Growing up together in Puerto Rico, Ivan Gandia-Rosa and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz dreamed of playing NCAA Division I basketball. But when their high school days ended they had a mere four offers between them.
Fast-forward to today and they are, as the saying goes, “living the dream.” To top it off, they are two of the best guards in the ASUN Conference: Gandia-Rosa for University of North Florida and Pacheco-Ortiz for Liberty University.
They are fierce rivals and yet somehow as close as family. “We’ve been competing against each other since we were little kids,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “And being teammates on the [Puerto Rico] National team, our families are really close. We talk every day. He is just like a brother to me.”
Gandia-Rosa concurred. “Georgie is like a brother to me. We love each other and we have been really good friends since we were young. We play very similar. The only difference is that he is right-handed, and I am left-handed.”
Both, however, ended up taking different roads to achieve their dreams. For Pacheco-Ortiz, who had no Division I offers, the road to get there opened during the Summer of 2015 at Liberty University’s basketball camp. Ritchie McKay had just become the Flames new head coach, taking over a program that endured three consecutive seasons with twenty or more losses.
“Georgie came to our ‘Elite Camp’ the summer after our first season,” McKay recalled. “He was an individual that came into camp, we could obviously tell he knew the game, high IQ.” But at first sight, Coach McKay did not seem impressed with Georgie. “I liked it, but I thought we are going to need better to achieve at a high level and compete for conference championships. So we didn’t offer him.”
A change of mind occurred when Liberty began the 2015-16 season with, shall we say, a bumpy start. “We lost eleven consecutive,” McKay said. “We went on the road to VCU and ended up practicing at Georgie’s High School, Deep Run, and after eleven straight Division I losses and some inconsistent play at the point guard, I realized, oh boy, maybe I need to take another look at this kid.”
When McKay saw Pacheco-Ortiz play for the second time, it was the charm. “I went to go see him the next day at a different high school and I loved him. I just thought ‘Man, this kid is special. How could I miss it this badly?’ and ended up calling him later that night or maybe it was the next morning and offered him a scholarship. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Gandia-Rosa took a different road to Division I. Ivan received three offers coming out of Huntington Prep: Texas Pan-American (later to be known as Rio Grande Valley), UIC, and Alcorn State. But those schools did not seem to feel right with him.
“Weird thing was they all offered then I never had communication with them again,” Gandia-Rosa said. “So, I decided to explore more.” After doing so, he had to choose whether to play Division II or junior college.
Gandia-Rosa decided to go the JUCO route, and play his freshman year at College of Central Florida where he had a record-breaking season. “Funny thing is that year before he went to UMBC, K.J Maura had the assists record at CF with 20 assists, and I broke it with 21.”
Gandia-Rosa’s hard work at College of Central Florida paid off when the Division I offers came in, and his stats caught the eye of Head Coach Matthew Driscoll at North Florida. “Ivan’s JUCO coach knew we were trying to replace the greatest player in our history, Dallas Moore” Driscoll said. “So, he called one day said I got the dude. We went immediately - especially since he had three years of eligibility.”
And when Coach Driscoll saw Gandia-Rosa warm up before a game it was an instant connection between the two. “Watched him warm up and stretch before the game noticed his leadership, servant’s mentality, and basketball understanding before he even took a shot. Then he played amazingly that night. We offered immediately.”
Gandia-Rosa’s feelings were mutual. “When I first spoke to Coach Driscoll, I knew there was something different about him and other coaches,” Gandia-Rosa said. “I also knew he wanted me a lot because after he came to my game, he came to three different practices without me even knowing. We just chatted about life and other stuff besides basketball. That’s when I knew I wanted to be part of this program.”
So Gandia-Rosa had a record-breaking freshman season, which ended with a commitment to North Florida. And Pacheco-Ortiz also had a successful freshmen season at Liberty, which saw him on the Big South All-Freshmen Team (Liberty later left the Big South for the ASUN). All was looking great - until September 16, 2017.
That’s when a tropical depression formed southeast of the Lesser Antilles. This became upgraded to a tropical storm and later into a Category 5 hurricane named Maria with Puerto Rico in its path.
“Actually, I thought it wasn’t going to hit Puerto Rico,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “Every time they announced hurricanes are coming to Puerto Rico, we just don’t worry about it, like ‘Nah that we were just going to get rain.’” But unfortunately, the hurricane was indeed on course. “That time, my parents were like ‘No, this actually going to hit us, and probably going to be bad.’ So, I was just praying, I was worrying about them. I was praying a lot, a lot of thoughts from my mind because I didn’t know if they were going to be okay, if they were going to be really affected.”
With Maria only weakening to a Category 4 at impact, it was still the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico. Knowing that weighed heavily on Gandia-Rosa.
