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Buffs still competing without Kiwi Gardner

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POSTED January 29, 2011 1:57 a.m.
Kiwi who?

That’s Manteca High boys basketball coach Dave Asuncion’s playful reply when the words “Kiwi Gardner” are said in his presence.

You know, Kiwi — the faster-than-the-speed-of-light point guard who led the Buffaloes to back-to-back Valley Oak League championships.

The 5-foot-8 spark plug who dunks like Spud, competes like Mike, talks trash like The Glove and plays the game like no one ever has before in the city of Manteca.

That Kiwi.

The Kiwi who left the Green School over the summer for greener pastures, transferring to Arizona-based basketball factory Westwind Prep Academy for his senior year with hopes of further lifting his already-skyrocketing stock to NCAA Division-I programs.

And so the talk began. Without Kiwi, Manteca would be reduced to mediocrity.

That point was driven home on Feb. 21 when East Union obliterated the Buffaloes 77-53 at their own gym.

The student-body sections traded barbs and chants like usual, but one stood out above the rest:

“You need Kiwi! You need Kiwi! You need Kiwi!”

 “Yeah I heard that, but what could we do about it?” said Manteca senior guard Ryan Culpepper. “The loss itself was embarrassing, so we took it personal, came back to practice this week and started working even harder.”

Surely, the Buffaloes need Kiwi to single-handedly break down defenses, score at will, create turnovers and bring added excitement to their games.

But they don’t need Kiwi to compete.

And they don’t need Kiwi to win.

That statement was made this week.

Coming in with a 6-11 overall record and 3-3 in league, the Buffaloes had the VOL’s two best teams in front of them and were in danger of having their playoff hopes dashed with still three weeks to go in the season.

First was a trip across town to square off with Sierra, a well-coached team that defends, rebounds, roughs you up on the inside and blasts you with bombs from the perimeter.

Making matters worse, the angry Timberwolves were coming off their first conference loss of the season to first-place Weston Ranch, Manteca’s opponent Friday and unquestionably the league’s most talented.

Manteca stunned Sierra, 53-49. Then on Friday, the Buffaloes had Weston Ranch leaning on the ropes, leading 56-44 to start the fourth quarter before falling 69-65.

Kiwi who?

Without him, expectations were never lowered from within.

“I knew we’d be a different team,” said senior E.J. Godfrey, Manteca’s new front man who averages around 20 points a game from the center position. “But I definitely thought we’d have a better record by this point.”

Manteca isn’t playing like its 7-12 record these days, but there’s a reason it is 7-12.

“When we had Kiwi and Ernie (Pimentel, an all-VOL first-team selection) we let them go a little bit more, let them create on their own,” Asuncion said. “Without that kind of talent we had to continuously adjust our style.

“The guys who played with them (last year) wanted to play that same style again this year and realized early on we weren’t going to be able to do that.”

Facing mostly Division-I teams, along with two private-school powerhouses (St. Patrick/St. Vincent of Vallejo and San Joaquin Memorial of Fresno), the Buffaloes lost seven of their first eight non-league contests. Only two of those defeats were by double digits.

They have since lost two starters to grades, forcing them to reinvent themselves again.

“Other guys have stepped up and embraced their opportunities,” Asuncion said.

Things began to quickly evolve around Godfrey.

There’s Matt Mueller, a lively 6-4 forward who does the dirty work inside. There’s Rigo Gutierrez, who is no Kiwi Gardner but is skilled enough to create shots for himself and teammates.

There’s B.J. Odell, an electric athlete who gave even Weston Ranch fits Friday. And there’s Culpepper, a steadying influence and a leader.

Kiwi brought all of that to Manteca the last two years. But the Buffs are realizing they can do it themselves.

“Kiwi will be remembered always, but this is a new team,” Asuncion said. “It hasn’t had Kiwi from Day 1. I don’t think anyone here goes, ‘What if we still had Kiwi.’ We’ve moved on.”
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