournaments, including those hosted by Corona del Mar, Corona High School, Newport Harbor and in Palm Springs. Mendoza scored 40 points three times.
Estancia head coach Agustin Heredia, who took a leave of absence last season, can appreciate Mendoza's development. Mendoza was a sophomore with a one-dimensional shot the last time Heredia saw him play. Now Heredia says Mendoza is starting to create a buzz among local college coaches.
"Josh was such a joy to coach this summer," Heredia said. "He's really impressing people. Everyone knows if you're going to beat us, you have to stop him. But when he gets hot, he's really hard to stop.
"It's not just about scoring, though. He knows the little things a lot of people don't see in terms of decision-making. When to shoot, when to not shoot. How to use your body to draw a foul or how to use a screen well. He's a really intelligent player."
When not in an Estancia uniform, he played against local high school and college players in pickup games around Orange County, including at Shiffer Park, Smallwood Park, Edison Park and South Coast's 24 Hour Fitness. He also played club ball for the Newport Lightning.
"I'm always looking for the next game," Mendoza said. "Wherever there's a court, I'm there."
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