Don’t look now, but the high school basketball postseason is upon us.
In 10 days, 152 of the top boys and girls teams from 26 leagues will compete in six division tournaments, each vying for a coveted Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
Close to home, we’ve been in playoff mode since the start of the boys’ Valley Oak League and Trans-Valley League seasons with “big” games seemingly at every turn of the calendar.
While Sierra has separated itself from the bunch with a seven-game win streak and area-best 22-2 mark, Manteca (10-1, 18-5), Weston Ranch (8-3, 15-9), Ripon (5-2, 14-10) and Ripon Christian (6-1, 16-5) have entrenched themselves as potential playoff teams.
To this point, the headlines have been dominated by a host of familiar names. All-Area Player of the Year candidates such as Sierra’s Joshua Patton, Weston Ranch’s Jaelen Ragsdale and Ripon Christian’s Sean Broker have done their part, delivering signature performances at crucial moments in the season.
But it’s not enough to have a star on your side, not in the postseason. The ingredients for a championship run also call for a dash of the unexpected and two cups of “take it up a notch.” Assuming the standings and positions hold, here is a list of players that could elevate their teams to new heights in the postseason by simply elevating their games.
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Jazz Swanson, Weston Ranch
The Weston Ranch senior might be the best pure long-range shooter in the area, but he’s been absent on the offensive end as of late. He had just five points against Manteca, well below his season average, and was held scoreless in a 63-56 loss to Beyer on Saturday. He was 0-for-8 from the 3-point line against the Patriots. The pillars of the Cougars’ offense are point guard Jaelen Ragsdale (48 points in the last two games) and do-it-all Fred Lavender, but you could make the argument that Swanson’s sweet stroke might be the most valuable piece to the team’s overall success. Without a big man in the middle to command attention, Weston Ranch relies on Ragsdale and Lavender drawing the defense’s attention and creating shooting spaces for Swanson. The drive-and-kick can be maddening for opposing coaches ... when the shots are dropping. If Weston Ranch is going to improve its playoff seeding or make a postseason run, Swanson needs to rediscover his early form.
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Frankie Lopez, Manteca
For now, the cries for “Let Kenny play” are nothing more than words in the wind. While Manteca awaits a verdict on the transfer case involving 6-foot-8 skywalker Kenny Wooten, coach Brett Lewis is getting a lift from another new face to the varsity team. Lopez has emerged as a spark plug off the bench for the Buffaloes, who have begun cementing roles. Lewis has his Big Three in MVP candidate Anand Hundal, super sophomore Tydus Verhoeven and shooter Marcus Montano, and though it has taken some time and experimenting, he’s begun to shape a supporting cast of high-energy guards and bullish forwards. Lopez is the most intriguing piece because of his give and take. Though the 5-foot-7 junior gives away tremendous size at the guard position, he is capable of taking the big shot, most notably the 3. Lopez ranks second on the team in 3s, and his gutsy drive late in the third quarter against Weston Ranch resulted in an and-1 opportunity and signaled a shift in momentum.
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Devin Nunez, Sierra
Head coach Scott Thomason believes Nunez is the most underrated player in the Valley Oak League, and it’s easy to see why. On a nightly basis, the senior is literally overshadowed by two towering MVP candidates, teammates Joshua Patton and Hunter Johnson. Look closely, though, and you’ll find that Nunez does a lot of the intangibles necessary in Thomason’s system. He’s a solid on-ball defender. He can play both guard positions. He can stroke the 3-ball. And he’s dangerous in transition. When the postseason begins and teams begin to double-down on Sierra’s dynamic frontcourt, don’t be surprised if Nunez steps from the shadows and into the spotlight.
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Cole Stevens, Ripon
At quick glance, it appears Stevens is having a stellar campaign. He leads the Indians in scoring (15.5), rebounds (5.9) and ranks second in assists (3.3). Below the surface, though, you find that Stevens’ sophomore season has been an absolute struggle. For reasons unbeknownst to coach Rod Wright, Stevens has been ice cold from the all points on the court, including the foul line. He’s shooting just 37 percent and 22 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Stevens’ struggles from the charity stripe have to be the most alarming. He leads Ripon in free-throw attempts (123), but he’s converting at a 50 percent clip. Even with their best player in a funk, Ripon finds itself in the thick of the TVL title chase. The Indians are one game back of Ripon Christian, which has to be sweating the loss of its glue guy, Travis Vander Molen (knee). If Stevens gets on a Stevens-like roll look for Ripon to supplant Ripon Christian atop the league standings. That moment could come as soon as Friday when Ripon travels across the street to Ripon Christian.
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Austin Alger, Ripon Christian
Ripon Christian’s TVL and section title hopes took a major, MAJOR hit when Vander Molen shredded his knee in a loss at Hughson on Jan. 29. Vander Molen was the Knight’s best all-around player and a perfect complement to point guard Danny Vander Molen and Sean Broker on the low block. His energy infused the Knights’ lineup and frustrated the opposition. Without Travis Vander Molen in the lineup, Ripon Christian will have to find a way to replace 12 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. That’s no easy task, but it appears Alger is willing to give it a go. The sharpshooting senior is averaging 8.9 points and ranks second on the team in 3s, but he’s scored in double figures in four of the last five games, including a season-high 17 against Hilmar. He’ll likely have to stay in that 11- to 17-point range the rest of the way for Ripon Christian to remain a contender. That kind of production will ease the burden on Broker (21.8 points) and Danny Vander Molen (9.3 points).