WESTON RANCH — While most of the headlines have gone the way of Manteca and Sierra thus far, Weston Ranch, the reigning Valley Oak League champion, has quietly gone about its business.
A hot-and-cold preseason and a lineup filled with underclassmen had many VOL prognosticators looking the other way at the outset of the season. In fact, a Bulletin VOL media poll concluded the Cougars would finish no higher than fifth place.
But after Jason Steele stepped up and hit the jump shot of his young career Wednesday night, the Cougars went on to claim a thrilling 50-47 come-from-behind win over Sonora to remain undefeated at 3-0 and atop the VOL standings.
“We’re never fifth place,” Steele said afterward. “We’re always going to be on top.”
It looked as though Weston Ranch would have an easy night on its hands right out of the gate as the Cougars held Sonora power forward Brenden Evans scoreless through the first half and took a 17-7 lead into the second quarter.
But midway through the second, Derrick Sykes injured his groin on a drive and was forced to the sideline where he remained for the rest of the evening.
Sonora took advantage, holding Weston Ranch to just two points until John Carungay drained a three with 1:38 left, making it 24-17, Cougars.
“I’m really proud of our young team, they didn’t quit,” Bono said. “We started off hot, and then Sonora’s defense stepped up. They started playing physical, but our team didn’t quit. That’s two games in a row where our team could’ve quit, but we haven’t.
“I’m really proud of that.”
A Ronnie Collins offensive putback off a Nate Moises free throw attempt at the 4:30 mark of the third gave Weston Ranch a 33-23 lead and it looked as though the crimson and grey would walk away with it once again.
But the Wildcats responded with an 11-0 run capped by a Alex Kiriluk layup that made it 34-33, Sonora, with a minute remaining.
With a minute and change remaining in the fourth quarter, Collins drained a fall-away leaner to pull the Cougars within in three at 47-44.
Carungay then made it 47-46, Sonora, when he teamed with Moises to pick-pocket Brendon Kamler at midcourt, then converted a breakaway layup.
Following a Sonora traveling violation on the ensuing possession, Weston Ranch called timeout and set up a play for the game-winner.
CharRay Poole was mugged under the hoop on a layup attempt, but, without a whistle, the ball dribbled free and into the waiting hands of Steele with 10 seconds left.
Without any hesitation, the junior point guard stepped up and swished home an icy 15-foot jumper for a one-point lead.
“I just felt it when it left my hand,” Steele said. “Me and Ronnie were both going for the ball, and he let me have it. I just sunk it.
“It’s the greatest shot I’ve ever made. I feel big.”
Disaster almost ensued as Steele fouled Kamler on the inbounds pass, but after Kamler rimmed off the first one-and-one attempt, Steele collected the defensive rebound and sunk a pair of free throws on the other end to drive the nail through Sonora’s coffin.
“We drew up the play for Ray and he attacked, and the refs aren’t going to decide the game,” Bono said. “Jason, I’ve got to give him credit, he stepped up coming off the bench, hit a big shot for us. Unfortunately, he committed a foul (after the play), but he stepped up and grabbed a huge defensive rebound for us and sunk those two free throws.
“He really stepped up for us tonight in limited minutes.”
Bono smiled silently afterward when asked if his Cougars deserved to be in the conversation with Sierra and Manteca, choosing instead to let the scoreboard do his talking.
“We’ve just got to take them one at a time,” Bono said. “We’re an up-and-down team, and right now we’re starting to come into our own. Hopefully we can keep it going. We’ve got to worry about East Union tomorrow.”
Steele finished with nine and Carungay had eight.
Mosies led the way with 11.
Evans paced the Wildcats with 12.
Zach Gorgas had 11.
The Cougars (3-0 VOL, 8-7 overall) travel to the Dalben Center Friday.