Sierra coach Scott Thomason was money from the 3-point line during his playing days at Pacific.
For one season at Modesto Junior College, Chris Teevan of Weston Ranch ruled the land as King of Dimes, orchestrating the Pirates’ offense without restrictions.
Now that they’ve transitioned to the bench and headline the featured programs in Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship, few better understand the value in stellar guard play than Thomason and Teevan.
Just ask those left in Sierra and Weston Ranch’s wake. The Valley Oak League rivals have been captained by similar heroes in their march to the D-III final.
The Timberwolves, long considered a power frontline team with VOL MVP Joshua Patton and Hunter Johnson, have been lifted up by their backcourt, the sharpshooting Devin Nunez and savvy point guard Daniel Wyatt.
Nunez has 16 3-pointers in three postseason games, while Wyatt has been a difference-maker at both ends of the floor.
“We’ve said from the beginning that we wanted to be a balanced team,” Thomason said. “We feel like we can beat you inside and out; we can play a fast pace or slow it down. We feel equipped for any style.
“Our guards have been inspiring and they’re playing with confidence.”
Weston Ranch doesn’t have that same balance, and that’s no secret. The Cougars announced themselves as a four-guard system in December, believing “the little guys” could compete for a section title.
Well, guess who.
“Weston Ranch plays hard and they’re well-coached,” Thomason said. “They’ve got good players and they’ve got pride. This will be the biggest challenge of our season.”
The struggle and intrigue begins at the point guard position, where Sierra and Weston Ranch have next-level talents in Wyatt and Jaelen Ragsdale.
“Both have the ability to make plays traditional point guards can’t make,” Teevan said.
Wyatt has been a whirlwind in the postseason, attacking the rim with his speed and athleticism. The junior has scored 20 or more points in back-to-back games, including a team-high 23 points in a 76-72 overtime victory over No. 2 Vanden on Tuesday.
Wyatt buried a 3-pointer in overtime as Sierra overcame the loss of Sacramento State-bound center Joshua Patton, who fouled out with five minutes left in regulation.
“He’s attacking more and looking to score more,” Thomason said. “… The thing that has improved is his shooting percentage. Last year, he wasn’t a good shooter. This year, he’s improved and that makes him even more dangerous.”
Teevan has been most impressed by Wyatt’s decision-making. The junior has had at least five assists in all three playoff games.
“Just watching him from afar, from last year to this year, he’s matured a lot in his decision-making, knowing when to shoot and when not to,” Teevan said. “That’s key, especially when you have to keep those big guys happy with their touches. He’s become a pure point guard.”
And arguably Sierra’s best on-ball defender.
While Patton protects the rim, Wyatt has become the gatekeeper, locking down the perimeter.
His steal in the final minute against Vallejo culminated in a three-point play, sealing the come-from-behind victory. On Tuesday, his aggressiveness forced Vanden’s DeMarre Walker into his fifth foul early in the overtime period.
“Daniel is the type of guy that asks for other players. ‘I want the 6-foot-7 guy from Manteca.’ You love that about the kid,” Thomason said. “… He’s playing both ends of the floor and not taking plays off.”
The same can be said about Ragsdale, a 5-foot, 10-inch junior who has become the face of the Cougars.
Ragsdale scored seven in a decisive 14-0 spurt in the third quarter on Tuesday against Manteca, erasing a one-point deficit.
“I know Ragsdale is a big-time player and hits big-time shots,” Thomason said. “That didn’t surprise me when that started happening.”
What was surprising was Teevan’s role in the decisive flurry. Simply, he had none.
The third-year coach allowed Ragsdale to drive the team, a gesture of faith and trust once bestowed upon him by Modesto Junior College coach Paul Brogan.
“A lot of coaches make the mistake of trying to be the face of their team. When you’re controlling like that, the players don’t tend to make plays,” said Teevan, who led all California community college players in assists in 2007.
“When Jaelen goes to the next level, he won’t have time to check with the coach. You have to make plays. Our big thing is you have to make plays, not excuses. It’s good for them to take control.”
That kind of freedom is earned. Teevan says no one has worked harder at absorbing the system and philosophies than Ragsdale, who joined the varsity team as a freshman.
“There’s a trust factor there,” Teevan added. “If I didn’t think he worked hard enough maybe I would have been a little more controlling.”
Ragsdale is averaging 20 points and five assists in the postseason. Those numbers are comparable to his regular-season averages.
“(Brogan) put trust in me and let me play free. I do that with Jaelen,” Teevan said. “As a point guard, you got to be allowed to play basketball.”