Midway through the season, East Union was languishing in the middle of the pack, searching for a foothold in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoff chase.
Then it found one.
And then another.
The Lancers ripped off a remarkable run, winning eight of their last nine regular-season games, including signature victories over Manteca and Weston Ranch.
The streak allowed East Union (19-7) to leapfrog the Buffaloes in the standings and snatch the Valley Oak League’s final automatic playoff berth.
“As a staff, you like to have your team playing its best basketball at the end of the year,” East Union coach Jim Agostini said. “You want to peak at the right time. I don’t know that we’re doing anything different than any other staff, but the girls are playing good basketball right now.”
Placer (20-6) basketball fans should know this story well.
The sixth-seeded Hillmen host the No. 11 Lancers on Tuesday in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III tournament.
East Union made a similar run last season just to get into the postseason. Once there, the then-eighth-seeded Lancers outlasted No. 9 Placer and star Baylee Vanderdoes, 53-49, celebrating a first-round victory with the Red Sea at the Dalben Center.
This time, the rematch will take place in Auburn, where the Hillmen are 9-2 on their home floor.
“We’re excited that we’re in. We’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh, gosh, we got to play them again’ or anything like that,” Agostini said. “The girls are excited that they’re still playing basketball right now. That’s all we talked about in practice. We’re excited that we’re in.”
Placer won’t be an easy out.
The Hillmen rolled unscathed to a Pioneer Valley League championship with big contributions from Vanderdoes (16.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 blocks), Raquel Quirarte (12 points, 9.4 rebounds) and point guard Maddy Hernandez (10.4 points, 4.3 assists).
Vanderdoes is an athletic, 6-foot-1 forward who can score from any spot on the floor. She can overpower her opponent in the post, or step back and finesse a defense from deep.
“We call her a stretch-4,” Agostini said, “because she can go our and hit a 3 if you let her. She’s pretty athletic; pretty versatile.”
Vanderdoes and Hernandez were principle members of the Placer team that was defeated by East Union in 2014.
“You got to respect them,” Agostini said. “They’re in the tournament and they ran the table in their league. We respect them, but we’re going up there believing we can win a basketball game.”
And why not?
After starting VOL play 3-3, East Union went 7-1 to finish 10-4, one game back of runner-up Weston Ranch.
The return of Rena Dragony solidified the Lancers’ starting five. Dragony, an aggressive 6-foot-1 center, missed most of the first half of league play with a sprained ankle.
With a physical low-post presence to match up with the monsters of the Valley Oak League, Agostini could maximize his versatility on the perimeter.
Suddenly, forward Anna Wood was free to spot up near the elbows, and guards Olivia Vezaldenos and Ruby Daube had space to create.
In their VOL finale against Central Catholic, the Lancers had four players scoring double figures, including double-doubles by Dragony, Wood and Vezaldenos.
“That’s a tribute to the girls. That’s them being focused and still believing in what the staff is giving them,” Agostini said. “They’re the ones that go out there and perform the game plan. We can draw up the Xs and Os, but they have to perform it.”
The keys to success remain the same for the Lancers, who make their 15th playoff appearance in the last 16 years. They’re the same bullet-point items Agostini preached during East Union’s moments of struggle and triumph this season.
Value the basketball.
Defense, defense, defense.
“It’s the same formula we’ve always had. Shot selection early in the game is important. Putting pressure on the defense by attacking the rim and trying to get to the foul line. Playing hard-nosed defense,” he said. “ ... You just hope your team can execute that.”