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Experience, tradition buoyed Bruins

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POSTED March 1, 2014 1:16 a.m.

Lathrop High showed well in many ways Friday night when its boys basketball team was eliminated from the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.

The team itself overcame mistakes, foul trouble and a home-court disadvantage to give third-seeded Riverbank all it could handle in a 62-56 quarterfinal loss, but the players weren’t the only ones to represent their school well.

Two busses were packed with students who made the near 30-mile trip from Lathrop. There were many moments when Spartan Nation drowned out the host school’s rowdy RBKrazies cheering section.

“I’m so proud of how well Spartan Nation responded,” Lathrop head coach Nathan McGrath said. “The school was starved for something exciting.

“It’s like I told the kids, they’re the groundbreakers. This is the beginning of something that I hope we can build upon.”

That right there may have been the difference of Friday night’s entertaining game.

Lathrop was in the middle of its second-ever postseason run, doing so with a nucleus that has played ball together for less than a year. The school is in its sixth year and has had three different varsity head coaches in that time. McGrath, an assistant last season, is in his first year as head coach.

Different story at Riverbank.

While no storied powerhouse by any stretch, the Bruins do have a tradition of winning.

On one end of the gorgeously-built Ray Fauria Memorial Gymnasium are large windows that greet its visitors at the front entrance. On the other end is where the RBKrazies sit behind one baseline. Above them, a wall displaying banners documenting the athletic program’s league championships by year.

Riverbank has just six total league titles, five coming in a six-year span (1978-83) and another in 2002. In 2001, Riverbank captured its only section championship.

Jeff Jennings led Riverbank to those early-2000 s championships and remains its head coach. There were some lean years since for the Bruins, who had five consecutive losing seasons from 2006-10. Still, Jennings found other ways to succeed, like creating an annual, and now-popular, alumni hoops tournament that features former Bruin greats of years past. Money earned from the event goes to the athletic program.

Fauria Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated in 2009. Soon after, Jennings’ attempt at rebuilding the program was boosted by the addition of a budding freshman named Rolaun Dunham — currently a senior who has led Riverbank to now three straight SJS semifinal appearances.

This is, of course, no one-man show. Dunham’s supporting cast of senior starters has also been part of the program for four years. Even junior reserve Ylii Lopez had his time in the spotlight. In January he nailed a full-court shot from the opposite baseline, a highlight that made its way to ESPN Sportscenter’s Top-10 Plays.

While Friday’s win for Riverbank didn’t require any miracle shots, it required plenty of patience and mental fortitude. The Bruins couldn’t get their shots to fall in the early going and were getting outplayed on both ends of the court. They trailed 31-22 at halftime, and their best player, Dunham, was noticeably wincing and limping throughout the second quarter from an ankle injury sustained two weeks ago.

It all changed in the third quarter as fouls began to mount on Lathrop’s end while testing the Spartans emotionally. With 3:54 left, Nicholaus Obazuaye, their leading scorer on the season, picked up his third infraction. Lathrop already had two other starters benched with three fouls each to start the half.

Riverbank was gaining momentum and could sense Lathrop crumbling. While Lathrop has been in a few pressure situations this year, the Bruins have been there, done that the past four.

“We’ve been to two the semifinals the last two years, we’ve been two NorCals — we’ve been in big games,” Jennings said. “I thought Lathrop showed up to play. They didn’t look like an inexperienced team, but I think down the stretch our experience showed.

“We made plays when we had to make them, we made free throws when we had to make them and we made stops when we had to make them. That’s the experience factor.”

Not that Lathrop is inexperienced, mind you.

Its starting five consisted of all seniors Friday, though that is normally not the case with junior Isaiah Ellis out with an ankle injury. The difference is that Riverbank’s senior five have been doing it together for much longer.

McGrath and his staff deserve credit for getting their group to play well down the stretch. Lathrop won five of its final six regular-season contests to make the playoffs, then blew out Southern League champion Mariposa to open the second season.

A big reason for Lathrop’s uneven first half of the season was its lack of continuity. Three of its starters transferred in as seniors, and outside of its top seven there was little to no prior varsity experience.

“The second half of our season was our best basketball,” McGrath said. “You’ve got four kids who weren’t with us last year, four kids who were and four more who were doing something completely different. It took a long time for them to gel.”

Different story at Riverbank.

“We put a tremendous amount of work in our game year around,” Jennings said. “We graduated some really talented guys last year and we’re back (in the semifinals). That’s the goal right? Good programs continue to come back and I’m sure Lathrop is going to be in the same boat.”

McGrath is hoping. One major challenge for him, and other coaches at Lathrop, is keeping athletes in town. Lathrop has struggled to compete in the ultra-competitive Valley Oak League with many of its own competing for rival schools and others beyond the Manteca Unified School District borders.

 “I told our players that crowd isn’t here for me or the assistant coaches, they’re here for you,” McGrath said. “You’ve created a buzz on this campus and I want to keep it going.”

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