Joe Cortez: Bright future ahead for Modesto-area basketball teams

jcortez@modbee.comMarch 12, 2014 

The 2013-14 basketball season is down to its final two weeks, and before the end of the month, the CIF will crown boys and girls champions in five divisions.

Forty-eight district teams qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs and, of those, 26 won a game, with nine reaching at least the semifinals, which carried with it an automatic bid into the Northern California regional tournament (in all divisions but D6, where Turlock Christian was a finalist).

Of the eight that qualified for the regionals, only the Modesto Christian and Central Catholic boys and Modesto Christian girls have realistic chances at running the table and playing for a state crown. And that’s not a bad thing.

In the CIF’s modern championship era, which dates back to 1981, only 15 district teams have ever played for a state championship, with just eight – 1984 Modesto boys (D2), ’86 Calaveras girls (D3), ’88 Ripon Christian boys and girls (both D5), ’92 RC boys (D5), ’94 RC girls (D5), and Modesto Christian’s boys (D5) in ’97 and ’04 – winning it all.

In other words, it’s tough to do. Southern California and the Bay Area have hogged most of the trophies, with SoCal taking better than two-thirds of the boys titles.

The talent pool of the big cities is just too much to overcome most years, but every once in a while a special team emerges.

Is there a special team out there in the Stanislaus District? That’s hard to determine, but suffice to say there’s a handful of this year’s playoff teams loaded with young talent, and the taste of the playoffs they got this year will only make them better and hungrier next season. Here’s a look at a few of the teams who could be headed for bigger and better things in 2015.

Modesto Christian boys – I’m not really going out on a limb here, since Modesto Christian is always a virtual lock for a section title and always a player on the CIF stage. The Crusaders have reached the NorCal tourney this year with four underclassmen in the starting lineup. Junior Anthony Townes, a Modesto Bee Player of the Year candidate who’s already committed to Pacific, classmate Kevin Hamlet, and sophomore guard Christian Ellis will be impossible to stop next year. Only problem, MC is so good it will get kicked up to the Open Division, where it’ll have to deal with perennial state power Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland), which features perhaps the best junior in the country (6-10 forward Ivan Rabb), and national powerhouse Mater Dei (Santa Ana), which has won a record 10 state titles since 1987.

Modesto Christian girls – The girls, like the guys, are always a force, having won six section banners in the past nine seasons, and reaching the final 10 times in the past 13 years. The Crusaders will lose Viviana Vasquez, Jasmine Hampton and Player of the Year candidate Lexi Tubbs, but they’ve got a lot coming back. Junior Ashley Lucas, sophomores Stephanie Moore and Lailoni Gaines, and freshmen Meagan Warwick, Nicole Warwick, Jasmine Spencer and Dominique Lewis all saw action in the section final.

East Union girls – The Lancers started 0-3 in the Valley Oak League and were, at one point, 9-7 overall. They finished the season with 10 wins in the last 12 games, including a victory over Placer in the opening round of the D3 playoffs. They’ll return sophomore guard Oliva Vezaldenos (40 points in a win over Sierra), freshman guard Ruby Dauby and 6-footers Loretta Kakala (freshman) and Anna Wood (junior).

Central Catholic girls – The Raiders were the second-place team in the Western Athletic Conference behind Patterson, a section semifinalist and are getting a taste of the NorCal pressure cooker. They’ll move to the Valley Oak League next season under the section realignment plan, and that means CC will have to deal with Weston Ranch, Kimball and East Union. But the Raiders just need to snag one of the league’s three playoff berths. If they get in, they’ll be dangerous. They return freshman point guard Katie Minato, 5-8 freshman forward Lexi Candelario and 5-9 forward Danielle Friedrich, the third-leading scoring freshman (19.7 points per game) in the state. Coach Alison Nichols has a strong nucleus for the next three seasons.

Enochs girls – The Eagles are losing two of the three Viss sisters currently on the roster, but they’ll keep 5-11 sophomore Mia Viss and she’ll be joined by sister Greta Viss, who’s honed her skills playing against her big sisters. Enochs also gets back sophomore guard Katie Dillon, junior guard Raquel Flores and, most importantly, 6-foot junior center Akaysha Simpkins, the Modesto Metro Conference’s MVP.

Summerville boys – The Bears, who won the section’s D4 title in 2013 with a tall, senior-laden team, will lose just one starter – Aryk Freeman – off this year’s roster. Six sophomores and two juniors will return. They’ll also get a lot of talent from a very big and talented junior varsity team. Another deep playoff run is just a couple of years away for the Bears.

Merced boys – These Bears came on late to win a share of the Central California Conference crown, and gave Rodriguez (Fairfield) all it could handle in the D1 section semis. Freshman point guard Ulonzo Gilliam, sophomore slasher A.J. Stewart and junior forward Jermon Cook give Merced a strong core to build around.

Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at jcortez@modbee.com or (209) 578-2380. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeePreps.

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