CERES — Young, yes, but these Cougars from Weston Ranch are far from inexperienced.
Seeded ninth, Weston Ranch didn’t flinch when the going got tough in its 65-53 win over No. 8 Central Valley, the Western Athletic Conference champion and a darkhorse contender in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs.
The game was tied 53-53 at the halfway point of the fourth quarter, but the battle-hardened Cougars (18-10) closed with a 12-0 run buoyed by eight straight made free throws. They were 11 for 12 from the foul line in the final period and 18 for 23 overall.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Weston Ranch guard Tre Simmons, who knocked down two free throws with 2:02 left. “You see your teammates make them and everyone else starts to feel it and they just go in.”
Crunch-time situations are nothing new for Weston Ranch, a team with just three seniors. Head coach Chris Teevan threw his youngsters into the fire with a brutal preseason schedule consisting of no home games, and the gauntlet continued in the Valley Oak League. The Cougars next square off with top-seeded Christian Brothers (22-6) — a 70-44 winner over Patterson — on Friday.
“We think the VOL is the best league around here,” Teevan said. “We think we played the hardest preseason schedule, besides Modesto Christian. Is that the reason we won? I don’t know, but I know we’re a lot tougher now then we were two months ago. I don’t know if we would have won two months ago, that’s fair to say.”
Simmons certainly showed his toughness. Aside from his 13 points and three 3s, the slender sophomore standing at 5feet, 10 inches and 150 pounds had to defend bigger guards — namely 6-2 Jaron Dickson and 6-1, 200-pound Daevon Brown — who repeatedly went at him in the post. Simmons also had a big steal during Weston Ranch’s staggering flurry to end the game, leading to Josh Dilg’s uncontested layup.
“I’ll take on any challenge, but I want to do what helps the team win,” Simmons said. “Whatever benefits the team I’m going to do it, whatever it takes.”
Point guard Jaelen Ragsdale paced the Cougars with 20 points and made eight consecutive free throws after missing his first three. Jazz Swanson added 15 points off the bench. Fred Lavender pitched in six points and 11 rebounds, and Dilg seven points and eight boards.
Teevan lauded the efforts of undersized posts Jordan Tauga (two points, four rebounds) and Jordan Strane (two points, three rebounds), who had to wrestle with the likes of 6-5, 230-pound Parker Griffin, 6-4, 225 Devon Bolivar and 6-2, 240 Manuel Garcia. Despite giving up some length and muscle, the Cougars outrebounded Central Valley, 38-36.
“Tre Simmons grew up, man,” Teevan said. “It’s not one guy. Jordan Strane grew up. It wasn’t (just) Jaelen it wasn’t Fred and it wasn’t Jazz in the last four minutes and that was a beautiful thing. Those guys all made plays.”
Dickson poured in 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead Central Valley (22-4). Griffin (12 points) and Brown (11 points) also finished in double figures. The Hawks had a 15-game winning streak going into the playoffs and 12 of those victories were by double-digit margins.
“The VOL is very solid, very tough teams through and through,” coach Dickson said. “Weston Ranch was tested most nights and they got to play in really tough games.”
The disparity in big-game experience was evident. While Weston Ranch played with poise, Central Valley had several costly turnovers, missed some open layups and chucked up off-balanced perimeter shots early in possessions during the final four minutes.
“When we got down five or six I was trying to calm them down,” Dickson said. “I didn’t want to use a timeout but maybe I should have called a timeout to settle our guys. We had a lot of possessions left in the game but we took a couple of bad shots that were combined with a couple of turnovers.”