Salesian-Richmond Is A Team Built For The CIF Open Division — And Has The Look Of One That Could Win It •
Story by MIKE WOOD | Photos by SAMUEL STRINGER
In watching the Salesian High-Richmond boys basketball team, the magic is very evident right now.
The Pride (17-1) is doing the right things to beat other good teams, and that was the case on Jan. 15 in a 76-62 win over Modesto Christian in the finale of the MLK Classic at Saint Mary’s College.
It certainly was all right that night for senior guard James Akinjo, who scored 35 points — the most of any player that day in the showcase that featured many of the state’s top teams.
And right at the top is the Pride, at No. 1 in SportStars’ Northern California rankings. The Crusaders (13-3) came into the game No. 3 in NorCal. Many viewed this matchup as a slice of what CIF NorCal Open Division playoff life will be like.
“This is a big win; Open Division playoff implications,” Akinjo said. “They are a really good team and they are going to be in the Open Division. So we want to set ourselves up for the best seed in the Open Division playoffs.”
Early on, Salesian seemed on the way to a potential blowout win, up 15-4 after a 13-0 run punctuated by a flurry of Modesto Christian turnovers. Then Crusaders coach Brice Fantazia called what had to be termed a good timeout. From there, Modesto Christian got its game on and earned a 22-19 lead early in the second quarter.
“When they were down and called that timeout when it was 15-4, they picked up the intensity and we couldn’t match it,” Salesian coach Bill Mellis said. “And then at least in the fourth quarter we were kind of able to re-establish ourselves and pulled away. A 14-point game, but I don’t think it was really a 14-point game. It was a lot closer than that.”
It was close at halftime, with Salesian up 31-28, and the Pride maintained a slim margin through most of the third quarter. But that quarter finished with a 3-pointer by Shane Bell as the clock ran out, pushing a six-point lead to nine. It was the second time Salesian beat the buzzer with a score — the half ended on a JoVon McClanahan scoop layup.
“Those were big plays,” Mellis said. “When you play a team like this, it often comes down to little things like that. And whether it’s an extra rebound or two, or maybe an extra shot you make at the buzzer, it often comes down to stuff like that. Those are the types of things, you add them together, and you get out to a double-digit lead.”
The Pride has been showing this may be the year to fully realize its potential. Salesian — owners of seven North Coast Section championships, mainly in Division IV — has landed in the CIF NorCal Open Division the previous two seasons, exiting with narrow losses to De La Salle-Concord each time.
But this season, Salesian has piled up impressive wins — James Logan-Union City, Capital Christian-Sacramento, Sacramento High, St. Mary’s-Stockton and now Modesto Christian. Its lone loss was 69-63 in the Tarkanian Classic to Bishop Gorman-Las Vegas, ranked 39th nationally and No. 1 in Nevada by MaxPreps.
With its core of Akinjo and the junior combo of twins Jaden and JoVon McClanahan now in their third year playing together, the Pride by all indications is poised for bigger things. Mellis noticed that early on.
“I think that happened a little early,” he said. “The chemistry is really good this year and I think things came together really early, earlier than usual. It really came together in Gridley. We won the Gridley Tournament and played really well. Hopefully, it’s not too early.”
So what’s different this year?
“Our defense and our focus.” Akinjo said. “Every year, coach (Mellis) does a great job of getting us focused, but especially this year. This team, we’re really mature. All the credit to my team.”
That maturity has led to a calm confidence. Said Akinjo: “We know how good we are. So there is not a team that can come out and rattle us. We are always this calm.”
Often it’s the opponent that’s rattled, such as when Modesto Christian was plagued by those early turnovers.
“It’s the little things that win games,” said Akinjo, who also had six assists. “Everyone focuses on scoring and stuff like that. But it’s the little things like rebounding, playing good defense, stopping their best player. Those are the things that win games.”
In that critical fourth quarter, the Pride held Crusaders guard Junior Ballard scoreless. Ballard, playing in just his fifth game with Modesto Christian after transferring from Lathrop, had scored 34 against Clovis North-Fresno. He finished with 13 against the Pride.
“The reality is, we could face them again in March, there’s no doubt,” Mellis said. “And that’s the important game. Who knows how the seeds will fall? Win or lose, the good thing about this event is you get better. And when you play Modesto, you get better, win or lose.”
Getting better will help during the stretch run into postseason. The Pride left McKeon Pavilion to get ready for Tri-County Athletic League Rock Division games against El Cerrito and St. Patrick-St. Vincent-Vallejo, the defending Division IV state champion.
As Ballard gets more acclimated to his new surroundings, any potential Modesto Christian rematch with Salesian might unfold differently.
“We have to be playing better basketball in March, and they’ll be playing better basketball in March, for sure,” Mellis said.