Amber Ramirez: Ooh and 'Ah, Ref'
Amber Ramirez's nickname is "Sauce" because she plays with flavor, and that's never more evident than when she drives to the hoop looking for a basket and some contact.
When she doesn't get a call, her favorite expression is, "Ah, ref!"
She has repeated the phrase so often -- during games, in practice and joking around at home -- that her little sister, 2-year-old Ashley, has mastered it as well.
Christina Camacho, who coaches Ramirez, 16, at Wagner (San Antonio, Texas), said her star player's favorite saying has meaning.
"Even if she doesn't get touched, Amber still yells, 'Ah, ref' because she wants that three-point play," Camacho said.
"In 28 years of coaching, she's probably the smartest player I've had. It's remarkable. She's always one step ahead of everyone else. I've seen that in her since she got here as a freshman."
Ramirez, a 5-foot-8 point guard, will be a junior this fall and is ranked among the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2016 class.
Camacho said Ramirez has scholarship offers from Washington, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Missouri.
"They would all sign her right now if they could," Camacho said. "Louisville is also interested. And UConn said she's on their radar. [UConn assistant coach] Shea Ralph came to our gym to watch her practice, and [UConn associate head coach Chris] Dailey has compared her to Sue Bird."
Ramirez is not at that level yet, of course, but the San Antonio Express-News named her the city's newcomer of the year as a freshman.
As a sophomore last season, she averaged 17 points, five assists and four steals, leading Wagner (25-11) to the state semifinals, where the Thunderbirds -- who had no player taller than 5-10 -- were drilled 80-57 by Duncanville, which entered the game with a No. 2 national ranking and 104 straight wins.
A better memory for Ramirez came during her freshman season, when Wagner trailed North Shore (Houston) 51-48.
Ramirez hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to tie the score with 28 seconds left. She then forced a traveling violation with her tight defense, giving Wagner the ball with 7.2 seconds left.
During a timeout, Ramirez told Camacho, "I want the ball."
Camacho said she had never had a freshman demand the ball in such a pressure-packed situation, but the coach said, "OK" and drew up a play for her star.
Ramirez took the inbounds pass, dribbled up court, put the ball behind her back to her left side and then swished a 30-footer as the buzzer sounded.
"I was confident because of how much I practice," said Ramirez, who celebrated the shot by running to the other end of the court while her joyous teammates chased her. "I want to be the hero and make the last shot."
Ramirez wasn't feeling very heroic five games into her sophomore season, when it was discovered she had a stress fracture in her back. She wore a back brace for 23 hours a day -- taking it off only to bathe -- and was out of action for nine weeks.
"It was torture," Ramirez said.
Wagner suffered, as well -- the team was 5-6 at its lowest point -- but went on a run to the state tourney once she returned.
"Without her, we didn't have anyone who could score," said Corrina Moncada, a senior who will attend Colgate on a volleyball scholarship this fall. "When she came back, she was hooping on people right away. We were like, 'Wow, we missed you.'"
Ray Caldwell, who coaches Ramirez in AAU ball for SA Finest, thinks she learned a lot when she was out.
"Amber still dives for loose balls, but she doesn't have to take unnecessary contact. I don't know if the body of a 16-year-old girl was made to be slammed into the ground 15 to 20 times a game."
Caldwell said there was evidence of "overtraining" that may have caused the back injury. Ramirez said it was the result of "wear and tear," and she admits that she works harder than most.
After games, for example, Ramirez and her father, Mike, have a ritual of heading to Gold's Gym so she can put up even more shots.
If there is no one else there, she will shoot while her dad rebounds. But if there is a men's pickup game going on, Ramirez won't back down.
"When I walk in the gym, they pick me up right away," Ramirez said with pride. "I have their respect."
Caldwell, who said Ramirez puts up thousands of shots per week, believes she benefits from playing against men.
"When you play against bigger, taller and faster guys, you have to learn to shoot and score from different angles," he said. "You have to be deceptive with your shot releases."
Ramirez does not speak much Spanish, nor do her parents. But she does have Mexican heritage on her father's side and is taking a Spanish class in school.
"When I go to my grandmother's house, she teaches me," Ramirez said. "This is my first year taking Spanish in school, and it's very difficult. But I'm proud [of my heritage]. It's really important to learn the language so I can have full conversations."
Caldwell, who has known Ramirez since he saw her do amazing things on the court at age 9, said she has a rare opportunity.
"Name me a Latina basketball star," he said. "There's Bianca Cuevas [a guard from New York who will be a freshman at South Carolina this fall]. But there aren't many.
"Amber can be a role model in San Antonio and throughout the country."
Caldwell said Ramirez doesn't often look the part in other ways.
"She's not the quickest on defense, and she doesn't have muscles on top of muscles," he said.
"But she personifies swagger. She has more shoes than Foot Locker -- all the flavors of the month. She likes to look good on the court, and her fashion is on point."
Ramirez admits to having 17 pairs of sneakers.
"One to match every outfit," she said.
Moncada said Ramirez is popular everywhere she goes. At games, 10 to 15 family members show up to cheer for her. And at school, everyone knows her name.
"She's too cool," Moncada said. "Everyone is always yelling, 'Amber!' at her in the hallways. They know she's a baller."
Ramirez's favorite look on the court is Wagner's all-black uniforms, which she enhances with a long-sleeve black undershirt, black leggings and red sneakers to match the red lettering.
"Black is intimidating," Ramirez said.
Before the game, Ramirez, an extremely vocal person, leads her team in their "hype dances." They usually dance the Dougie, the Nae Nae and the Cat Daddy.
"She's a pretty good dancer -- I'm not going to lie," Moncada said. "When you want to get hyped, she's the person you go to. Sometimes we have to tell her to calm down, but she's in love with basketball."
That's no surprise to Caldwell.
"Amber," he said, "just adds spice to everything."