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Manteca on doorstep of state final
Buffs must first vanquish powerhouse in NorCal title game
BBSK--NorCal Finals ADV file pic
Bishop ODowd standout Naseen Gaskin takes a shot over 6-foot-10 center Anthony Booker and Josh Dilg in the Dragons second-round NorCal win at Weston Ranch this past Saturday. - photo by GARY JENSEN/GreatShots.

What is a historic season for Manteca is considered a “down year” for Bishop O’Dowd.

That is what the No. 2 Buffaloes (27-6) are up against on Saturday when they lock horns with the Oakland-based juggernaut for the CIF State Division III Northern California Regional title at American Canyon High in Napa County. 

“This is a first for our school,” Manteca junior Tydus Verhoeven said after the Buffaloes staved off third-seeded Archbiship Riordan of San Francisco 60-54 in Tuesday’s semifinal showdown. “We’ll always have our name up there as the first team to do it. It’s a huge honor.”

Manteca is also the first Manteca Unified school to advance as far as the NorCal finals. Last year, Sierra, after winning its first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship in Division III, had its run end in the NorCal semifinals. 

“These (Manteca Unified) schools have had some great teams over the years,” Manteca coach Brett Lewis said. “I really won’t know how good we are until a couple of years from now when I can look back.”

A win over a big-name program like Bishop O’Dowd would certainly be highlighted on Manteca’s already-impressive 2015-16 résumé. The Dragons (17-14) won last year’s CIF Open Division championship but have since graduated their top players, namely Cal freshman and Pac-12 second-team selection Ivan Rabb. 

“Their record is deceiving,” Lewis said. “They played a legit, national schedule against teams from all over, and they did it with two sophomores and a freshman starting.

“They are a super young team but very good. I’m sure they’ll be back in the Open Division the next few years.”

Bishop O’Dowd was crushed by Open Division qualifier Moreau Catholic 90-59 in the North Coast Section Division III final, leading to its low No. 8 seed. The Dragons proved to be a tough second-round draw for No. 1 Weston Ranch (27-5), which defeated Manteca twice in Valley Oak League play and again for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III banner.  

“We came up short two times (league and SJS) and that just fuels the fire,” Manteca center Anand Hundal said. “We’re using that as motivation to keep going.”

Bishop O’Dowd toppled Weston Ranch 72-64 and then came back to beat No. 4 Sacred Heart Prep of San Francisco in overtime, 67-64. The Dragons obliterated Vista del Lago 77-41, a team Manteca downed in the SJS Division III semifinals. Both teams also have wins over Berkley and Archbishop Riordan along with double-digit losses to Open Division No. 2 seed Modesto Christian.

The Dragons are led by supremely talented sophomore guards Elijah Hardy and Naseem Gaskin and 6-foot-8 freshman forward Raymond Hawkins. Junior forward BJ Shaw, whose dad Brian Shaw played and coached in the NBA, is one of many others notables on this loaded 14-man roster that has just two seniors.

“We have one section championship in how many years?” Lewis said. “They have two state titles just recently and I think 13 section titles. If you go up and down their roster they have more basketball talent than us. If you go to O’Dowd you’re a basketball player.

“I know we’re the higher seed but I wouldn’t say we’re the favorite.”

The winner plays for a state title next Thursday at Sleep Train Arena, where Manteca last lost to Weston Ranch. The Southern California finals pits No. 1 Ayala (32-3) of Chino Hills and No. 6 Bonita (28-6) of La Verne.

“It’s very exciting for our team,” Manteca guard Dwight Young said. “We’ve accomplished a lot up to this point but we haven’t accomplished our goal, which is getting back to Sleep Train.”