WESTON RANCH — Look past the Valley Oak League’s old guard and through the glow of its newest star and you’ll find Chris Bauer, sleeves up, shaping and molding his South Stockton program.
With “consistency” and “execution” as his watch words, the Weston Ranch girls basketball coach has watched his program blossom into a bona fide contender the last five years.
Now, he says, it’s time for the Cougars to take the next step. That opportunity comes tonight against the two-time defending VOL champions and one of the nation’s top recruits.
Courtney Range and the unbeaten Manteca Buffaloes visit Weston Ranch tonight in a battle of the VOL’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams.
“There’s a lot of buzz,” Bauer said. “The kids are excited.”
Manteca is 10-0 and strafing opponents with Range, a McDonalds All-American nominee, and the Hasal sisters.
Weston Ranch finds itself in a familiar position – one game back in second place, with a rich collection of talent.
The Buffaloes won the first meeting on Jan. 4, 56-48.
“Every game since that loss has been a biggie for us,” Bauer said. “Courtney Range, she’s an All-American. There’s nothing you can really do about that. But we could have executed a little better and done some things differently and maybe had a different result.
“The kids are excited for this, because it’s our home court and we could show that we’re contenders.”
Weston Ranch has been left holding the bouquet the last two seasons as Manteca skipped into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs wearing the VOL’s crown.
The Buffaloes shared the title with East Union last year and won it outright in 2010. Each time, the Cougars were a mere one-game back, posting a 22-6 league record in that span.
“We didn’t finish opportunities,” Bauer said of his team’s performance against Manteca a month ago. “We didn’t finish the double team. Instead of running plays through, we gave up early. Hopefully, our bigs will be a little more involved.”
Instead, it was an introduction to Manteca’s Bigs – Range and point guard Mikayla Hasal.
Range had 24 points, 23 rebounds and five blocked shots in just her second game, Hasal had 18 points and Manteca made five of its last right free throws to seal the victory.
Range is averaging 21.5 points and 20.6 rebounds in 11 games.
Bauer isn’t sure how he’ll guard the 6-foot-2 senior, bound for Cal in the fall. Will he try to lock her down, forcing Manteca’s supporting cast to beat them? Or will he focus on eliminating the pieces around her?
“To be honest, we’ve talked about it both ways. That will be a game-time decision,” he said. “Do you put all your eggs into one basket and try to take her out? Or do you take away the others? We don’t know.”
Manteca coach Cody Norman has his own worries. Weston Ranch features one of the league’s most-balanced attacks.
Brianna White leads three players in double figures with 14 points per game. Fourth-year varsity player Emoni Wilson and sophomore Elisabeth Alexander average 13.1 and 10.6, respectively.
Aljanae Brown might the Cougars’ best all-around player. She’s averaging 8.7 points, 4.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 3.7 steals.
Weston Ranch has won eight of its last nine games, including four straight.
“They understand what it takes. It’s been really nice to see. All three levels are buying into what we’re selling,” said Bauer, whose program is 27-3 in Valley Oak League play.
“The growth is that these kids are taking responsibility for themselves,” he added. “‘Hey, I need to do this or do that.’ It’s been about taking ownership.”