STOCKTON — The Modesto Christian Crusaders slowly trudged up the narrow stairway toward their locker room in Blanchard Gym. There were no words, only agony.
Branson of Ross has become the Crusaders' Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology whose punishment for defying the gods was to endlessly roll a huge stone up the hill. There was no rock to push up those steep steps Saturday afternoon, but there was weight.
The weight of defeat. For the third consecutive year.
No team during this MC decade of success has pinned a 1-2-3 on the Crusaders until now. No one forces the Crusaders into a perpetual low gear like Branson, the gang from Marin that takes exquisite pleasure in teasing the Crusaders before eventually slaying them.
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The Crusaders have got the Branson Blues, a depression uncurable until, say, next March.
"I'm proud of my boys. I'm proud of the way they battled back," Modesto Christian coach Gary Porter said. "We just have to keep battling. We can't let go."
What more can Porter say? MC keeps reaching the Northern California Division V final, only to be slow-danced to defeat by Branson, this time in bittersweet overtime, 50-47. Last year, the Crusaders boasted the better talent but lacked Branson's execution. This year, they shook off a worse matchup and a 24-7 sleepwalk of a start and, like 2006, were presented a winnable game.
And then, when the time came for winning, the Crusaders didn't. Not once did they even lead. Regardless of how it's packaged — poor free-throw shooting, dreadful first quarter and a half, etc. — it adds up to the same stone the Crusaders are condemned to push.
Yes, Branson has earned permanent residence inside MC's collective psyche. Yes, it "finds a way," this time after star Oliver McNally's head plowed into the shin of his brother Alexander, thus rendering Oliver virtually useless during the game's final 12 minutes. Yes, Branson survives though it served the game to MC on a platter by scoring only five fourth-quarter points.
Targeting the reason for defeat isn't difficult for the area's wounded powerhouse. Ending the trend will be the hard part.
But guess what: MC may have stumbled upon something as it reflects on its latest disappointment. Fact is, the Crusaders finally have identified an official arch-rival, a foil, an Ali to their Joe Frazier.
No longer is their adversary a faceless title in some bracket. Their new bull's-eye has legs, brains and a tendency to somehow fit their round peg in MC's square hole. The Crusaders haven't played an important league game in forever and, frankly, it hasn't helped them.
They need Branson, the team that has beaten them the last three years and is now 3-2 against them. Their most feared opponent often used to be staring back at them in the mirror, but that era officially ended during their latest heartbreak.
If there is a consolation for the Crusaders, it's that their future seasons have been shaped for them — in Branson's likeness.
When Bulls coach Jonas Honick was asked if his team thought about MC during the regular season, he gave a conditional "yes."
"We don't mention them by name, but if we've had a bad practice or a bad game, I'd say, 'What is your goal?'" he said. "We're at the point where we have to practice every day for this game."
It's not by accident Branson held Modesto Christian nearly 30 points below its average, nor was it a shock the experienced Bulls immediately locked into their comfort zone while the Crusaders — their starters new to NorCal pressure — blinked out of the gate. Incredibly, the sorry end of last year's game bled into the first quarter this year.
"If I could start it over, I would have put on the pressure (on defense) earlier," Porter said. "It wouldn't have caused my guys to be so passive."
Then again, MC also had one team in mind for 12 months. Such a scenario aided the Crusaders in the past. They lost to Price in the state final in 2003 only to convincingly win the rematch a year later.
In Branson, however, MC must acknowledge a program that has established its superiority. It's the first step, really, toward vanquishing its new rival.
The Crusaders possess the tools, beginning with promising sophomore Reeves Nelson. It's do-able as long as they concede the Sisyphean nature of their task.
Because pushing the same rock up the same hill is no fun.