Cougars teammates heading to CMU

SANTA MARIA — Giovanni Diaz and Jesse Ortiz had successful careers playing together for Santa Maria, and now they’re looking to use their chemistry to help a new team.

Diaz and Ortiz signed to play college basketball for Central Methodist University on Tuesday at the high school gym. They’ll lean on each other as they move to Fayette, Mo., to play for Jeff Sherman and take on the NAIA’s Heart of America athletic conference.

“I’m excited. It’s a dream come true,” Diaz said. “This is what I always wanted, and I’m just glad it happened. (Central Methodist) gave me an opportunity to do what I love, and I’m just happy I get to play basketball another four years.”

Said Ortiz, “I really don’t know what to say, I’m speechless. It’s crazy. (My coaches) see something in me that I don’t see, so they kept pushing and pushing. I figured there’s nothing to lose, so why not take the opportunity while I’m still young. I’m excited to keep playing basketball. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Both players thanked Santa Maria coach Albert Briones and assistant coach Amos Salas, who is a recruiter for Central Methodist, for encouraging them throughout senior year to pursue a college career.

Salas joined the staff this year and said he saw the potential in both boys early on. He believes the style of play they developed as Cougars will transition over to the Eagles’ system well and that they will contribute to the program.

“For Gio, it’s all about work ethic. He came to work every day and he was a student of the game in everything he did, from football to basketball to track,” Salas said. “I think what makes him special is that he has the vision of a true point guard on the court. Being quick and fast is going to help.”

About Ortiz, Salas said, “Jesse has talent, and he works hard for what he does. He wasn’t wanting to go to school. He said, ‘Coach, that’s not for me,’ but I said, ‘You can go and play ball up there and do anything you want if you put the work in like you do now.’ When I saw his GPA I knew he had the grades to go do this. I said, ‘Take a chance … with you and Gio up there together, you’ll be fine.’”

Briones has known both players since they were young and said it’s bittersweet to be losing two great kids, but he’s excited for them to take on this new challenge. Briones recalled watching Ortiz, an all-District 32-2A first-team honoree, run up and down the court holding a Cougars flag when he was little to rile up the crowd as he watched his older cousins play.

Diaz was an all-District 32-2A first-team selection and earned recognition from the Rio Grande Valley Basketball Coaches Association as a member of the sub-5A offensive team, sub-5A first-team and sub-6A senior all-star squad. Briones and Salas called Diaz a “quarterback on the court” and think his well-rounded point guard abilities will be beneficial at the next level.

“I had the luxury of having them for four years, and they’re exceptional kids,” Briones said. “They exemplify great leadership. They were always ready to battle, to listen and to learn. They’re going to leave a mark wherever they go.

“Gio had everything in him. If we needed him to facilitate, if we needed him to score, he would do it. He was very instrumental in our success because without his speed and athleticism, our game wouldn’t have been the same,” he added. “Jesse was a leader and a great defender. He would pump up the team when we needed it. We would always put him against the best guard and he brought in a lot of pride when it came to defense, and he could knock down the 3.”

Diaz and Ortiz will be studying kinesiology and exercise science, respectively. They’re excited to continue playing together and make Santa Maria proud along with some fellow classmates who are also heading to Central Methodist on athletic scholarships.

“He’s my best friend, and the girls that are going also are our close friends. We all grew up together, so it’s going to be fun,” Ortiz said.