Gregori High boys basketball coach John Ebster watched the play unfold with perfect execution.
Jamin Crenshaw drove the lane, drawing the Modesto Christian defense. At the last second, Crenshaw kicked the ball to 6-foot-6 center James Bland, who finished an uncontested layup.
Ebster peered up at the scoreboard: Gregori trailed the eighth-best team in the state by just five in the first half. “We’re right there,” he thought.
And then his eyes returned to the floor, where Bland lay on the deck writhing in pain. “The whistle blows and it’s like, ‘What happened?’ James is on the ground,” Ebster said.
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Bland had dislocated his ankle, spoiling a breakout senior season.
“Once we got back into practice, from that point on, we said we can do it,” Ebster said of the team’s resolve. “We got all the pieces and the parts to recover from this.”
Gregori hasn’t missed a beat without Bland, its leader in scoring (14.1) and rebounding (5.6).
The surging Jaguars haven’t lost to a public school since Dec. 30 and clinched the final Modesto Metro Conference championship on Tuesday evening with a 72-49 victory over Modesto. (For the second straight year, Modesto Christian, bound for the Tri-City Athletic League next year, was prohibited from winning the league title.)
Afterward, the Jaguars capped their first league title since the 2012-13 season with a net-cutting ceremony – and a trip down memory lane.
“Some of the parents were showing me pictures of this group when they were 10 years old,” Ebster said. “It was neat to see all the same faces; neat to know all the same kids have been around each other since they were 10.”
History has taken up residence at Pirrone Road campus, where Gregori has developed quickly into the jewel of the Modesto City Schools system.
Last spring, the baseball team began the season with 26 consecutive victories and advanced to the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I South Tournament.
The boys soccer team clinched a berth in the Division II final as an unheralded No. 12 seed, and the girls track and field program extended their streak of undefeated league seasons to seven.
In the fall, the football team made history with its first 10-0 regular season, first league title, and first home playoff win, a 45-20 triumph over Franklin of Elk Grove.
There have been other moments and teams, too, and the basketball team has taken the baton, winning a program-best 21 games.
Since Jan. 1, Gregori has gone 10-3. Two of those losses are to Modesto Christian, ranked eighth in the latest Cal-Hi Sports state poll. The third – a 61-60 loss to St. Mary’s – got away from the Jaguars in the final six seconds. The Rams scored the game-winning points at the buzzer.
Ebster said the athletic department’s success has forced his basketball players to buy into the culture. Collectively, Ebster said the Jaguars have suspended their egos as they chase history.
“The kids, when they start to see those results that makes them focus and buy in even more and do all the things necessary to get better every year,” Ebster said. “It’s a lot of fun when it pays off like this.”
That buy-in was tested by Bland’s injury.
Drew McClellan (11.2 points), Zach Stewart, Jared Hughes and Aaron Smith have helped replace his production, while returning all-league player Tremayne Whatley (11.0) and K.J. Deiker have stepped up as leaders.
Ebster also praised team captain Chris Brice and dueling point guards Jamin Crenshaw (2.9 assists) and Richon Nash (2.5).
“My guys, they stay within themselves; they play within the system,” Ebster said. “When you do that, you know you can compete with anyone around. With all this experience, we feel we can compete with most teams at the Division I level.”
Gregori will learn its playoff seeding Thursday. The section will release the tournament brackets during a live online selection show (http://bit.ly/2HgjdbE) at 4 p.m.
Ebster isn’t sure how the section seeding committee will treat an MMC public-school champion making its first postseason appearance in four years.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “We hope with 21 wins, we’d be eligible to get a home playoff game. If you go up and down (the section), there are a lot of good programs that have played really good basketball over the years. But if you look at our body of work, we think we deserve a home playoff game.”