OAKDALE — East Union is trying to find a way to remain in the Valley Oak League boys' basketball race in the absence of do-everything guard Justin Nieto.
But while the ankle of the senior floor general continues to heal, the Lancers will have to be content with picking off wins as they come, including Thursday's less-than-artistic 50-36 win against Oakdale.
"Justin is 12 points and seven-and-a-half assists and four steals and the list goes on," said Lancers coach Brett Lewis, who said Nieto could return by the end of next week. "He's also our best defender.
"We're struggling without him right now, and that's evident. It's an all-around struggle because he's our heart and soul."
To have a chance to pull an upset against VOL powerhouses Sierra and Weston Ranch, East Union (13-3 overall and 2-2 in league play) will have to play with uncommon balance.
The Lancers got some of that against the Mustangs (4-9, 0-4,) getting 14 points inside from 6-feet, 6-inch junior Jacob Danhoff, and 13 from the whirlwind that is Jordan Kron.
But also stepping up was junior guard Robbie Gleockler, who scored twice on crashing put-backs, then put the game away with two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
Oakdale got 12 points from Austin Archuleta and 11 from Devin Donahue, but the Mustangs simply did not have the offensive weapons to keep up with East Union down the stretch.
The Mustangs led 24-23 three minutes into the second half thanks to easy baskets on back-to-back assists by Spencer Thomas. And then, without a go-to scorer of any kind, Oakdale went cold and scored only three points over a span of 8 minutes, 18 seconds.
And maybe that's going to be the answer for East Union. Until Nieto is back and their offense returns to full strength, the onus will be on the Lancers' defense to show up strong every game.
"Guys are stepping up, like Jordan Kron, and we're fighting and battling to find ways to stay in games right now until we can get him healthy," Lewis said.
In the meantime, East Union is going to have to play blue collar basketball, which when you think about it might be the fitting style of play in the blue collar towns of the VOL.
"Any road win in the league is good," Lewis said. "This is a hostile environment and everybody in this league knows everybody else who we have and what we're doing.
"We can hang with Sierra and Weston Ranch. We already hung with Sierra until the end of the game, when it got ugly, and we did it without our best player. We're right there when we get everybody healthy and we're real close right now."