FORT WALTON BEACH – When it came time for Mercedez Claybrone to pick her college basketball destination, one prerequisite stood out on the Fort Walton Beach senior’s checklist.
“I was looking for a place where I could go and actually play, not just sit on the bench but make a difference on the team,” she said.
It turns out the 6-foot point guard’s search led her just up the road.
Building off the momentum of a season where she has lit up the stat sheet to the tune of 20 points, 10 boards and six assists per game, Claybrone is headed to perennial junior college powerhouse Northwest Florida State College.
“I knew that was where I wanted to go because not only is it close to home but a lot of people have been successful from there,” Claybrone said. “That’s what you want in a program, a place where you can be successful.”
Included in those “successful” people is one of Claybrone’s mentors, 2011 Fort Walton Beach graduate Kiani Parker. The 5-foot-8 guard parlayed a successful two-year career with the Lady Raiders into a scholarship to her current stomping grounds of Auburn University.
“I look at Kiani as a role model and I always have,” Claybrone said.
When Parker graduated from Fort Walton Beach in 2011, Claybrone carried on her No. 22 on the hardwood. Three years later, Claybrone will look to once again follow in the footsteps of her role model at NWF State.
“She’s always been a positive person and she gives 110 percent on the floor,” Claybrone said. “That’s what every player strives to be.”
The description sounds awfully close to Fort Walton Beach Holly McDaniel’s assessment of Claybrone, who McDaniel said has grown leaps and bounds from her freshman campaign.
“She is a prime example of a kid who embodied the mentality that if you commit your time in the offseason, work on your game and do exactly what the coach asks, you’ll reap the benefits from that hard work,” McDaniel said. “And that kid never took a day off in the offseason. She was always in this gym after school working on her game.”
Her game has morphed from a post player into a point guard that – modeled after Magic Johnson – both has the court vision to run the offense and the 160-pound frame to own the paint.
“I’ve never played point guard and had to run the show,” said Claybrone, who was slotted in at the one after Katie O’Neal transferred to Freeport alongside sister Megan. “But I’ve adjusted and it’s made me a better player.”
It’s that versatility that drew the attention of NWF State head coach Patrick Harrington.
“He told me he was impressed with me and that I had come a long way,” said Claybrone, who noted Harrington would utilize her more on the wing as a three or four.
To McDaniel, Claybrone’s leap to a proven winner that last year made the national quarterfinals is affirmation of the Lady Viking program’s commitment to the future of its players.
“We’ve always said this: We’re proud of our championships and the amount of times we’ve gone to the playoffs, but as a staff our goal is to get any kid who wants to play at the next level and get their education paid for the opportunity to do just that.”
Claybrone’s journey to Niceville will be a short jaunt, and her family couldn’t be any happier with her decision.
“They are so excited,” she said. “They come to every game, every game, whether it’s in Georgia or anywhere. So for me to play at home, they are beyond excited.”