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Cougars set bar high while others rebuild
Then-sophomore Zerrion Payton of Weston Ranch and Guillermo Nunez of Sierra go head-to-head in a Valley Oak League finale back on Feb. 18. - photo by HIME ROMERO

With experience, size, speed, talent and depth, the 2011-12 Weston Ranch boys basketball team has the goods to make a run at its first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship.

And with a beefed-up nonleague schedule the Cougars aim to gain wider acclaim along with valuable experience along the way.

In Manteca, Sierra appears to again be the chief foil for Weston Ranch, the reigning Valley Oak League titlist. The Manteca Unified rivals have engaged in some of the best and most intense league contests in recent years.

Manteca High, meanwhile, gets a lot smaller with the graduation loss of 6-foot-5 center E.J. Godfrey. East Union has taken the biggest hits, both to graduation and to key players opting to concentrate on other sports. Lathrop High’s third-year varsity team looks to make strides under a veteran head coach who built a winner at another district school.

Weston Ranch went 26-4 last season with three sophomores and a junior in the starting five. The fifth starter was senior Melvin Allen, the 2010-11 MVP of the VOL.

Dylan Alexander, a 6-4 junior guard who is garnering interest from NCAA mid-majors, is coming off a breakout campaign in which he averaged 16.6 points and six rebounds.

Daiveon Leverett and Zerrion Payton rounded out last year’s sophomore trio. Leverett (9.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) is a 6-7 center who possesses the length and athleticism to give VOL team problems. The speedy Payton (11.7 points) is electric in the open floor and a terrific finisher around the basket despite his slender 6-foot frame. Senior guard Andre Beard (13.1 points, 9.0 rebounds) is also strong going to the hoop at 6-4 and is the team’s best rebounder.

Senior guard Will Cavil returns to Weston Ranch after playing for Skyline in Oakdale last season. He was previously on the Ranch’s lower level squads. Justin Lassiter is another key transfer, a 6-3 junior power forward who was a part of parochial power Modesto Christian’s undefeated sophomore team a year ago.

Cougars head coach Ryan Bono built a grueling nonleague schedule for his team, which he hopes helps in the long run. They faced off with Berkeley High at the NorCal Tip-Off showcase Saturday at Newark Memorial in the Bay Area. On Dec. 3 they will take on Vallejo in the High Intesity Shootout at Alameda College, and in the final week of the month Weston Ranch will see some of the best of California in the prestigious Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic. And on Feb. 4 will be an anticipated rematch with Modesto Christian, which the Cougars beat 89-84 in their action-packed 2011 meeting.

Sierra (20-8) earned runner-up finishes in the VOL four straight years since capturing the outright title in 2007.

The Timberwolves will be anchored by the returning inside-outside combination of 6-5 center Will Ward (14 points, nine rebounds, 1.3 blocks) and Guillermo Nunez (13.6 points, 3.6 assists).

Ward enters his third varsity season, while Nunez proved to be worthy early in his sophomore season when he earned MVP honors in the Columbia Tournament. Junior Justin Patton adds length and athleticism to a team that lost three starters to graduation. Both of Sierra’s lower level squads are back-to-back league champions.

Manteca (8-17) had its string of two straight VOL title runs snapped last season and is rebuilding around three promising sophomores: 6-2 forwards Austin Haro and Stephen Ruble and 6-1 guard Nick Obazuaye.

Third-year starter Taylor Hasal and the athletic Ben Odell are the veterans of Manteca’s deep backcourt that also includes senior Tim Baker, a standout on the freshman and sophomore teams. With 6-5 junior Nick Burrows as its only true big man, Manteca will rely on team speed to compete.

East Union (15-11) is without its top three scorers from last year’s postseason qualifying team. All-league selections TeeJay Gordon and Robert Vaughn graduated, and third-year junior Jordan Kron — who led the Lancers in scoring as a freshman — will focus his talents on baseball. Zac Carrillo and 6-4 forward Joseph Daigle are two seniors not returning, and talented sophomore Tyras Rattler is now at Modesto Christian.

The change of personnel has turned East Union from a run-and-gun type team to one taking on a more defensive-minded philosophy.

Five key seniors back who previously won championships at the freshman and sophomore levels at East Union are back. Energetic guards Wayne Cheung and T.J. Williams can play uptempo, though Cheung is still recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear.

Evan Lewis has been a big surprise, as he takes over at point guard. Look for sharpshooting Brandon Cline to be among the area leaders in 3-point shooting, while 6-4 Alex Del Real is moving from the post to the wing.

Notable newcomers include 6-5 sophomore Jake Danhoff and guard Justin Nieto, who will has a shot to make an immediate impact while Cheung is sidelined.

Lathrop (2-23) has a new coach after incumbent J.J. Ramirez accepted his new role as Dean of Athletics at East Union. Lathrop athletic director Bill Slikker, who coached the Spartans’ sophomore team last year, has taken the reins. Slikker previously led a new Weston Ranch program to two VOL titles (2006, 08) and an SJS Division-3 playoff final in 2007 in his four varsity seasons there.

Fledgling Lathrop, now in its third varsity season, fields an experienced team of hungry veteran players, 10 of whom are seniors. Ricky Chavez and Robert Orantes are the Spartans’ top guards with wiry 6-3 Darius O’Connor leading the frontcourt. Akinola Ojoulupe, a 6-6 senior, could see ample time to match up with some of the league’s top post players.

Senior newcomer Joseph Sausau brings a winning experience having played for Modesto Christian. The 6-2 guard gives Lathrop another weapon in the wing along with 6-foot forward Andrew Kovanis.