As a junior, point guard Franki Gomez was a stellar floor leader for the Hopewell Valley Central High School girls’ basketball team. Off the court, however, Gomez respectfully yielded the vocal leadership chores to the five seniors who surrounded her.

But as the team’s lone returning starter, she realizes it’s time to speak up with words as well as actions.

Hopewell Valley Central High School Franki Gomez brings the ball up the court in a 2019 game. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mssphoto.com).

“We had a team of all seniors last year, they all said their piece,” Gomez said. “I did too, but this year everyone is kind of looking up to me so I just want to be a good leader to everyone else.”

Two weeks into the preseason, she seemed to be assuming that role just fine.

“Skill wise she’s always been top-notch, she’s always working on her game,” coach Coleen Ross said in mid-January. “I’ve never had an issue with her being a floor leader.

“The thing I’ve been seeing a lot of is the (off-court) leadership that has really come out this year. I don’t know if being behind five seniors is what kept her quiet but she’s really come out of her shell and taken a strong leadership role. She’s not being authoritarian about it. She’s just helping and guiding. I’ve loved seeing it. It’s a whole new side of Franki I’ve never seen.”

They are most likely natural instincts that have been waiting for the chance to emerge, as Gomez has been a court general all her life. Growing up height-challenged, Franki knew her only chance at succeeding in the sport she loved was by excelling in the backcourt. She now stands at 5-foot-6-1/2, and mention of that half inch is important to her.

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” she said with a laugh. “Since I’m short, I would focus on handling the ball and being able to do that before everything else. I’ve always been the point guard or the shooting guard.”

Gomez’s value was glaringly apparent last year, as HoVal struggled when she was injured. She missed eight games due to sickness and knee issues and the Bulldogs, who finished 15-11, were just 4-4 without her. Technically, that mark could be 4-5. Franki injured her ankle while scoring 16 points in a state win over Ewing and, due to lingering effects, was not her usual effective self in a quarterfinal loss to Westhampton Tech.

“We beat Hopewell (49-40 in the regular season) with her on the sidelines and I told Franki, ‘Man, I can’t wait until you get back on the court because the next game will be even better,’” Blue Devils coach Dan Montferrat said. “And it was. That state game was great and unfortunately she got hurt. If she were healthy it would have made all the difference in the world against Westhampton. She could be the Player of the Year in the CVC.”

High praise from an opposing coach, but not surprising to anyone who has watched Gomez ply her trade since kindergarten.

The daughter of Dr. William Gomez, a renowned area orthopedic surgeon who does work with HVCHS athletes, Franki was urged by her dad to start shooting at a kid’s basket in the driveway at age 5. Dr. Gomez, who has a fierce love of the game, would also bring college players under his care over to play some intense pick-up games, which the future point guard would observe.

“I’d be out there with my little basket on the side, watching them,” Franki said. “Basketball is always something I’ve been drawn to. I just wanted to be around it as much as I could.”

Gomez began playing organized basketball in the Hopewell Basketball Association, going against the boys. In seventh grade, she began with the Union out of Hunterdon County, and played her entire AAU career there.

“I loved playing with the United,” she said. “It made me the player I am, it helped me grow and I played on some really good teams and with some good players.”

Gomez’s skills were apparent as a freshman, as she became an immediate starter and led the team with 67 assists while averaging 5 points per game. Her value was also seen in other ways, as she grabbed 75 rebounds and had 37 steals.

As a sophomore, Gomez averaged over 9 ppg, finished third on the team in rebounds (100) and fourth in assists (53). Despite last year’s injuries, she produced her highest scoring average (11 ppg) and led the team in free throws made with 41.

The stats are nice, but Gomez’s most important duty is to run the offense.

“She’s so good at reading the defense and being able to determine exactly what we need to run; helping others find the way,” Ross said. “And she just finds her way to the basket. She finds the open spot on the floor and she can do what she needs to do to get the ball in the hoop. She can also be deadly from the outside.”

She will have to be deadly this year to replace sharp-shooter Ally Oldfield, who netted 227 3-pointers over the past four years.

“I’ve played with Ally all my life and she’s someone I could always rely on to hit that shot,” Gomez said. “I’m hoping I can fill more of that role this year with her loss.”

Ross hopes for the same.

“She is definitely gonna have to step up scoring wise,” the coach said. “But we’ve talked about it, we have some other people who have to step up as well so I don’t think it’s going to all be on her shoulders.”

Ross feels that freshman Jillian Magner can relieve Gomez of some of her point guard duties, and that Franki should be able to handle whatever falls on those shoulders.

“She’s definitely gotten stronger,” the coach continued. “She can really battle inside now, where sophomore year she was more of an outside player. Her ability to drive to the basket has definitely gotten stronger. Even her jump shot is better. She’s just so smooth with it.

“Defensively she’s quick, she can jump, she gets in the air, she’s flying back and forth. She’s definitely a both-ends-of-the-court player.”

It was those qualities that impressed the University of Rochester coaches, who reached out to Gomez as a freshman. The two parties maintained contact throughout her high school career and that will be Franki’s next stop.

The Yellow Jackets will not only be getting a savvy, talented player, but one with toughness. One of the most impressive aspects of Gomez’s junior season is that, even when she did play, it was often while enduring pain.

“After the initial injury, I kind of played through the pain,” she said. “I just wanted to get out there and be with the team and do the best I could. I hope it didn’t affect my play. I tried to do my best. I tried not to think about it while I was playing. Definitely after the games it would be more on my mind; but during games I’d try not to think about it.”

That is what you call being a leader without even having to be vocal.