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Big games this week for areas contenders
Head coach Jim Agostini and the rest of the East Union High girls basketball team are looking forward to a big game against rival Manteca this Thursday, but they aren’t looking past an always-tough Sonora team tonight. - photo by HIME ROMERO
The contenders will separate themselves from the pretenders this week in the Valley Oak, Trans Valley and Southern leagues.

Tonight tips off the biggest stretch of the prep basketball season so far, with boys and girls squads from Manteca Unified and the two Ripon schools involved in intensifying title and postseason races.

Perhaps the most anticipated confrontations are East Union-Manteca girls and Sierra-Weston Ranch boys.

On Thursday, the Manteca High girls team (4-0, 13-12 overall) will head to East Union (4-0, 12-3) for a rematch of last year’s dramatic finale of the VOL season. Manteca stunned the Lancers 41-38 to guarantee itself a spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs after they split their first two games of year.

Both teams are loaded with talented guards and love to play transition ball, but don’t be surprised if a low-scoring chess match breaks out in this traditionally hard-nosed, physical showdown.

East Union is after its fifth straight championship and sixth in seven years, and the three league teams that have given it the most trouble in recent years are Sonora, Manteca and Weston Ranch — incidentally the Lancers’ next three opponents. Before EU can think about getting even with Manteca, it must head to Sonora (2-2, 7-8) for an always-tough road game tonight.

There is also a little history involved in Friday’s Sierra-Weston Ranch battle for VOL boys supremacy in Stockton.

Last season, Weston Ranch (4-0, 13-2) swept Sierra (4-0, 13-3) in two hotly-contested affairs decided by a combined four points. They were each 11-5 and finished in a second-place tie, but it was Sierra that advanced to the postseason because it had a better non-league record.

Weston Ranch competed in its first varsity campaign in 2005, and it has developed a fun rivalry with Sierra since — the Cougars hold a 7-5 series lead. This Friday’s game will be similar to most of the ones played in years past, pitting Weston Ranch’s advantages is overall height, speed and athleticism against Sierra’s edge in discipline, defense precision.

East Union and Manteca’s boys teams have big matchups Wednesday before they meet Friday at Winter Gym.

Sonora (2-2, 7-8) visits East Union (3-1, 9-6) as both try to keep pace with the league’s two remaining undefeated teams, while Manteca (2-2, 5-10) hosts Oakdale (1-3, 10-7) with both facing must-win situations.

After taking on Sierra, Lathrop’s boys and girls teams square off with Kimball later in the week. Lathrop and senior-less Kimball are the two newest members of the VOL, and their varsity teams are all currently 0-4.

In the TVL, Ripon High’s boys and girls teams will each give it their best shot against the conference’s four-time defending champions tonight. The boys (3-0, 10-7) travel to Salida to tangle with Modesto Christian (3-0, 12-3), while the girls (3-0, 13-3) host the Lady Crusaders (9-7).

Ripon Christian can make a big statement this week in the Southern League after spending three decades in the TVL.

The Lady Knights (4-0, 11-3) take on visiting Turlock Christian (4-0, 9-8) tonight in what will be a rematch of an SJS Division IV playoffs semifinal contest of a year ago. Turlock Christian, the 2010 SL champion, defeated RC, 55-45.

Ripon Christian’s boys contingent has already established itself as the SL’s top dog, standing as the conference’s only 4-0 team.

Next for the Knights is Turlock Christian and Delhi on Friday, which are 1-7 combined in league so far,  but their week is capped by a meaningful non-league grudge match with a familiar adversary.

Neighboring Ripon will visit Saturday with both bragging rights and playoff positioning on the line. Ripon Christian has won the last four, but both teams are significantly different than their predecessors.