Camarillo basketball’s Gabriela Jaquez, and family, proud of their Mexican heritage

Gabriela Jaquez poses for a photo after practice.
Gabriela Jaquez will follow in the footsteps of her brother, Jaime Jr., by playing at UCLA next season after a stellar career at Camarillo High.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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The superlatives swirl around Gabriela Jaquez, clinging to her like the No. 4 on the back of her Camarillo High basketball jersey.

Gritty. Tough. Ferocious.

Jaquez averages 31 points a game, and yet when praised, her scoring prowess seems to take a backseat to her intangibles.

The senior, who has signed with UCLA, puts gusts of wind between herself and the rest of her teammates when running full-court sprints. If she loses a shooting drill in practice, nobody is beating her the next time it’s run. In a press drill, as Camarillo girls’ basketball coach Mike Prewitt instructs his players to not let Jaquez touch the ball, she evades a triple-team trap to snatch a pass and dribble away.

“She plays with a fire in her belly,” Prewitt said.

Last season, Jaquez dropped 52 points in a playoff game, the second most ever in Ventura County girls’ basketball history. This season, she has spearheaded Camarillo to a 10-0 record. Next season, she’ll look to carve out playing time among a talented UCLA freshman class.

Gabriela Jaquez sprints down the court during a conditioning drill.
Gabriela Jaquez sprints down the court well ahead of her Camarillo High teammates during a conditioning drill.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In brief moments of quiet when she’s not powering through defenders, Jaquez unconsciously runs her fingers over a silver crucifix looped around her neck.

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Her parents got the necklace for her when she was a baby. She wears it because “it’s cute,” Jaquez says. Yet it’s also a reminder of where her tenacity comes from — of the family she carries as close to her heart as the cross.

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Gloria Jaquez comes from a family of 14 siblings in Zapotlanejo, Mexico.

She met Jaquez’s grandfather in Oxnard after visiting one of her sisters, and she married him in her early 20s. A licensed beautician in Mexico, Gloria came to the U.S. and earned her cosmetology license here, running a successful beauty salon for many years.

Gloria lives in Camarillo now, and can often be seen in the stands at her granddaughter’s games.

“I think she just takes a lot of pride in us that we get to play on such a huge stage,” Jaquez said, referring to her and brother Jaime, “and represent the Mexican culture as well.”

Jaquez’s grandmother tells stories of her life as a young woman in Zapotlanejo. She wasn’t allowed to play sports growing up, Jaquez said, and had to be a “real girly-girl.”

Gabriela Jaquez drives for a layup during a scrimmage.
Gabriela Jaquez drives for a layup during a scrimmage at practice.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“I had to ask her, ‘Did you ever think you would have a 6-foot-tall granddaughter?’” Jaquez said. “She always laughs at me when I say that.”

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Family is extremely important to Jaquez, her father Jaime Jaquez Sr. said. Athletics are prevalent, with older brother Jaquez Jr. playing at UCLA, younger brother Marcos a football player at Camarillo and parents former basketball players at Concordia University in Irvine.

Jaquez credits much of her natural drive to her grandmother.

“Hard work is just in my blood,” Jaquez said, “because she came over.”

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The toughness also comes as a byproduct of having two brothers who play sports.

Her father remembers one particular instance when his youngest son waddled over and punched his sister. She punched back. Her younger brother tackled her. She tackled him back.

“It’s funny, because I think my daughter had her pacifier in her mouth,” Jaquez Sr. said. “She wasn’t backing down.”

She never did. She liked to fight. She’d try to beat her brothers in whatever backyard game they played, and she still does. When her brother visits from UCLA, the two will go at each other in games of one-on-one.

“She attacks, does her moves, tries her best,” Jaquez Jr. said. “I try to not give her all the confidence in the world that she can score on me, so I kind of try a little bit harder when she tries to go at me.”

A decade or so later, she gets a standoffish look on her face when opponents try to rough her up.

“You just go, ‘Uh oh,’” Prewitt said.

Camarillo coach Mike Prewitt and Gabriela Jaquez chat during a practice.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The look was there in her 52-point performance last season, which ended in heartbreak with a one-point loss. The look has been there plenty of times this season — after committing to UCLA, Jaquez suddenly has a target on her back.

Opponents are trying to see how physical they can get away with playing her, Prewitt said. Nothing has worked. She’s averaging 31.0 points and 13.6 rebounds in leading Camarillo to an 11-0 record entering the Tournament of Champions on Tuesday in Santa Barbara.

“She competes,” Prewitt said. “Holy Toledo, she competes.”

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It has always been Jaquez’s dream to attend UCLA. When she was in elementary school, she’d tell her grandmother that she was going to play basketball there. A week ago, digging through old file cabinets of memorabilia, she and her mom, Angela, rediscovered a piece of paper Jaquez had written as a goal: to play for UCLA.

“I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Jaquez said. “I just sat with the paper … my mom was kind of tearing up.”

Gabriela Jaquez releases a shot during a free-throw shooting drill.
Gabriela Jaquez practices free throws at a Camarillo practice.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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But a frustrated Jaquez wasn’t seeing offers of any kind come in after a sophomore season during which she averaged over 20 points. The reason for the holdout at the time, UCLA coach Cori Close said, was Jaquez’s perimeter game. Her three-point percentage hovered in the high 20s.

During the pandemic, Jaquez spent hours each day at the park working on her jumper. Last year, she switched AAU teams to play with Cal Stars, a club based in Oakland. Twice a month, she’d hop on a Friday flight to Northern California, practice that night, twice Saturday and once again Sunday morning before flying back that day.

Jaquez’s father said he know this about his daughter: show or tell Jaquez she can’t do something, and she’s going to do it.

“I had a chip on my shoulder,” Jaquez said. “I always knew I was going to play in a really good school, because I knew I wouldn’t let myself not. I would do whatever I could to get where I wanted to be.”

Her shooting percentage went from 41% her sophomore season to 48% as a junior. After winning MVP of the EYBL Nike Nationals, offers finally started pouring in from Pac-12 schools.

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It was last July 29, Close’s birthday, and she was watching film in Spain.

The UCLA women’s coach was overseas for a month while coaching USA Basketball’s U19 World Cup team. At the same time, she knew her father, Don, was in poor health. He died a few days later. It was an emotional time.

Before she’d left, she’d given Jaquez an official offer. On her birthday, Close was ready to go to sleep when she got a text from assistant coach Tony Newman to hop on a quick Zoom call with Jaquez.

Close logged on, and Jaquez was there, surrounded by family. Beaming, she announced, “I want to be a Bruin!”

“We went bananas,” Close said. “I was almost like, ‘Oh, just not sure I can handle anything else,’ but you know what, it was exactly the medicine I needed at exactly the right time.

“She held onto her dream, even when it took us a little longer to get on the Gabriela Jaquez train.”

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There are five Mexican players in NBA history. Jaquez and her family are well aware of the lack of representation at the professional level. Her father’s favorite team growing up was the Lakers, but he always wished they had a player with a last name that ended in “ez.”

“I never saw that growing up,” Jaquez Sr. said. “I can just imagine the inspiration that my son and then my daughter is going to have on people.”

With a national platform at UCLA, Jaquez is looking forward to not only finding her own path, but being a role model on a bright stage.

“I take a lot of pride in being a Mexican American that can be an example to many others,” she said.

Perhaps Jaquez will tuck the crucifix underneath the blue of her Bruins uniform next season too.