With two key additions to a team that went 31-2, won 30 straight games and competed in the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division playoffs, Weston Ranch was primed to further cement itself as a rising public-school power in the Golden State.
Then a 4-9 start humbled the Cougars.
“We were kind of big-headed from last year,” Gavin Wilburn said. “We just thought that being the big dogs, we'd be able to take it. That gave us a little bump. Sometimes you're not as good as you think you are.”
The fourth-year starter was a steadying influence through it all, leading a drastic mid-season turnaround that culminated in the decorated program's biggest prize to date — a CIF Northern California Regional title. It was Wilburn who was often in the middle off Weston Ranch's biggest moments in the postseason, and he has repeated as Manteca Bulletin All-Area MVP.
“He was frustrated,” Weston Ranch coach Chris Teevan said. “There was a lot of pressure on him for the future after high school. He had to live up to standards and won a lot of awards the year before.
“It felt like were playing against ourselves for a month. He controlled the mood and the turnaround of the team. He has an innate ability with his actions and attitude to get everybody on board. It was really incredible to see it from the inside.”
The rugged 6-foot-4 point guard who does it all averaged 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks for the Cougars (24-12). His stats don't accurately portray his true value as a player and a teammate, as his role changed accordingly with the match-ups.
But when the going got tough, Wilburn got going.
“Statistically, it's probably not as good as he actually played,” Teevan said. “Often, when we play those (top-caliber) teams, he gets moved to the point and that takes scoring opportunities away. He scores when we need him too, but he does a great job of everything else. He has no weakness to his game.”
Wilburn showed he can be an explosive scorer in a stunning mid-season loss.
With leading scorer Donjaé Lindsey fouling out early in the third quarter, Wilburn anchored Weston Ranch's comeback from an 18-point halftime deficit against visiting Central Catholic. The Cougars took three leads, the last last one coming on Wilburn's layup with 6 seconds to go.
Six seconds later, Dayton Magana made the miracle that shot clinched the Valley Oak League championship for the Raiders — a running 3-point attempt released a couple steps inside mid-court stripe and with a 0.1 left on the clock. Central Catholic won 74-72, completing an unexpected season sweep of Weston Ranch. Magana was voted league MVP, an award that went to Wilburn last year.
Wilburn turned in a masterful performance in the second defeat, scoring a season-high 27 points to go with six assists, three steals and two blocks.
“We had some adversity with the refs and let that get the best of us,” Wilburn said. The Cougars were hit by three technical fouls in the second quarter. “That was a teachable moment for us. It also taught me not to celebrate too early. After the layup, I celebrated for the camera. You have to keep playing until the buzzer sounds.”
Losing the league championship wasn't what hurt that night — Teevan has said for years now that section and state titles are what the Cougars strive for. They had thought the 4-9 start was well behind them, building a nine-game win streak that included three wins over prominent Bay Area schools — one the Ranch would actually see again in the NorCal final.
Freshman Kodey Weary, an athletic 6-5 wing, returned from a wrist injury during the streak, and 6-6 senior transfer Jordahn Johnson had fully assimilated to the team. The loss to Central Catholic served as a reminder that nothing will be given to the Ranch.
“We had to go back to doing what we did last year,” Wilburn said. “We had to rely on hard work, not talent. (The loss) helped us. That loss didn't end our season, but it gave us more motivation.”
It was a step back before a push forward through the challenging Sac-Joaquin Section Division I and NorCal Division II playoffs.
The SJS Division III champ a year ago, Weston Ranch was placed in Division I because it competed in the state Open. That did not intimidate the Cougars, who were further fueled by their perceived lack of respect as a No. 14 seed in the section playoffs.
They took their act on the road, avenging a previous loss to third-seeded Folsom and dispatching No. 6 Cosumnes Oaks. That sent them to the semifinal round, where they faltered late and lost to Capital Christian, 77-57.
Weston Ranch was denied a shot at the Division I championship, which would have required an upset of NorCal king Sheldon, but one major objective had already been met — a semifinal berth is also a pass to the NorCal tournament.
“We just ran out of stamina,” Wilburn said of the loss at Capital. “In the fourth quarter we just kind of gave up and our heads were down for a few days, but we knew that we still had a chance to do something big.”
Wilburn and the Cougars were indeed just getting started.
Although he struggled from the field in the NorCal Division II opener against Piedmont, which led by as much as 11 in the first half and 58-50 late in the fourth quarter, Wilburn stepped up to make two big plays in crunch time — a steal and transition assist followed by an and-1 conversion that sent the game to overtime.
Wilburn later hit buckets on back-to-back possessions as the Ranch rolled to a thrilling 79-74 win over the North Coast Section's Division IV champion.
He did most of his damage early in a less-dramatic 63-50 triumph over Oakland Tech, recording 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in the first quarter alone. In the semifinals, Weston Ranch faced fellow Stockton power St. Mary's, holding on 57-55 with Wilburn scoring a team-high 17 points despite foul trouble.
That heart-stopping wing, secured by Mi'Son Coilton's last-second steal, vaulted Weston Ranch to its first-ever NorCal title game against St. Patrick-St. Vincent. The Cougars had previously downed the Vallejo-based squad, 61-54.
The Ranch prevailed 62-61 in the rematch, and guess who made the big plays down the stretch?
SPSV trailed 44-32 in the third and staged a fourth-quarter comeback to take a lead with 15.1 seconds left.
Teevan left it in the hands of his trusty point guard to save the day. Wilburn drew three defenders as he attacked the paint, then dumped it off in the post to Johnson for the go-ahead basket.
The Bruins had one more shot at stealing the victory with 4.5 seconds remaining but were thwarted by a help-side defensive play from Wilburn, who got a piece of Jalen Scott's layup.
“He was in foul trouble all game and made the two biggest plays of the game,” Teevan said. “Those last two plays define who he is as a player making the right play.”
Those turned out to be the final two plays of his standout career.
Weston Ranch was denied the chance of going after the state title because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days before the Cougars were supposed to face St. Francis of La Canada, the top seed out of Southern California, the CIF canceled the two-day state championships at Golden 1 Center.
It was an anticlimactic end to his milestone season, but one that does not dull what Wilburn and the rest of the team accomplished.
Wilburn remains unsigned, keeping his options open for the next stop in his basketball journey.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who made history for the school,” Wilburn said. “Nobody knew about Weston Ranch. My AAU teammates would be talking smack, saying 'Where's Weston Ranch?' Now we're one of the top schools in the state of California.”
Teevan credits Wilburn for helping Weston Ranch raise its prestige.
“When you think of the great players from Weston Ranch, Gavin is probably a spot ahead of all them,” Teevan said. “He’s the most accomplished player we’ve had. He has won everything but the state title only because he didn’t get to play in it. I think we’ll see his number next to James Nunnally’s in our gym one day.”
MVP: Gavin Wilburn, Weston Ranch, Sr., guard
Kendrick Currey, Sierra, Sr., guard
Jordahn Johnson, Weston Ranch, Sr., post
Donjaé Lindsey, Weston Ranch, Jr., guard
Malik Taylor, Ripon, Jr., guard
Braden Van Groningen, Ripon Christian Jr., post
Jordan Burciaga, Manteca, Sr., forward
Mi’Son Coilton, Weston Ranch, Jr., guard
Eddie Cotton, Lathrop, Jr., post
Parmbir Khattra, East Union, Sr., guard
Jacob Van Groningen, Ripon Christian, Sr., wing