“I wanted to be there,” Gandia-Rosa said. “But at the same time, I didn’t. It was very hard just seeing stuff on social media and not be able to do anything about it. I was constantly checking on my phone, even in class, just trying to find a way to communicate with them and check on them. It was very tough to find out that everything inside my house was lost. It was also very hard for my mom. My mom, sister, and niece lived with my aunt for months until my house could be lived in again.”
By the time Hurricane Maria was finished, $94.4 billion in damages had been caused. Homes were destroyed and lost.
During and after Hurricane Maria’s tremendous destruction to Puerto Rico, Pacheco-Ortiz and Gandia-Rosa kept in touch with each other to get through this difficult time. “We have just been making sure everyone in our families are doing well, and whatever we need don’t hesitate to let each other know,” Gandia-Rosa said.
Help for Puerto Rico came from around the world, and continues to this day. “We know we have a lot of people around the states, around different parts of the world trying to help Puerto Rico.” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “We talked about it, but we haven’t done anything, we just helping our families if we can save a little bit of money, stuff like that.”
While the strong bond Gandia-Rosa and Pacheco-Ortiz shared helped them through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, another bond provided them much assistance as well: the one between them and their schools. At UNF, the one thing that Coach Driscoll lets Ivan know is that he and the team are there to help him any way they can.
“First thing we did, like we always do daily, is hug him and tell him how much we love him,” Driscoll said. “We made sure he contacted all of his people immediately. Then we explained to him that controlling what you can control now is more critical to your family than you can imagine. Knowing that you’re okay and healthy allows them to focus on their immediate situation. We explained to him that remaining focused on school and basketball with the love of his teammates, staff, and supporters daily is critical to moving forward for everyone.”
Over at Liberty, Coach McKay “rallied” support for Pacheco-Ortiz. He said, “Whether it was through prayer, whether it was through time together, the willingness to resource those that he loved, and reaching out to different constituencies that would support that same cause in disaster relief. He is one of ours, he is like a family member, and we would do and will do whatever we can to help assist a family member.”
Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria’s passing did not end put an end to the devastating natural disasters for Puerto Rico. This past summer, earthquakes hit the island. Yet, Pacheco-Ortiz and Gandia-Rosa remained focused and determined to live out their dreams.
“It’s been my teammates and coaches,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “They encourage me to be focused in school and basketball.” Pacheco-Ortiz also thanks his parents for their love and support. “They keep encouraging me and giving me positive vibes and to keep doing my thing over here and keep doing what I love to do and trying to finish school.”
For Gandia-Rosa, he thanks everyone at the University of North Florida for his success on the court. “I have a great support group here at UNF,” Gandia-Rosa said. “It goes from everyone in the staff, to the academic people, and my teammates.” With their support, Ivan enters every game with the composure and confidence needed to give 100 percent. “It has been a big part of my success here. If I didn’t have them pushing me, I would not be the player and person I am today.”
Both of them have reached unprecedented heights and big moments on the basketball court. The biggest moment for Pacheco-Ortiz came last season when Liberty won the ASUN Conference Tournament. That led to an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and an upset of Mississippi State in the first round.
“We worked so hard,” Pacheco-Ortiz explained. “Some guys being here for four years, I was here for three. I saw all that, rebuilding this program and making it to the NCAA Tournament was a dream come true for everybody on this team. And beating Mississippi State and advancing to the Second Round, that was big for us, a moment we will never forget.”
As for Gandia-Rosa, he too had his share of big moments this season and last. Those included a victory over the then number 2 ranked Mid-Major team according to CollegeInsider. That, of course, was his pal’s Liberty squad. But to Ivan, the biggest moment came when he first appeared in a Division I basketball game and realized his dream,. “It was definitely getting the first game out of the way,” Gandia-Rosa said. “Getting all the nerves out of playing my first DI game and finally achieving my dream.”
While both Gandia-Rosa and Pacheco-Ortiz have reached their goals, they have additional accomplishments. Their head coaches point to their attitude towards life and others as well as the legacy they will leave on their respective programs.
“Ivan’s legacy will have many layers and will live on forever in our program” Driscoll maintained. “His ability to brighten a room with his smile and laugh especially around the office will live on. Our supporters will always remember him for his humble approach to life and willingness to serve whatever the scenario because he believes we all are here to serve not be served.”
“I just think Georgie is so loved,” McKay said. “I think his legacy is in his person, his easy-going nature, and his willingness to self-sacrifice has been an example model for young and old. I think he will be remembered for a long time.”
Throughout all the success, the hardships, the highs, the lows, and the natural disasters nothing could break the admiration and bond between Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and Ivan Gandia-Rosa.
“One thing about Georgie that I admire is his resiliency. He never quits on anything and just like me, he was also overlooked out of high school and he is going to end up on of Liberty’s greatest players ever.”
“Ivan is just like a brother to me so I admire everything he has been through, a lot of adversity he has to get to where he is at right now. Kind of like the same story to accomplish our dreams.”