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Lathrop among contenders in wide-open race
Manteca center Michael Hatfield draws contact from Liberty Ranchs Chris Childs while taking a shot from the post. - photo by Photo By Sean Kahler

Lathrop has qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section boys basketball playoffs just once (2012) in four years, while Kimball is oh-fer going into its fourth varsity season.

With no runaway favorite this year, could this be the time for the Valley Oak League’s two newest schools to finally break through as legitimate title contenders?

“We’ll see,” said Nathan McGrath, Lathrop’s first-year head coach.

Good luck picking a horse in this race.

The consensus among local coaches is that the VOL crown is there for the taking after defending co-champions Sierra (7-5) and Weston Ranch (3-7) graduated all of their starters. While there are usually two, maybe three, teams that break away from the rest of the pack by the midway point, there are expected to be up to five still in the hunt going into the final two weeks.

“It’s wide open. There is not a great team in our league right now,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said. “Anyone can win on a given night. With the new playoff format (only the top three teams qualify), that’s going to heighten things even more. It’s going to be exciting.”

We’ll know more this week when VOL play tips off. Tonight, Lathrop (7-5) heads to Manteca (8-5) while East Union (7-4) travels to Tracy to face Kimball (10-3). Sierra opens with Oakdale (1-8) and then hosts East Union on Thursday.

“There are four or five teams that can win VOL this year, and I think we’re in that mix,” McGrath said.

Lathrop may have the most talented starting five in the league, boosted by three senior transfers led by Nicholas Obazuaye (18.1 points per game).

Manteca, anchored by 6-foot-6 center Michael Hatfield, returns its entire starting five and arguably has the deepest squad in league.

“They’re one of the teams to beat, without a doubt,” McGrath said of Manteca. “It will be nice to see where we stack up against another team that is senior heavy. We’ll find out what kind of team we have right off the bat.”

East Union has the most challenging start to the VOL season, taking on two possible contenders on the road. Kimball checks in with the best nonleague record, while Sierra is guided by a wily coach who has promising athletes at his disposal.

Jake Danhoff, the VOL’s top returning big man, gives East Union a chance to sniff the title.

“I definitely think that we have a shot,” East Union coach Ryan Tarr said. “I think this first week will be a good indication of where we stand.”

Tarr added that Sierra, which reached the SJS Division III finals the past two seasons, is still the standard setter of the VOL.

“They might be a little down this year but they still have a good team,” he said. “They are still going to execute and they are well-coached. They’re young, but that just means there is a lot of room for improvement. They might just be figuring out who they are, but once that happens they could be real dangerous.”

Weston Ranch is rebuilding with four sophomores and a junior making up the starting roster. The Cougars were tested by a brutal nonleague schedule and could be better for it. They begin league with visiting Sonora (6-5) in a classic size-against-speed matchup before travelling to Manteca on Thursday.

Sonora, a longtime VOL member, is moving to the Mother-Lode League next season.

“Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses,” McGrath said. “It’s a game of chess every night out. It will come down to which teams can make the adjustments after seeing each other once in the first half (of the league schedule).”