Star with heart of gold

Pacific Ridge had barely tipped off against Orange Glen when 6-foot-4 Jenna Gorton caught a pass at the corner of the free-throw line, faked left, burst right, drove to the hoop and scored the first basket of the game.

Immediately, Pacific Ridge head coach Sara Allard called timeout.

Four Firebirds fans stood up, holding numbered placards reading 1,000. There was a sign saying “GO JEN!” and a third sporting Gorton’s number 33. Allard had orchestrated the celebration, commemorating Gorton, a senior, scoring her 1,000th career point as a Firebird.

“As soon as I scored everyone stopped and everyone was cheering,” recalled Gorton of the scene earlier this month. “It was surreal. I was just like smiling ear to ear.”

Gorton knew she was nearing 1,000 points but thought Allard had forgotten about the milestone.

“I wanted it to be a special moment for her,” said Allard. “I thought it’d be a little surprise.”

Gorton has been a starter since her freshman year at the small private school with a $35,100 annual tuition. Pacific Ridge’s enrollment barely numbers 400 students in ninth through 12th grades. By comparison, Carlsbad High’s enrollment is nearly 2,400.

While scoring 1,000 points has been a goal since her freshman year, playing basketball is just one facet of Gorton’s life. She holds a weighted 4.3 GPA, is member of the school robotics team and wants to major in biomedical engineering in college.

She would like to one day develop prosthetics.

“I’ve been interested in engineering since I was little,” said Gorton. “I loved space and wanted to be a rocket scientist. I grew up playing Legos. Everything I did was math and science and building stuff.”

Gorton is the lone senior on a 10-7 team that despite the school’s small enrollment plays in Division II. She leads the Firebirds in scoring (21.4 points), rebounding (18.2) and assists (6.8). To her teammates, she’s the star who doesn’t act like one.

Junior Josie Twardowski remembers when she was new to the school as a seventh-grader and Gorton became her shooting partner.

“She took me under her wing,” said Twardowski. “She’s always looking out for you.”

Angular and athletic, Gorton’s bounces about in warmups, high-fiving teammates, smiling and laughing, an 18-year-old not too cool to act like a kid.

“She’s a ton of fun,” said junior Solange Dzeketey. “She makes every practice positive, even when we’re super stressed out, in trouble, having to run. She’s like our rock. She makes sure that we’re settled.”

In September, Dzeketey flipped her car near school. Gorton pulled over and stayed with her for 40 minutes until Dzeketey’s parents arrived.

“She talked to me, even when I was crying,” said Dzeketey. “She’s so caring for all of us.”

Gorton may be well-rounded, but she’s passionate about basketball. She has played at the club level since third grade and on travel teams since fifth grade.

“She loves the game,” said Allard. “She has other hobbies, interests (she’s an avid surfer), but she’s at home on the basketball court.”

Gorton isn’t an old-school, stand on the block, post player. She often brings the ball up the floor and facilities the offense from the high post. Leave her unguarded and she’ll launch a 3.

She’s self-confident and not shy about expressing her opinion. Allard used to have a rule that players had to wear their hair in a ponytail.

“My whole thing was get it out of your face, focus on basketball,” said Allard.

Gorton, whose hair barely reaches her shoulders, wanted nothing to do with a ponytail.

Said Allard, “Her mom flagged me down one day (before Gorton started high school) and said, ‘That’s not happening or she’ll transfer.’”

Allard dropped the rule.

“She made me realize what my priorities are,” said Allard. “It’s never been an issue. (Gorton’s hair doesn’t flop in her face.) I learned what’s important.”

Gorton’s mother is a fraction under 6 feet. Her father once stood 6-7 but has shortened slightly. Jenna stands tall, proud of her 6-4 height.

“Honestly,” she said, “I like it. I embrace it. Standing in a crowd, I can see over people. It’s real nice. The average height of a woman is 5-6. I’m thriving on it. My pants don’t always fit, but it is what it is. You get high-top Converse and move on.”

Gorton, whose career total is now 1,090 points, is drawing interest from Division II, III and NAIA colleges. Her priority will be finding an academic-athletic balance. That might mean playing club basketball at Stanford or collegiate basketball at a smaller school.

“She wants to be part of a basketball community and play for a school,” said Gorton’s mother, Nicole.

Gorton visited UC Santa Cruz and the teenager Allard affectionately calls quirky may have found her fit.

“We park the rental car in a lot and a herd of deer go walking by,” said Nicole. “There’s redwoods on both sides. Then we see a flock of turkeys. Later in the day, we see a banana slug. (The UC Santa Cruz nickname.) And Jenna says, ‘Mom, I’m home.’”

Norcross is a freelance writer.