To be the champion, Weston Ranch (27-4) will have to beat the champion.
The top-seeded team in the CIF Northern California Division III Regional Championships got a tough draw in Oakland powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd (15-14), which visits the Cougars for a second-round duel this Saturday starting at 6. No. 2 Manteca (25-6), meanwhile, hosts No. 7 Albany (25-6) at Winter Gym with tipoff scheduled for 5 o’clock.
Both Weston Ranch and Manteca received first-round byes after the Manteca Unified rivals met in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III finals won by the Cougars, 69-57. And for winning its first-ever section crown, Weston Ranch was rewarded with a challenging quarterfinal assignment in eighth-seeded Bishop O’Dowd — the state’s reigning Open Division champion. The Dragons lost their top player, Ivan Rabb, now starring at Cal, and are loaded with underclassmen, but they may be the best team Weston Ranch — which has not shied away from facing top competition — will take on so far this season.
“In my mind, they’ll be the best team we’ll see since Long Beach Poly,” Weston Ranch coach Chris Teevan said. Poly waxed Weston Ranch 72-49 in the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic and is in the Division II SoCal Regionals.
“I’ve had three coaches call me to say this is the NorCal title game, and having watched a lot of film on them and in person I believe that. We got our hands full.”
Teevan witnessed Bishop O’Dowd’s 77-41 first-round dismantling of Vista del Lago. Raymond Hawkins, a 6-foot-8 freshman, had 14 points and seven rebounds, 6-2 sophomore Naseem Gaskin contributed 12 points and sophomore point guard Elijah Hardy — the Dragon’s best player in Teevan’s estimation — added eight points, 10 boards and 10 assists.
Bishop O’Dowd also has 6-4 junior forward BJ Shaw — son of former NBA player Brian Shaw — and 7-foot senior center Mike Hauser. The Dragons’ record may not be impressive, but few teams in Northern California played as tough a schedule. One of their notable wins came against NorCal Division III No. 3 seed Archbishop Riordan, 77-58.
“There isn’t a bad loss on their record,” Teevan said. “They might be real young but they’re all talented. If you play for Bishop O’Dowd, you’re a good player. I’m not afraid to say they’re better than us. I’m not saying we can’t win, but it would be nice to have an easier second-round opponent. The good news is that it’s being played on our floor, and our kids get up for those types of teams.”
Weston Ranch is undefeated at home this season and handed Manteca its lone loss at Winter Gym.
Manteca arguably has the more favorable matchup, but Albany is no easy out. The North Coast Section Division III runner-up defeated Shasta of Redding 54-48 in its NorCal opener.
With no player taller than 6-3, Albany has made up for its size deficiencies with speed and perimeter shooting. The Cougars made eight 3-pointers against Shasta and were led by Eric Mieri’s 19 points. Manteca coach Brett Lewis said point guard Josh Friedkin is their top player.
“They’re pretty small, we definitely have a size advantage, but they play super hard and shoot the 3 very well,” Lewis said. “They’re here for a reason. They’re a good basketball team.”
Lewis likens Albany to other teams the Buffaloes have faced this season, namely St. Mary’s in nonleague play, Central Catholic twice in league and Lincoln of Placer County in the second round of the SJS playoffs.
“We’ve had the same game plan in a bunch of our games this year,” Lewis said. “We’ll have to protect the 3-point line and try and get easy buckets inside.”