The texts and phone calls started immediately, before Sofia Maldonado had even made up her mind.
“You’re gonna love it here!”
“We’re so excited to have you on our team!”
“This is going to be so awesome.”
The St. Mary’s girls basketball team heard that Maldonado was considering leaving her St. Francis Prep squad in the fall of 2022, and they knew the Queens kid with the big smile and even bigger game would fit right in at the Manhasset school.
So they began blowing up her phone and calling her “all the time,” Maldonado said with a laugh. “They were so ready to have me come here.”
The Gaels players knew a little bit about Maldonado from playing against her on the AAU circuit, and also because St. Mary’s coach Kevin White’s daughter, Kerri White, was the coach at St. Francis Prep.
And when White resigned as coach, Maldonado, then a sophomore, knew she wanted to leave, too.
Now, after playing only 1/3 of St. Mary’s season last year as a junior (because she transferred Maldonado was only eligible to play non-league games), Maldonado is a full member of the team and making her mark.
A 5-foot-8 forward, she’s averaging 10 points and six rebounds per game on yet another loaded St. Mary’s team. As the Gaels chase a third consecutive Catholic School Athletic Association, Maldonado is thrilled to be front and center.
“It was frustrating last year because I wasn’t used to not playing, and I’m sitting on the bench and being the No.1 cheerleader and giving tips to the players, but I couldn’t be out there,” Maldonado said before a recent practice. “The whole team was so welcoming and made it so easy for me to feel a part of it, but it was still tough.”
“It’s not easy for a kid to sit out; we applied to see if we could get her eligible but it didn’t happen,” Kevin White said. “She’s a really solid player, very athletic and is really an excellent shooter.”
Maldonado, who was recently nominated to play in the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game, was born in Jackson Heights and grew up loving both hoops and ballet, “two things that are totally, completely different,” she laughed.
When her mom, Monica told Sofia it was time to choose travel basketball or tutus, she immediately knew her answer.
“This sport brings me so much joy, just being out there and playing, I can’t even describe how happy it makes me,” Maldonado said.
As she improved on the courts of New York City, Maldonado began to attract attention. When she was in 8th grade, suddenly high school coaches from everywhere were contacting her parents.
“I didn’t think recruiting happened until college, but they were really talking to us all the time,” Maldonado said. “That’s when I kind of realized that basketball wasn’t just a fun hobby, that it was something that can help me get to college.”
After two years at St. Francis, Maldonado was ready to move.
While Prep is a strong program, the adjustment to St. Mary’s, which Maldonado said was done both for basketball and academic reasons, was sizable. Maldonado went from a school with hundreds of kids in her grade to one with only about four dozen.
Suddenly, everyone knew everyone. But the supportive environment from all the adults immediately struck her.
“It’s a big support system here. There’s a ton more homework but the teachers are trying to help you,” Maldonado said. “Like if you get a bad grade, they work with you to see what you can do to improve. I love it.”
Maldonado’s support on court has come from lots of connections she had before she even arrived; her parents and former St. Mary’s stars Taryn and Taylor Barbot grew up together.
This season Maldonado, the only senior on the roster, felt more comfortable at school and on the court. White said Maldonado’s perimeter shooting had improved, and that her aggressive attacking of the basket helps free up good shots for teammates like Kayla Solomon and Sky Priester.
Maldonado is being recruited by several Division II schools in North Carolina, Texas and Florida, she said, and is eager to pursue a career in either sports medicine or sports management.
“I feel like I’m getting closer to playing like I want to, almost there,” Maldonado said. “The more I play with these great players, the better I feel.”