SALIDA — By the time high school basketball teams reach regional play, there seldom are any questions about who plays and who sits.
The starting lineup has been set for months, the rotation groomed to the point where reserves know instinctively when it’s time to check-in.
But that’s not the case with the Modesto Christian girls, not even after they punched their ticket to the NorCal Division 3 finals Tuesday night with a 62-49 victory over Vanden.
Ask coach Robb Spencer who his starting lineup will be in Saturday’s regional final against Enterprise and he won’t be 100 percent sure. Part of that is current injury, but the rest is luxury, as players injured for most or all of the season are just now getting healthy for the Crusaders.
Jasmine Hampton, injured for most of the season, has stepped into the starting lineup, and although she has yet to regain her shooting touch she grabbed 16 rebounds against the Vikings.
And while starting point guard Ashley Lucas is on the bench with a sprained ankle, junior Candace White was able to step in and score six points in her first action of the season after suffering a severe knee injury last summer.
“It doesn’t matter which five is in because we all work as a unit,” said sophomore wing Stephanie Moore. “That’s what counts in the end. Maturity comes with experience, but even the players without a lot of experience come in and give it their all.”
So it’s a fluid lineup at best, with makes it deeper than most teams. But it also creates a problem. When players get healthy and grab playing time, it means other frontline players - even starters - might suddenly be on the bench.
That can create resentment on any squad, and resentment is the quickest-spreading cancer known to team sports of all levels and genders. So why has MC so far been immune?
“Viviana Vasquez started the whole year until two weeks ago (when Hampton moved into the lineup,) and what senior would be OK with that? None,” Spencer said. “And that’s the kind of character this team has - so much maturity. At some point, everybody on this bench has had to play and to step up to do something.”
The bench and the whole bench had to be ready against Vanden, because from the outset this was destined to be a battle of attrition.
Both the Crusaders (25-8) and Vikings (25-7) prefer the uptempo game with full-court pressure defense and hard drives to the basket. It’s a pace that lends itself to physical play and a lot of fouls, and the officials obliged the style.
There were 56 fouls called in the game, which led to 68 free throws. MC converted 21 of 31 tries, while Vanden made good on 26 of 37, with its success at the stripe keeping it in the game.
Well, that and a wonderfully large and loud contingent that made its way from Fairfield – a group boisterous enough to make the Crusaders wonder for a moment if they were the home team.
“The crowd was different,” said senior Lexi Tubbs, who led all players with 19 points. “I take the crowd as fuel. I liked that. But our crowd was insane and amazing, too.”
And they had a lot to cheer about, especially when Modesto Christian finished the first half on an 8-0 run to take a 28-21 lead, then opened the second half by scoring the first eight points for a 36-21 lead.
Tubbs hit one of her four 3-pointers in the run, while Moore converted a three-point play en route to 12 points, and fearless freshman guard Meagan Warwick went coast-to-coast after a rebound to score two of her 12 points.
Despite the 18-point effort of dazzling freshman forward Julia Blackshell-Fair, the Vikings only briefly made it a game, pulling as close as seven points before MC iced the win by hitting seven of eight free throws in the final 1:37.
Saturday will be MC’s fifth trip to a regional final since Spencer took over the program in 2001. The Crusaders twice have reached the state final, but this is as far as MC has advanced in Division 3.
“It will hit me soon that we’re going to the NorCal final,” Tubbs said. “It’s crazy and I’m so excited.”