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VOL: A duel between Sierra, WR?
Sierra High will lean heavily on senior big man Will Ward if they are going to close out the season as the Valley Oak League champions. - photo by Bulletin file photo

When the Valley Oak League boys basketball season gets underway tonight, the league will break down into two groups. In one group six teams, East Union, Manteca, Lathrop, Kimball and Oakdale will vie to separate themselves from one another. And in the other group will be Sierra and Weston Ranch.

Both Sierra and Weston Ranch are poised to make a tooth-and-nail run for the VOL title, laying the foundation for another heated dual-game sequence between the two clubs. The remaining cluster of VOL teams will find the task of beating either of the two programs daunting.

The Cougars feature four returning starters from their league championship team from a season ago, led by multi-dimensional scorer Dylan Fernandez. Sierra also boasts a nucleus of returners led by post-presence Will Ward. Ward returns for his third season at the varsity level, and will be a key component to Sierra’s expected success.

The two clubs will complete five league games before their Jan. 20 showdown, with Weston Ranch opening with Oakdale and Manteca in the first week and Sierra traveling to Sonora and hosting East Union.

No one club of the six has separated itself from the middle-tier of the VOL. Both East Union and Lathrop have been able to post impressive preseason wins, but the balance of the league will be decided by what these clubs do against each other.

Lathrop was able to edge out Manteca during their Tracy/West Holiday Classic meeting as well as post a nine-point win over Kimball in the same tourney.

Trans Valley League

The dominance of Modesto Christian in recent years likely won’t be on display this season, but the Crusaders will have more than enough to get through the TVL schedule with their seventh consecutive league title.

The under layers of the TVL are not as easy to foresee.

Ripon finished the TVL campaign 9-3 a season ago and look to be a more balanced ball club on the offensive end around post-presence Jake McCreath. The Indians have one game on the non-league schedule to complete; with a win their mark of 6-7 is more than respectable with the schedule in place.

Riverbank High, the top-TVL challenger outside of Modesto Christian, does share a common opponent with the Indians with a road victory the Bruins earned over the Valley Oak League’s East Union. Ripon also made a trip to Manteca to take on EU, but they were unable to land the win, falling to the Lancers in overtime by three points.

The difference in the two games can be narrowed down to the crunch-time performance from Riverbank sophomore Rolaun Dunham. Dunham’s relentless play on the offensive and defensive glass, coupled with a quality supporting cast led to the win and to the Bruins still being undefeated. A 9-6 Hilmar team will be the Indians’ first test.

Southern League

With a perfect 14-0 run through the Southern League in its debut season, putting together a more impressive defense of its first league title should not be a challenge for the Ripon Christian Knights.

The Knights come into the SL schedule with an 8-4 mark, earning their own tournament championship along the way to finishing out a solid nonleague schedule.

Only one other club in the Southern League closed out the preseason schedule with a record above .500 (Delhi 8-5), revealing the likeliness of a deep and talented group of Ripon Christian players making it back-to-back league titles.