Gem from Mexico turns around Montebello team

Gem from Mexico turns around Montebello team

Published Jan. 19, 2012 4:38 p.m. ET

When Jose Estrada suddenly appeared in the gym in the middle of September at Montebello's Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School, basketball Coach George Zedan was hardly prepared for what he was about to see.

Call it the miracle on Garfield Avenue.

"Our reaction was pretty much, 'Wow,'" Zedan said. "Just the things he was able to do, how athletic he was, how fast he was able to pick up things even explained in English.... We had a feeling he was a slasher scorer, but we didn't realize or anticipate he'd be as much of a scorer as he's shown this year. We were shocked, to say the least."

Averaging 32.6 points a game, Estrada has twice scored 47 points in games to help lead Cantwell-Sacred Heart to a 17-2 record. Last season, the team finished 2-25.

Estrada is 6 feet 3, weighs 180 pounds and moved to Montebello with his mother from Mexico, where he was a starter on the U17 national team.

He spoke little English when he arrived but has steadily improved.

"I love basketball," he said. "I like to score and sometimes play defense."

He's best when driving to the basket, drawing fouls and making free throws (he's shooting 87% from the line). And he's not easy to defend because of his strength and athleticism.

"I think the biggest thing is people under-estimate how athletic he is and how strong he is," Zedan said. "He's really strong and the way he's able to get into the paint, avoid charges, avoid contact … he's a very physical player and his demeanor is always even keel. He's not pumping his chest; he's not yelling and screaming. It's play the game, compete and try to win."

Estrada, a junior who turns 18 next month, started smiling when asked why he's not a soccer player, considering it's his country's favorite sport.

"I used to play soccer when I was young," he said. "I don't know why I decided to play basketball."

He used to be the tallest player on the court in Mexico, so one of his big adjustments to high school basketball in Southern California has been dealing with taller players.

"There aren't too many big players in Mexico," he said. "I have to pump fake. I have to improve my three-point shooting."

Becoming more consistent on his outside shots beyond 15 feet will be important for him to move on one day to the college level. Word has spread fast about his abilities, and college recruiters are starting to show up and evaluate him.

He has certainly become a key player for a revived Cantwell-Sacred Heart program under first-year Coach Zedan, who previously served as an assistant coach at Montebello High. There are other top players, such as Joe Covarrubias, a sophomore transfer from Bellflower's St. John Bosco who's the nephew of Oklahoma State guard Cezar Guerrero. He has been outstanding, along with point guard Collins Corey. The Cardinals did have to forfeit a season-opening victory against Salesian for not sending in proper paperwork on Estrada's transfer.

Estrada's presence has helped turn the Cardinals into a contender for the Southern Section Division 4A championship. And the fan support is growing.

"I like to live in Montebello because it's a good area, with people who believe in me," Estrada said.

Zedan said Estrada has been the target of a lot of playful teasing.

"We kind of joke we're not used to having players of his caliber jump and dunk the basketball and be able to be an athlete on the court. 'Hey, who are your parents? Where did you come from?' It is surprising to us still and others who see him for the first time. It's a jaw-dropping effect, 'Where the heck did this kid come from?'" he said.

--Eric Sondheimer