Modesto Christian has a history of SJS dominance, and it has no intention of letting that reputation slip.
While the name of the arena the Sac Joaquin Section basketball finals are held has changed, the Modesto Christian boys basketball team has been a near constant inside the building over the last decade.
The Crusaders (24-3, 12-0 Trans Valley League) have won nine section championships in 10 years. Five times in Division V and four times in Division IV, and enter the postseason this year as the No. 1DIII seed. The program’s name and status has risen steadily despite the constant flow of talent moving on to make names for themselves at the next level.
This year’s team has a mix of old and new talent with last year’s stars—Raymond Bowles and Anthony Townes—getting a boost from new talent. Transfers T.J. Wallace (from McNair) and Zerrion Payton (from Weston Ranch) have given co-coaches Gary Porter and Richard Midgley more firepower and given opponents more to try to handle.
Rooted in Tradition
At the root of the Modesto Christian’s rich tradition and success is Porter, who in his 16 full seasons as the head coach has won 14 section championships and two state titles. The local legend has been blessed with talent that includes numerous scholarship athletes, including Chuck Hayes whose post-Crusader days included playing collegiately at Kentucky and in the NBA with the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings.
But talent only gets you so far, and players old and new respect and understand Porter’s attention to detail and high expectations.
“(Co-coaches Porter and Richard Midgley) are really tough and stress the little things all the time,” Payton said. “They talk about how the little things and the details are what separate you and allow you to go far and achieve your goals.”
Last year, despite having a relatively young team, the Crusaders rebounded from the rare occurrence of failing to win a section title in 2011 and captured the Division IV championship at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento. Townes (then a freshman center) and then-junior forward Bowles led a dominating performance in the section final. But one week later, Modesto Christian suffered a tough one-point loss at home in the NorCal semifinals to Sacred Heart Prep-Atherton.
The loss was disappointing, but knowing they would lose only one player to graduation, the coaches and players began working almost immediately toward the program’s ultimate goal — a state championship.
“It was disappointing,” Midgley said of the NorCal loss, “but this group worked together the entire offseason to make sure that does not happen again.”
A Maturing Squad
The extra work and focus on avoiding another disappointing end to the season was led by Bowles, a 6-foot-5 athlete committed to the University of Pacific next year. According to Midgley, the shooting guard’s motivation to end his final high school season on a better note changed the star player.
“Ray has matured a lot,” Midgley said. “He is a completely different leader this year. You see it in the way he practices and plays every day.”
Townes is an inside force who continues to improve and add new aspects to his already impressive game. He started right away in his first year in high school, and was an impact player from start to finish, earning all-state freshman honors for his contributions to the section championship team.
If the Crusaders only luxury was the complete return of their starting lineup, they would be the section favorite regardless of a move up to Division III. But, plenty of new and established talent solidified Modesto Christian as a top pick for a 15th section title and a legitimate contender for NorCal and state championships.
The 2012-13 season marked the third season on staff for Midgley, a former Modesto Christian player and college standout at Cal,. But the campaign is his first as co-coach with Porter. As a former player under Porter and a D-I scholarship athlete, the coach commands attention and respect as someone familiar with the program’s prominence. As well, he knows what it takes to make it to the next level.
The Crusaders added a pair of new faces — at least on the court. Senior guards Wallace and Payton have seamlessly blended with the team to provide leadership. This despite being in their first season wearing Crusaders uniforms. Wallace, a 6-foot-3 transfer from McNair-Stockton, has transitioned from a scorer to a do-everything force on both ends of the floor.
“The way that T.J. is as a person and player has made the transition pretty easy,” Midgley said. “He averaged almost 28 points per game last year, but he knows he does not have to put up those numbers on this team.”
Payton enrolled at Modesto Christian midway through the season last year and missed his junior season. He has logged major minutes for the Crusaders and provided additional leadership as one of the team captains. He’s also a floor leader at point guard. Both newcomers were familiar with many of the Crusaders players and the program’s tradition, but were still affected by becoming full members of the Modesto Christian family.
“Once you walk in the gym, you see the jerseys (former players) and banners hanging and you understand,” Payton said of the tradition and expectations involved with being a Crusader.
“You are held to a higher standard,” Wallace said. “You know that you are representing the student body as well as alumni, and want to continue the tradition.”
Another new and valuable piece available to Porter and Midgley is freshman guard Christian Ellis. The first-year contributor plays beyond his years and without fear, according to Midgley.
“He is an incredibly physical player, especially for a young guy,” Midgley said. “He came in with wide opened eyes right away. And he is very confident when matched up against guys three years older than him.”
Ellis and teammate Mason Washington came off the bench to spark the Crusaders in a recent non league loss to Bay Area power Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland. The game was closer than the 71-62 score. And it may have been a preview of the potential high-powered matchups created by this year’s new Open Division. The Open Division is for regional and state playoffs. The new bracket is expected to feature NorCal powers like Sheldon-Elk Grove. Salesian-Richmond, Archbishop Mitty-San Jose, Bishop O’Dowd, and Modesto Christian.
Despite the private Christian school’s smaller size (the Crusaders only moved up to Division IV in 2008), Modesto is anxious to get a chance to match up against the best of the best at the end of the season. Porter has always played challenging schedules to keep his teams in top form for the postseason. This season was no different. The matchup with Bishop O’Dowd took place on the final weekend before the regular season ended. It provided the Crusaders with a litmus test for the playoffs.
“That game was great preparation for the playoffs,” said Wallace. “The level of play and the atmosphere was similar to what we know we will experience in the next few weeks. It will be a great opportunity to see where we stand.”
Modesto Christian Basketball, Constant Crusaders
The Crusaders led the game early, but were done in by foul trouble and poor free throw shooting. Many of Modesto Christian’s starters logged an unusually large amount of minutes on the bench in a tightly-officiated contest. When the Crusaders got to the foul line, though, they missed more shots than they made.
“We have been real streaky at the free throw line as a team,” Payton said. “You don’t have to shoot well from the free throw line in all of the games. But you have to win big games.”
Payton and the rest of the Crusaders understand that fundamentals and attention to detail. Staples of Modesto Christian play during Porter’s tenure — will be necessary in the big games expected in the postseason.
“We know we are a high caliber team, and we have expectations of bigger things like winning state,” Wallace said. “Doing all of the little things will be key, but if we are peaking, we know that we can be scary.”
Jim McCue is a senior contributor to SportStars. He lives in Folsom with his wife and three kids, focusing his reporting on the Sac-Joaquin Section.