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Prep league season tips off
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The prep basketball season tips off tonight and Thursday in the Valley Oak, Trans-Valley and Southern leagues.

In the VOL, teams are going to find out quickly where they stand. There are no clear favorites on the boys’ side, but defending champion Sierra (10-3), Weston Ranch (6-5) and East Union (11-1) appear to have separated themselves as the top contenders based on their impressive nonleague resumes. Sierra begins its title defense tonight against visiting Oakdale.

Kimball (6-5), the largest school in the VOL, looks ready to establish itself as a real threat. East Union has the toughest challenge out the gate having to face Kimball tonight and Sierra on Friday. Kimball has four players scoring in double digits led by 6-foot-2 wing Alex Toledo at 16.2 points per game (ppg).

Weston Ranch has no easy task tonight as it heads to Sonora, arguably the toughest court to play on for VOL opponents. Sonora (4-9) typically has the most size in the league, and its best player, Ben Bates (14.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg), is 6-foot-7. The Wildcats host Lathrop (4-8) Friday.

Manteca (7-5) opens at Lathrop for a rematch of their Tracy/West Winter Holiday Classic meeting. Their last nonleague contest was against each other, with Manteca rolling, 58-41. The Buffaloes travel to Weston Ranch Friday.

The girls are playing at opposite sites of their male counterparts, and it’s even less clear who the top teams are in this field.

Reigning co-champs East Union (4-6) and Manteca (5-5) will be tested this week after a sometimes-rough adjustment period in nonleague play. Manteca expects to get a boost from Cal-bound forward Courtney Range when she becomes eligible from the 30-day transfer rule.

East Union starts on the road with Kimball (9-4), which returns a young group that featured five freshmen in its rotation last year. The Lancers face another youth-laden squad across town Friday against Sierra (4-6). Sierra begins its league run tonight at Oakdale to take on an improved squad that was winless in the VOL last year.

Manteca plays host to dangerous Lathrop (5-7) tonight and gets another challenge Friday in the form of Weston Ranch (5-4). Weston Ranch has a chance to make a statement in the first week of league, as it starts with Sonora (7-3) at home before squaring off with the Buffaloes.

Trans-Valley League

Ripon’s boys (3-9) tangles with Downey (5-6) for a nonleague game tonight before encountering rival Escalon (9-6) on the road on Friday. The Lady Indians (9-3) play Escalon (6-8) Thursday.

Favored, to win league as always, is Modesto Christian. Both of its boys and girls teams are undefeated  in the TVL since joining in 2006-07.

The boys’ streak was often threatened in league last year, but they are stocked with impressive talent that includes Manteca Unified transfers Zerrion Payton (Weston Ranch) and Tyras Rattler (East Union). The Crusaders also added 6-4 McNair transfer T.J. Wallace, who, along with returning MC standout Raymond Bowles, is on his way to Pacific. Riverbank (9-1), with third-year junior guard Rolaun Dunham, appears to be the best of the rest.

The TVL girls race figures to be more competitive with Ripon, Riverbank (9-3), Hilmar (12-1) and Hughson (7-6) all improved with veteran players leading the way.

Southern League

Ripon Christian’s defending championship squads begin league play against Le Grand.

The Lady Knights (6-4), coming off three straight wins en route to claiming their own tournament title, visit Le Grand (1-6) Thursday. Turlock Christian (10-3), the team they shared the SL title with last year, is probably their only threat. The Eagles won’t play RC until Jan. 14. Halie Bergmann, the SL’s top player averaging 27 points, returns for her senior year at Turlock Christian and has signed to play for Pacific.

The Ripon Christian boys (8-3) are heavy favorites to earn a third consecutive title after going 28-0 in their first two seasons back in the SL. They host Le Grand on Friday.