Jules LaMendola was in rough condition in the Coppell High School locker room.
Coppell had an important game against Plano, Texas in mid-January, and the junior was the Cowgirls’ top player. But that night, LaMendola was still recovering from the flu.
She told Coppell head coach Ryan Murphy she was good to go, and that the worst of the illness was behind her. And then she threw up.
“We looked at her, I was like, ‘Are you okay?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah! Fine!’ Like it was a stupid question,” Murphy said. “She’s a funny kid.”
LaMendola suited up anyway. She threw up again at halftime.
Her mother, Janice, was surprised she was able to play. But her competitive nature, perhaps LaMendola’s defining trait, took over.
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“She was not feeling 100 percent that day. But the kid wants to win. So she went for it,” Janice said. “I thought that she would kind of peter out, but she did OK.”
Jules was more than just OK that night. She scored 39 points and led her team to a 75-43 win. And she still felt she had more to give — she wanted to reach 40.
That was the night the IU class of 2023 committed realized she was good enough to play at the next level.
On the last day of school, LaMendola and her Coppell teammates watched film from their season-ending loss in the regional quarterfinals.
Murphy went through the tape with his team, pointing out things they needed to work on going into next year. LaMendola internalized the video and the suggestions for improvement. She was into it.
But as the end of the game approached, her demeanor changed.
“When the game was starting to get away in that last minute, it was like she was reliving the moment all over again. You saw the look on her face,” Murphy said. “She feels winning and losing. She’s extremely competitive.”
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LaMendola is just wired that way. She has an innate desire to be the best at whatever she’s doing.
That’s how she was from her early days as a fifth grader playing as the only girl on a boys YMCA team. She said the boys’ fears of cooties quickly faded when they watched her play and saw how much she wanted to win.
It’s part of why she likes the Dallas-area high school basketball scene so much. It’s an area ripe with talent, which turns into fierce opposition when the season comes around.
“Anybody can beat anybody on a good day. It just depends on who’s willing to work harder and give whatever it takes on that day,” LaMendola said. “It’s very competitive. It’s very ruthless. It’s just a really cool environment to be in. For someone that is as competitive as I am, it’s a dream come true.”
It’s that mentality that drove her through a long injury recovery process as a freshman.
Early in her first high school season, LaMendola tore a posterior ankle ligament. The day after her surgery, she was in the gym — just to say hi to her teammates, as she wasn’t allowed to do anything yet. But within a week, she was back doing whatever she could. Right after doctors put her in a boot, she resumed shooting free throws.
LaMendola also used that time to work on the mental side of the game.
“She sat next to the coaches and heard what they had to say and when they were pointing out things. By the end of the season, she was helping point out things to the girls,” Janice said. “She wanted to do anything she could do with basketball, and that was a good opportunity for her. She would’ve killed to be on the court, but she learned a lot by having to watch it.”
She returned to action at the end of her freshman season, during playoffs. She was not yet at full capacity, but she wanted to be out on the court.
A culture-changing player
Coppell is not a traditional basketball power in Texas. The Cowgirls hadn’t had consecutive winning seasons in nearly 20 years, and they hadn’t won a district championship in 11 years. Just five years before LaMendola was a freshman, Coppell won just two games all season.
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As a junior, LaMendola led the Cowgirls to their third straight winning season, a district championship, and two playoff wins. Coppell set a school record with 37 wins — and Murphy said she remembers the two losses more than all the wins.
Murphy’s first year at Coppell was LaMendola’s freshman year. He’s watched, first-hand, as LaMendola changed the basketball culture at her high school.
“She’s a gym rat, but she’s smart enough to know that it can’t just be her. So she’s bringing other kids with her to the gym,” Murphy said. She sets the tone, by example first, and then she’s vocal and brings people along. Some kids aren’t as passionate as she is, and she finds a way to get them to buy in. Where our program is now three years into her high school career is a completely different place. And she deserves a ton of credit for that.”
LaMendola’s leadership is entirely born from her desire to win. That’s something she picked up from her family.
‘The smack talk is real’
The LaMendola family is teeming with athletes. Janice played junior college basketball and volleyball at Kankakee (Illinois), and played volleyball at Arkansas Little Rock.
Jules has three siblings — two older brothers and a twin sister. Both of her older brothers play lacrosse, one at Hendrix College (Arkansas). Her sister plays volleyball.
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The driveway basketball games got intense.
“It was no holds barred,” Janice said. “We wouldn’t pull any punches. That geared her to get in the mindset to go, ‘I’ve got to get better.'”
But it’s not only sports that drove those rivalries. The LaMendolas are just competitive people, no matter what they’re doing. Janice said board game nights are “hell” in their household.
LaMendola has always been that competitive, from a young age. Murphy can tell it comes from the top in the family — that Janice’s competitiveness rubbed off on her children. And while that may be the genetic source of the character trait, it was further cultivated by the environment LaMendola and her siblings grew up in.
“It was just ingrained in me from a young age that we do things to win, and losing was not an option, because (if you did), you would hear about it. And you didn’t want to hear about it, because the smack talk is real,” LaMendola said. “I just don’t like to lose.”
A diverse, versatile skill set
At 6-foot-1, LaMendola offers positional flexibility on the court.
She can play anything from point guard to power forward and Indiana’s staff was drawn to that versatility.
Murphy said that she has the best feel for the game of anyone he’s coached.
“She sees the floor extremely well,” Murphy said. “She has a knack for getting to her spots. She can score in any way possible.”
LaMendola has added to her repertoire every year of her high school career. Murphy said she developed an inside game as a freshman and excelled at getting to the rim (even with the injury). Then, as a sophomore, she added a mid-range game. As a junior, she expanded her range to the 3-point line, and improved her ball-handling.
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LaMendola made a point of working on long-range shooting during the season.
“We have (another) girl that set the 3-point record for us this year,” Murphy said. “In the season, Jules comes up and talks about how she wants to improve her catch-and-shoot 3-point game. She doesn’t say it, but I know why she wants to improve. She just has this natural desire that she has to be the best at anything.”
Her ball-handling improvements came in line with a position change.
The only set position in Murphy’s system is the point guard, but he uses his point guard for ball screen plays. Coppell’s primary ball-handlers suffered some injuries last season, and LaMendola stepped up.
She hadn’t run the point before. But it didn’t take LaMendola long to acclimate. Murphy said her play made him look foolish for not putting her at point guard all along.
“It opened my eyes to like a new level of basketball and just a new skill,” LaMendola said. “And it enhanced everything else about my game as well. So I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.”
Murphy stressed that she still has a lot of room to get even better.
He said that as her footwork grows and as her outside shot gets more consistent, she’ll become a player that can basically fill any role on the court on a given possession. He sees very high potential for LaMendola at Indiana.
For her, though, it’s about the mentality and work ethic. That’s what she feels she’ll bring to Bloomington.
“(IU is getting) a competitor and a winner. I’ll do anything to win,” LaMendola said. “I want to work hard and I want to help them be successful, and I want to help IU win a championship.”
Follow Herald-Times sports reporter Seth Tow on Twitter @SethTow, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.