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Reaching playoffs is no easy task, but triumph should secure a spot

It's strange how much the definition of "playoff team" has changed over the last few years in community college basketball.

As recently as 2003, 32 of the 44 Northern California schools were seeded into the postseason.

Making the playoffs was an indication you cared enough to keep score and hold daily practices to teach players the difference between taking a charge and standing still for the national anthem.

All of that changed in 2004 when the Commission on Athletics — citing budget cuts — sliced the postseason field in half.

Not only did qualifying for the extra games become mathematically twice as difficult, it had the parallel impact of making each game twice as important.

It meant consolation bracket tournament games before 43 people, including the custodian, on a mid-December Saturday early afternoon could determine whether or not you got a chance to play in March.

The COA since has added two teams to the field, but all that did was create two additional games (18 vs. 15 and 17 vs. 16) for the right to be fodder in the "real" first round to the two top seeds.

Those are play-in games, and play-in games are what you have to win to reach the playoffs.

Prior to Wednesday night's 88-72 victory over Columbia College, that's the region of limbo in which Modesto Junior College teetered. Should the Pirates have faltered against the Claim Jumpers, then finished their regular season with a loss Saturday at Sequoias, MJC would have been relegated to next Wednesday's play-in game.

But the win, which secured fourth place in the Central Valley Conference for the Pirates, also should have given Modesto a pass into the real field of 16 as no worse than a No. 13 seed.

"I filled out the criteria sheet this afternoon and looked at the criteria of the other teams and I didn't think there was any way they could keep us out," said MJC coach Paul Brogan. "But now that we've won, we're in."

Of course, there remains the chance politics could alter that fate. The CVC coaches will put together a league strategy Monday morning, then conference representative Rusty Smith (the Sequoias coach) will present the CVC's case to the NorCal committee that afternoon.

The field will be announced Monday night, and while teams 15-18 will gear up quickly for battle, the top 14 seeds get an extra three days to rest, with the top eight seeds making sure their home courts are available on Feb. 24.

In Modesto's case, it means an extra three days for the sprained left ankle of top scorer Nathan Clark to heal, and another 72 hours for the thigh bruise of No. 2 scorer Benny Koochoie to continue to lose color.

The Pirates know a road game is ahead against a team ranked in the top four in the region and they're happy to take on the challenge.

"We feel like we're a good team that deserves to be in this position," Koochoie said.

"Our first goal was to win every game, and we wanted a conference championship. We also wanted a high seed, but we lost some tough games. We're thankful to have a team like this so we can keep going on."

MJC looked like a playoff team on Wednesday, playing with confidence and composure against a much-improved Columbia squad.

Kenny Thompson, a Modesto High graduate probably playing his final college game in his home city, celebrated the occasion with a 30-point effort.

"A home game in the playoffs would have been nice," Thompson said. "We haven't had one of those in a while, except for last year's play-in game, which doesn't count."

"But we're still climbing. We still haven't played our best basketball, and if we all come out and play the way we're supposed to, we're capable of blowing teams out."

That's the attitude the entire MJC team needs if it wants to attack basketball's second season.

Because while 18 schools are allowed to boast of making the playoffs, not all 18 will know what it means to be a playoff team.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or bvanderbeek@modbee.com.

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