When the girls basketball season started for Springfield High School, coach Kevin Stolebarger noticed something different about one of his top players.
Everyone had known that Julia Mondragon was going to be a standout and her skills had developed perhaps even beyond what many expected of her. What caught Stolebarger's eye is how she was behaving as a leader and friend to her teammates.
"I believe that what separated her from anyone in the state was her positive attitude," Stolebarger said. "She took on such a leadership role this year and it carried over to the floor. She didn't get frustrated at herself like she did in the past."
One of four seniors on the team, Mondragon's tone both from a leadership style and her play on the court translated to notable success for Springfield. Success that got the school into its first state tournament in 38 years.
Using the leadership example of past seniors in the program Mondragon set out to help her team end that streak. It was a mission and staying focused in that mission played a big role in her mental and emotional development as well as her development as a player.
"Every game we had, I didn't care of it was a big game or not, I knew we had to go out and give 100 percent," Mondragon said. "Personally I held myself up to that high standard. I'm telling myself that I need to score 13 points or get more rebounds, steals or blocks. That's what needed to happen to win."
Her season ended with respectable numbers having scored 14.9 points per game and hauling in six rebounds to go with them.
This wasn't something that just clicked on during basketball season. A three-sport athlete, Mondragon showed that same mentality on the volleyball court last fall. Renee Loflin was the head volleyball coach and helps with the girls basketball team. As Stolebarger began to see Mondragon's maturity take shape, Loflin gave him the affirmation that it wasn't just a perception but that it was taking hold for real.
"(Loflin) really worked with her a lot," Stolebarger said. "We try to do a lot of positive stuff and from the first day at practice, Renee and I looked at each other and knew that she was different."
Mondragon scoffs at the notion that it's just her as she had three other seniors on the team and it was a group effort that powered the Longhorns. Even though the state tournament was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mondragon will never forget the feeling of her and her friends competing in a state tournament game.
"We haven't been to state in 38 years," Mondragon said. "Even to go up there and play one game was a great opportunity for us and I don't regret it one bit. We worked hard every single game to get there and that was our No. 1 goal. We wanted to get to state."
Stolebarger added that it was possible because of an experienced team that took made a heavy investment in leadership and accountability. Although he could see the potential building over Mondragon's first three years, her approach to her team and her own craft as a basketball player the difference.