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VOL rivals on opposite sides of D-III semifinals tonight
SHS WRHS7-1-26-13
Guillermo Nunez looks to lead Sierra to another semifinal victory in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs tonight at Cosumnes River College. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Sierra is hoping for history to repeat itself.

Weston Ranch is not.

Both are competing in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals tonight at Cosumnes River College, but the Valley Oak League co-champions will have to win to get another crack at each other.

Fourth-seeded Weston Ranch (26-3) makes its second final-four appearance in three years and faces a familiar foe in Modesto Christian (21-8) starting at 5:30. Later, No. 2 Sierra (25-4) squares off with the imposing Stuteville brothers and No. 3 Casa Roble (23-6) at around 9. Sierra looks to make a return trip to Sleep Train Arena, the site of the SJS championship-round contests.

Two years ago, Dylan Alexander and Daiveon Leverett were sophomores on the Weston Ranch squad that came up short in a 74-67 semifinal loss to eventual champion Sacramento. While not the star-studded cast that it was then, Weston Ranch is playing at a higher level, said first-year head coach Chris Teevan.

“The experience matters, and I would like to think Dylan and Daiveon have grown up since the time they were sophomores,” Teevan said. “Hopefully at some point (tonight) that experience pays off.

“Modesto Christian has scholarship guys on their team. This is a chance for (Eric) Duncan, Daiveon and Dylan to show they belong at the same level.”

Teevan also thinks his Cougars are a different team that dropped a 70-59 nonleague decision to Modesto Christian on Feb. 2. Leverett was hobbled with a knee injury, and Teevan insisted that his players treat it “like open gym.”

“I just wanted to see the talent discrepancy,” he said. “We’re a lot closer than I thought we would be. We have a chance to prepare a little more for it and we’ll see what happens.”

They have since won five straight, including impressive double-digit wins over Sierra (67-50), Kimball (73-43) and two postseason opponents No. 13 River Valley (70-43) and No. 12 Rio Americano (83-61).

“We got rid of a lot of selfishness on our team,” Teevan said. “No one cares about minutes right now. No one cares about points and who shoots however many shots. After that Sierra loss (73-86 on Jan. 25), we cleansed ourselves of that cancer. There’s a lot of trust within our team right now.

“Modesto Christian is bigger, faster, stronger. They have better shooters and better rebounders. We feel like we have toughness and trust going for us, so we’ve got to hang our hat on that.”

There are several interesting sub-plots with this matchup of talented teams. Modesto Christian, sporting a 63-12 postseason record, is the powerhouse private school that is supposed to roll to its 15th section championship in 17 years. Weston Ranch is a ninth-year public school looking to play in its second section final (2007).

The game reunites former McNair High (Stockton) teammates Duncan and T.J. Wallace, MC’s smooth 6-foot-4 wing who is on his way to Pacific along with fellow Crusader Raymond Bowles.

Alexander and Leverett, meanwhile, will greet former Cougar Zerrion Payton, who transferred in the middle of last season. Other MC players to note are Manteca resident Tyras Rattler, Ripon resident Sam Onochie and budding freshman star Christian Ellis.

“The guys are pretty motivated — they just want to win,” Teevan said. “Whoever we’re playing at this point, at this point if you’re not motivated something is wrong with you. We’re playing our best basketball this year. I don’t think too many people are giving us much of a chance to win this game, but I think we have the pieces to do it.”

Sierra isn’t the underdog in its fight, but the Timberwolves are facing a tall task in the form of Casa Roble’s 6-foot-10 center Eric Stuteville and 6-9 wing Mason Stuteville. Eric, a senior bound for Sac State, poured in 25 points as the Rams climbed back from a 31-21 halftime deficit to upend No. 6 Patterson 53-47 in the quarterfinals.

Casa Roble has a third scoring option in 5-9 guard Jess Baucum, who burned East Union for four first-quarter 3-pointers and 24 points in an 80-60 opening-round win.

“We’re very familiar with them,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said. “We got some game film on them and watched both of their playoff games. They’re good. If you’re at this stage, you have to be pretty good, right?”

Casa Roble’s size obviously gives Sierra matchup problems in the post. The Timberwolves’ tallest player is 6-6 center Josh Patton, a sophomore called up from the lower levels for the team’s postseason run.

Sierra has faced an imposing frontline before in Central Catholic. Anchored by NCAA Division-I prospect and 6-9 center John Fenton, 6-5 forward Jonathan Boddie, 6-6 forward Jake Bland and 6-5 guard Joe Hamilton, the Raiders lost 56-47 in the Columbia Tournament final.

Thomason expects Casa Roble to sit in a 2-3 zone to take advantage of its size inside, daring Sierra star Guillermo Nunez, Eric Melgar, Emmanuel Elijah and others to hit shots from the outside.

“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” Thomason said. “We feel like we have a good game plan, but when we shoot the ball well we’re a pretty good team, obviously. Our (defensive) pressure on the perimeter is also going to be key, and we have to do it for 32 minutes. We’re expecting a 12-round fight, and we’re definitely prepared for that.”

Like Weston Ranch, Sierra enters the final four with confidence. The Timberwolves have won 19 of their last 20 and are also coming off two impressive playoff victories (66-25 over No. 15 Ceres, 71-51 over No. 7 Placer).

“We have guys who played major minutes last year, but that whole process was all new to us,” Thomason said. “Now it’s kind of a different feel. We have guys who can perform under pressure situations and a big-game atmosphere. I don’t think (that experience) can hurt us, but it helps with confidence.”