On both ends of the floor, Costa Mesa High senior girls' basketball player Nancy Aguilar came up huge.
She scored a game-high 21 points in the Mustangs' Orange Coast League finale at Estancia on Feb. 8. More important to Coach Nichole Maddox was the defense that Aguilar played on Estancia's best player, sophomore guard Celia Duran.
Duran erupted for 34 points the first time the teams played. The second time, she scored just 14. Credit Aguilar.
"I mean, I think [Duran] had one field goal," Maddox said. "Eleven of her points were off free throws. To say that someone who had 34 points the first game had one field goal the second game, all the credit goes to Nancy. Even more than her offense, her defense was the key in the game."
The Mustangs finally took back the Bell for the first time in four years. Without Aguilar, she and her teammates weren't going to be eating ribs at Newport Rib Co. after the game. But after Mesa earned a 47-35 win, everything was theirs — second place in league, the Bell and, last but not least, that rib dinner.
"I needed that," Aguilar said. "I was hungry. It was a really proud moment for all of us. We worked so hard to get to that spot."
The Mustangs' shooting guard, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, isn't kidding. Sure, the team's season ended earlier than it would have liked. The Mustangs were blown out at JSerra, 93-22, in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs.
But consider that Mesa lost three of its top four scorers from last year. Annie Sturm and Itzel Flores graduated. Junior point guard Marilyn Armstrong missed this entire season due to sickness.
The Mustangs needed someone to step up. That someone was consistently Aguilar, who bumped her points per game from 6.4 last year to a team-best 11.5 this year.
In league Aguilar was even better, averaging 16.2 points per game. She made her mother, Adela Paleo, and stepfather, Roberto Sanchez, very proud watching from the stands.
"When she's on the floor she directs really well," Maddox said. "She loves the game of basketball, so she understands it, especially in her freestyle game of going to the basket."
Aguilar credits the team's three captains — senior point guard Marlene Castro, junior forward Molly Settles and senior center Noor Salameh — for their leadership. Aguilar is just happy she can still play the game she loves.
She said that wasn't the case last year once the team got to CIF. She was academically ineligible.
"I wasn't able to play that game because of my grades," Aguilar said. "They weren't at least a 2.0. I was just failing all my classes. I was being like a little rebel, but I'm past that stage."
Aguilar said that when she wasn't playing, it was like part of her life was broken. Basketball and church were taking up a lot of her time, but she's learned how to better balance everything.
This year, the grades haven't been a problem. Aguilar said she probably is close to a 3.0 grade-point average now.
In the same way, she raised her game as the year went on for Mesa. She made the most out of her senior year for sure.
Last year she saw Flores, her best friend who was an undersized but tenacious forward, do the same thing. Aguilar said Flores, who now lives in Mexico, remains a big inspiration in her life.
"I think something just clicked in me," Aguilar said. "I realized how much this would mean to our team, and just myself. I thought, 'I should be working twice as hard.'
"[Maddox] is always pushing me to my full potential, and my teammates also. I remember one time I was feeling down one day. Coach was like, 'Nancy, don't let this drag on. You should push yourself no matter what. Any anger than you have from outside, take it out on the court.' That's what I've been doing, pretty much. Not that I have a lot of anger toward anybody outside, but I've just been so motivated."
Not bad for the kid who grew up playing street ball with her two brothers, Jonathan and Eduardo, but didn't even join an organized team until high school. Now things seem to be falling in place for Nancy Aguilar.
Next year she plans to go to the nearby Art Institute Of California — Orange County and work toward becoming a chef.
Whatever Aguilar cooks up still may not taste as good as those ribs tasted that night.
"It meant more, after what [Estancia has] done to us," she said. "They beat us on our own court. To me, revenge is doing the same thing. We beat them on their own court on their Senior Night, taking the Bell and winning the ribs.
"Revenge is sweet."
Born: April 6, 1993
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Coach: Nichole Maddox
Favorite food: Chinese
Favorite movie: "The Dark Knight"
Favorite athletic moment: Making the game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer of a summer tournament game at Godinez, sending the game to overtime. Costa Mesa won in overtime.
Week in review: Aguilar's game-high 21 points and good defense helped Costa Mesa beat rival Estancia, 47-35, on Feb. 8, clinching second place in league and winning the Bell for the first time in four years.