When Erika Mercedes was growing up in Union City, she participated in a lot of sports. But Mercedes never took basketball seriously.
“I really wasn’t looking forward to playing basketball,” Mercedes said. “I think it was around seventh grade when I decided to really play.”
It’s also around the time she was introduced to Union City High School head girls’ basketball coach Carlos Cueto.
“She really didn’t know how really good she could be,” Cueto said.
It also didn’t help that Mercedes is a very quiet young lady.
“I’m very anti-social,” Mercedes said. “I don’t talk much.”
Lately, Mercedes is letting her talents speak for her, as she has emerged as one of the premier all-around players in Hudson County.
Mercedes is making history this year for the Soaring Eagles, as the 5-foot-8 junior is averaging 21.5 points per game. She tossed in a season-best 33 points in a huge win over defending Hudson County Tournament champion Bayonne earlier this year and last week, she scored the 1,000th point of her career, becoming the first Union City High School girl to ever reach the impressive milestone.
In recent action, Mercedes scored 20 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had five steals in a win over North Bergen, scored 22 points and secured six boards in a win over Snyder, had 19 points and had five rebounds in a loss to Summit, scored 17 point and had six rebounds in a win over St. Dominic Academy and ended the week with 21 points in a win over Payne Tech of Newark.
For her efforts, Mercedes has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Mercedes was a Second Team All-Hudson County selection last season, but she has elevated her game this season to be a sure-fire First Team choice when the year-end team is announced.
Mercedes believes that the newcomers to the Soaring Eagles’ roster are the main reasons for her overall improvement as a player.
“This year, it has been easier for me,” Mercedes said. “I was worried about scoring all the time. Now, this year, we have a lot of young good players who have given us good energy. That goes a long way.”
Cueto agrees with Mercedes’ assessment.
“With the additions we had, it allowed Erika to have a little more freedom,” Cueto said. “Other teams can’t focus on her anymore. She has room to operate more and that means a lot.”
Mercedes didn’t waste time during the pandemic over the summer months. She helped to organize team workouts in North Bergen on a regular fashion.
“When the weather was nice, they were out there,” Cueto said. “They controlled the courts and kept the courts for two hours. They did it as a group.”
There was also a former student of Cueto’s, a member of the United States Marine Corps, who helped to do the exercise portions of the workouts.
Mercedes also spent the time working on her individual skills.
“I knew I had to work on my shot,” Mercedes said. “I became very confident in my shot after I worked on it a lot. Then the scoring came naturally.”
One skill that Mercedes didn’t have to develop was her immense skill of being lightning quick maneuvering up the floor while maintaining the dribble. She may be the fastest player with the dribble locally in ages.
“Cueto always tells me to take the ball and go,” Mercedes said with a sly chuckle. “Dribbling just came with it. I’ve always been pretty fast.”
“I’m going to try to get her to run track in the spring,” Cueto said. “She can definitely do sprints.”
Cueto said that Mercedes never truly understood her potential.
“Her freshman year, she definitely didn’t know how good she could be,” Cueto said. “Her confidence wasn’t there. She didn’t feel comfortable. I think her confidence has allowed her to blossom. Good teams now try to focus on her and she still gets her points against the good teams. She doesn’t have the pressure of having to shoot it all the time. She’s letting the game come to her a little bit more.”
With her height, her ability and her speed, the possibilities are endless. Mercedes’ ultimate goal is to be able to play college basketball and she’s well on her way.
“She could absolutely play college basketball,” Cueto said. “No question, she can play in college, possibly as a scholarship player. A couple of schools called her and I think she then realized that it was serious.”
“I’d like to continue to play in college,” Mercedes said. “I love playing the game and don’t want to stop. I would love to be able to go to school and have my parents not pay a dime. That would be great.”
Cueto said that he would like to develop Mercedes’ game even further, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“I think she’s going to get even better,” Cueto said. “I think right now, she’s one of the best defenders in the county. She gets out and gets steals and that leads to easy baskets. But she has the ability to be a really good defender and that would make her a complete player. Now we can focus on that.”
“Personally, I know I can be a better defender,” Mercedes said. “Next year, I’m going to give it my all. I want to show everyone what I can do on both sides of the court.”
Mercedes was asked what it was like to be the first 1,000-point scorer in the history of the school.
“It’s a very big accomplishment,” Mercedes said. “I was really looking forward to be able to do it. Did I think it was possible? Well, yeah, but I was nervous about it. I didn’t know if we were going to have a season this year. But it really is special. It makes me feel special.”
There’s another aspect of Mercedes’ game that needs improvement and it has nothing to do with a ball.
“I would love for her to become more of a vocal leader,” Cueto said. “She has earned that right to do tell the other girls what to do.”
“I know I can be loud if I have to be,” Mercedes said. “Once the energy is good with everyone, we’re okay.”
Cueto knows that Mercedes’ best days are ahead of her.
“I think she’s going to be even better,” Cueto said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her.”
It already is. – Jim Hague