Having also played for her alma mater, Manteca High coach MaryAnn Tolbert has a lot of fond memories of the girls basketball team’s past grudge matches with East Union.
The rivalry resumes tonight, as the two first-place teams in the Valley Oak League face off at Dalben Center where East Union hosts a game for the first time in two weeks. Both are 7-0 in league, and the Lancers (19-1 overall) are currently the top-ranked Division III team in the Sac-Joaquin Section, according to MaxPreps, while Manteca (14-7) is sixth.
Tipoff is set for 5:45 p.m., and the varsity boys game will follow the girls.
“Anything can happen (tonight), and it could be one that people are going to remember for years and years to come,” Tolbert said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
It’s a continuation of what has been a thrilling and meaningful series for these two programs. In the past 10 years, seven league titles went to either Manteca (three) or East Union (five), and they split the crown in 2012 after Manteca dispatched the Lancers 48-42 on the final night of the regular season.
In the much-hyped 2007 VOL finale, East Union beat the Buffaloes 62-48 in front of a capacity crowd at Dalben Center to capture sole possession of the championship. Manteca was playing for a piece of the title, and both teams finished with more than 20 wins that season.
“It’s a similar deal,” East Union coach Jim Agostini said. “Both teams have been on this collision course before, and those were some special nights. I always say there are 14 big games in league and each one has its own magnitude, but with this one there’s a little more to it.”
They nearly met a month ago in the Tracy Breakfast Lions/Tom Hawkins Tournament at Tracy High. Venture Academy held off East Union 51-45 in the winners-bracket semifinals before downing Manteca 70-58 for the championship.
Neither team was at full strength, however. East Union was minus Donja Payne (ankle), while Loretta Kakala (back) had yet to play in a game. Making matters worse for the Buffaloes that night, junior guard Sydnee Fryer appeared to have reinjured her surgically-repaired knee in the third quarter, but she only missed their next four games and has played in the last four.
Manteca hasn’t fielded its full squad this season. In recent weeks, starting guard Rubel Dehal has missed time with an illness, while freshman Kaci Bolding (elbow) and fourth-year starter Elizabeth Tolbert (wrist) went down with scary injuries. Tolbert practiced Thursday and is expected to be in the lineup for the big game, though Bolding remains out.
“We’ve never had all of our 12 players together since the start of the season, and I think it says a lot about the character of our team,” coach Tolbert said. “We’ve been able to roll with everything handed to us, and people have stepped into different roles and continued to stay positive through it all.
“We’re hoping that all the trials and tribulations have been worth it and that the starts align for us tomorrow night.”
There will certainly be no shortage of stars tonight as many of the league’s top girls players converge on the Dalben Center hardwood.
Kakala and Payne meet for the first time in an interesting matchup of 6-foot-2 post players. Kakala, now a junior, transferred to Manteca from East Union after her freshman year and is being highly recruited by NCAA Division I programs. Payne is coming into her own as a double-double threat with vast potential.
Both teams also have a talented trio of guards, with four-year standout Olivia Vezaldenos leading East Union and Fryer — a NorCal finalist with Brookside Christian two years ago — spearheading the Buffaloes.
“Two talented teams, two proud programs — the records speak for itself,” Agostini said. “They have players on their team that command attention and so do we. Players and coaches circled this game on the schedule, and we had an idea when we met in summer league that these are going to be good games.
“They’ll bring the best out of us and we’ll bring the best out of them. These are two teams that love to compete and that’s all you can ask for.”