Gatorade surprise for an undersized prospect at overshadowed school

Courtesy Melissa Parker

O'Mariah Gordon headed straight to coach Stephanie Smith's classroom to celebrate her Gatorade player of the year award.

Sophomore Azzi Fudd won the Gatorade National Girls' Basketball Player of the Year award this week. Another super sophomore recruit celebrated the Gatorade state award in Florida. Meet O'Mariah Gordon.

It was 9 a.m. last Friday when an email popped into O'Mariah Gordon's inbox. She didn't open it -- she was in science class after all -- but she knew it demanded her immediate attention.

So the sophomore point guard at Braden River (Bradenton, Florida) asked for permission to go to room 728, where her coach, Stephanie Smith, was teaching biology.

When Gordon reached her destination, she burst into the classroom and read the email. She and Smith celebrated with a joyful embrace. Gordon had been named the Gatorade girls basketball player of the year in Florida.

"Coach! Coach! I got it! I got it!" Gordon said.

The news was a bit of a surprise, but not because Gordon lacks talent. She averaged 29.7 points, 6.8 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 steals this past season.

Gordon's coronation was a stunner because she's so young, because she's so small -- listed at 5-foot-6 but she admits to being 5-4 -- and because her school lacks any tradition at all, especially in girls basketball.

Braden River opened in 2005, and is so under the radar that John Harder, who coaches neighboring Southeast (Bradenton, Florida), said he regularly receives recruiting letters at his school that are meant for Gordon.

"If [colleges] knew how much money they have wasted on postage," Harder said with a laugh. "But I understand. Who ever heard of Braden River?"

Indeed, in the three years before Gordon arrived at Braden River, the Pirates had a 7-73 record.

As a freshman, Gordon led the Pirates to a 20-7 record and their first district title.

"I had never seen a point guard that good that young," said Mela Sharma, a Braden River senior forward. "When you play with someone new, sometimes you don't know how they play, and you have to adjust. But [Gordon] knew how to play with us right away.

"It was easy to click with her. You could tell she knew what she was doing. When she got here, everything got better immediately."

After Gordon's freshman season, the Pirates hired Smith, a former player and assistant coach at Northern Illinois University.

Smith had been out of coaching for about 18 months when a friend in Florida told her about the job opening at Braden River.

While Smith was applying for the job -- she did interviews on Facetime and didn't set foot on campus until after being hired -- Gordon was hearing from a lot of people who were telling her she should transfer to a basketball power.

Smith reached out to Gordon by phone.

"I said, 'If you are going to transfer, let me know, because I'm coming down there to coach you,' " Smith said. "She told me she wanted to put Braden River on the map, and that's when I really knew that I wanted to coach that kid."

In Smith's first season at Braden River, the Pirates finished 24-2, reaching the regional finals before falling to eventual champion Tampa Bay Tech (Tampa, Florida), 77-66. Gordon defeated numerous double- and triple-teams to score 42 points, including 27 in the first half.

Despite a Tampa Bay Tech front line that stood 6-0, 6-2 and 6-3, Gordon's heroics helped Braden River build a 39-37 halftime lead.

"I thought she was going to beat them by herself," Smith said of Gordon, who went 8-for-8 from the foul line while making six 3-pointers. "She could probably drop 60 points a game, but she's concerned about her assist column and making her teammates better."

Hours after winning her Gatorade award, Gordon, the No. 11 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2021 class, was at her job at McDonald's, where she often works the drive-through window.

Sometimes, customers recognize her as a basketball standout.

"A boy from Lakewood Ranch (Bradenton, Florida) came to my window, and he was surprised to see me there," Gordon said. "He said, 'Oh man, you're the GOAT!' "

She could probably drop 60 points a game, but she's concerned about her assist column and making her teammates better.
Stephanie Smith

The second oldest of six siblings, Gordon tried a lot of sports when she was younger, but she gravitated toward basketball and flag football. She was Braden River's quarterback and played three full games and part of another last year before realizing she had broken the ring finger on her right hand.

That was the end of her football career, at the strong urging of her parents.

"I was so mad that they made me stop playing football," Gordon said. "I hate being a quitter."

Gordon, who is interested in studying physical therapy in college, realizes that focusing on basketball as her sport is best for her future though.

She said she's being recruited by Florida State, Miami, South Carolina and LSU, among others.

"I don't want to go somewhere it's too cold," she said. "Even when it's 40 degrees, I'm not too happy. But I will go where it fits me and my style of play."

Gordon said the Gatorade voters "showed me a lot of respect," and Harder, who has been coaching for 35 years, is among her fans.

Harder said he's heard about Gordon playing with boys and getting angry when they don't cut for a backdoor layup.

"She's the real deal -- that's why she's the player of the year for the entire state," said Harder, whose state-semifinal team lost five games all season, including three to Braden River. "She's a natural shooter. She shoots from anywhere. But the most impressive thing about her is her focus. In my entire career, I've seen very few players as focused and intense as Gordon. Nothing discourages her, and it's rare to see that type of temperament at her age."

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