The Manteca High boys basketball has been pitted against one of the hottest teams in Northern California, but Foothill remains a secondary concern at this point.
For the last week, head coach Brett Lewis has been worried more about the health of his two stars — center Anand Hundal and guard Tydus Verhoeven — than who his Buffaloes would face in the Division III regional.
Hundal suffered a deep bruise to the shin and calf on his right during a victory over Rio Americano in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III tournament and was largely a non-factor in a semifinal loss to a smaller, scrappier Weston Ranch bunch.
The 6-foot, 8-inch junior had just nine points and failed to jump for the opening tip, a discouraging sign for a team looking to reach its first section final in 28 years. He finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, but later revealed he was hurt worse than he was letting on.
“He was nowhere near 100 percent,” said Lewis, who gave his big man four of the last five days off. “… He says he’s feeling better. It’s such a big question mark for us. If he’s back to his normal state, I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Verhoeven has been slowed in recent games by bronchitis, a nasty flu strain that has impacted several of the area’s athletic programs.
The most versatile player on the Buffaloes’ roster, the smooth 6-foot-7 Verhoeven labored through the second half of last week’s loss at Cosumnes River College and finished with just four points, well below his season average.
“It didn’t lose us the game,” Lewis of the untimely injuries. “It was a big piece of what we do for sure, but as a team we didn’t play the way we wanted to play; we didn’t compete the way we wanted to compete.”
No. 4 Foothill of Palo Cedro (21-9) won’t show the 13th-seeded Buffaloes any mercy.
The Cougars have won 14 consecutive games by an average margin of victory of 15.6 points. The Eastern League co-champs won the North Section Division III title with a 42-38 victory over Shasta, an Eastern League opponent.
Lewis knows that Foothill will be a tough opponent — a challenge, he says, made even greater by the lengthy drive ahead of the Buffaloes.
“After looking at the matchup and talking to a few coaches, I honestly believe I’m more concerned about the trip and where we’re going to be (mentally) when we get there,” Lewis said. “It’s going to be a solid three-hour trip, at the least. That’s the big question.”
The Cougars aren’t a complete mystery to Lewis and his staff.
Foothill topped Central Catholic by 12 at the Jamie Angley Hornet Classic at Enterprise High earlier in the season and head coach Mike Wilson has shared film and a scouting report with the Buffaloes staff.
The Cougars’ state title hopes run through two seniors: point guard Jace Fry and post Beau Hamilton.
Fry leads Foothill in scoring at 17.3 points per game and can stretch a defense with his long-range shooting. He’s attempting about seven 3-pointers per game and connecting on nearly half.
Hamilton is averaging 14.9 points and team-best 5.8 rebounds, and Lewis says he prefers to play 5- to 7-feet away from the rim. He can also step out and hit the 3.
As a team, Foothill is attempting 18 3-pointers. In that respect, Lewis believes Wednesday’s opponents will be a lot like his team’s first three playoff match-ups: Lincoln of Lincoln, Rio Americano and Weston Ranch.
“The first three teams we’ve played shoot the 3-ball a ton, so hopefully our guys are learning and picking stuff up,” Lewis said. “We feel that’s been to our advantage, playing teams that shoot it a lot and try to spread you out.”
The chief concern remains in camp, where the Buffaloes are working through the disappointment of last week’s loss to Weston Ranch and monitoring closely the health of Hundal and Verhoeven.
“We’re just trying to preach to our guys that we didn’t play how we wanted to play. Weston Ranch wanted it more. We have to use that as momentum in our practices,” Lewis said. “… We have to learn how to push each other more. We have to hold each other accountable. We hope the guys realize that we’re not done. We think we can make some noise with this match-up.
“They’re the No. 4 seed for a reason,” he later added. “They’re section champions for a reason. But we don’t feel like we’re out of this one at all.”