From end to end, Modesto Christian High’s Junior Ballard delivered a postseason defined by his leadership and heroics.
Ballard is The Bee’s Stanislaus District Boys Basketball Player of the Year after guiding the Crusaders to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship and lofty state ranking.
Modesto Christian edged CIF State Open Division finalist Sheldon of Elk Grove on a buzzer-beating 35-foot 3-pointer by Ballard and finished No. 10 in the final Cal-Hi Sports state ranking.
The Crusaders climbed as high as No. 6 in the poll.
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The Division I title is the fourth in school history. Ballard had 10 points, most coming in the fourth quarter, including an improbable 3 in the final moments of the game.
The Cal Poly guard beat the shot clock with a high-arcing shot from right of the logo at the University of Pacific’s Spanos Arena, giving Modesto Christian a 58-56 lead with about 10 seconds left.
Sheldon had a chance to counter on the other end, but Huskies guard Dale Currie Jr. missed the front-end of a one-and-one. Modesto Christian’s Tyler Williams, an All-District selection, sealed the win from the free-throw line.
“I was ready to come in and contribute. I was laser-eye focused,” said Ballard, who led the Crusaders with a 16.4 scoring average. “Winning the section was huge.”
Even as his game-winning shot gained wide-spread attention on social media in the days to follow, Ballard remained locked into the Crusaders’ pursuit of a CIF State championship.
He didn’t allow himself to watch video of the shot. Still hasn’t.
“Personally, I was happy, but I knew what the ultimate goal was,” Ballard said. “We wanted the big prize. We wanted to (win) state.”
Ballard got a late start to his season. A transfer from Lathrop High, Ballard was forced to sit out the first 30 days of competition, including the school’s Holiday Hoop Classic.
He made up for lost time in Modesto Metro Conference play, scoring in double figures 10 times, despite sitting out most fourth quarters.
In his season debut against Clovis North, Ballard poured in 34 points on 13 of 23 shooting.
As the season stretched on, Ballard began to showcase his all-around game. He said he played more of an emphasis on defense, because the Crusaders had multiple offensive weapons, including Williams, Dathan Satchell and Michael Pearson, all of whom averaged 10 points or more.
In five section playoffs, Ballard guarded the opposing team’s top talent. In a 66-53 triumph over Bellarmine Prep in the semifinal, Ballard frustrated Siena College-bound guard Jake Wojcik. The Bells’ leading scorer was held scoreless for the final 14 minutes, 25 seconds and Ballard conceded just one of his five field goals.
In the final, Ballard put the cuffs on Sheldon’s Currie, holding The Sacramento Bee’s top player scoreless for the final 6:26.
“His competitive drive to be great is what make him who he is,” Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said. “Never takes a play off and always accepts a challenge. He wants to be great.”
Ballard said he was eager to prove his place at one of the state’s most decorated basketball programs.
Now he joins a pantheon of Stanislaus District players of the year that includes former Crusaders Chuck Hayes (2000-01); Adrian Oliver (2005-06); Reeves Nelson (2008-09); and Raymond Bowles (2012-13).
“To see some of the players, like Chuck, that pushes you. That pushed me,” Ballard said. “I didn’t want to let anybody down, or let the culture down. You just want to play and represent the school and what it stands for.”