Grace Mello doesn’t have a lot of free time. The Golden Valley High senior practically lives at the high school.
Which seems fitting, because she basically grew up there.
Mello spent many hours in Cougar Arena as a kid, running around the gym and climbing the bleachers while her father, Chopper, coached the Cougars wrestling team.
That little girl is now a senior and a busy one at that.
Grace will play her final basketball game tonight when the Cougars (9-16 overall, 5-6 Central California Conference) host Merced (20-4, 9-2 CCC) at 7:15 p.m.
On Friday, she’ll compete in the Sac-Joaquin Section Girls Masters Wrestling Championship at McNair High in Stockton with the hope of possibly earning a berth to the state meet later this month in Visalia.
“Last year, I really wanted to wrestle,” said Grace, who also plays water polo in the fall and swims during the spring. “I wanted to try it because it’s always been a big part of my family. My dad was against it. He knows basketball has always been my thing and he didn’t want me to give that up.”
So Grace did what daughters do, she wore him down.
“I wanted to prove to my dad I wanted to do this,” she said. “It took a lot of convincing.”
She convinced him she could find a way to do the two sports in one season. If that meant two practices in one day, she was willing to do it. There were days when Grace would spend two hours practicing in the gym and then head to wrestling room for the last hour of wrestling practice.
“I never wanted my daughter to wrestle because I understand how tough the sport is,” Chopper said. “She’s always been a basketball players. She bugged me about wrestling, but I wouldn’t give in. Basically, she wore me down.”
Grace, Chopper and Golden Valley girls basketball coach Ben Beznoska sat down and they figured out a way to make it work. Basketball took top priority so if there was a conflict in scheduling, basketball won out.
“It was a combined effort with communication from all three people,” Beznoska said. “Sometimes I could tell she was really tired. She’s a hard-working woman. The family is a hard-working family.
“I coached (her brother) Brady. They always give 100 percent in whatever they are doing. I don’t ever have to worry about her effort. When she was tired, we would just have to make adjustments.”
Grace was able to make it to a handful of tournaments on the weekend and with dual matches falling on a Wednesday night she was able to wrestle in matches against El Capitan, Atwater, Merced and Buhach Colony.
At the Sac-Joaquin Section Regional Qualifier two weeks ago, Grace finished seventh in the 160-pound division to became a Masters qualifier.
“If she had done it a little longer, she’d be up with the top girls,” Chopper said. “It’s tough because she has high expectations. She has the desire to do things, but she doesn’t quite have the technique.”
Amazingly, Grace finds time outside of basketball and wrestling to fulfill her duties as the student body president at the school.
“I’m pretty busy with that too, planning special events,” she said. “I go to all our sporting events on campus. It’s taken up time, but I also have some great people in the leadership classes who help me.”
Despite all the extra curricular activities, Grace still manages to maintain a 3.8 GPA. This fall, she was named the Central California Conference Defensive Water Polo Player of the Year.
Grace is finishing off her basketball career strong, averaging 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
She caught fire toward the end of the season, putting together a string of four consecutive games where she finished in double-figure points.
It started with 19 points and eight rebounds against Merced on January 18th. She followed that up with 11 points and 10 rebounds in a win against Buhach Colony on January 23rd. She had 13 points and seven rebounds in a win against Pitman on January 25th and another 19 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over El Capitan on January 30th.
“I think I’m just playing with more confidence,” Grace said. “I think the conditioning in the wrestling room has helped. I also think it’s my senior year and I’m just coming out of my shell a bit.”