Modesto Christian’s Deep, Versatile Bench Could Be The Crusader’s Best Weapon As CIF Basketball Open Division Tips-Off
As the postseason gets longer, the bench typically gets shorter. But the Modesto Christian boys’ basketball team still relies on the depth of its roster as the teams left with a shot at the state’s most prestigious title has narrowed to just eight programs.
“We are the most versatile team in Northern California,” Crusaders’ head coach Brice Fantazia said after his team claimed the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title thanks to a complete team effort and a wild game-winning shot.
“Do we have flaws? Yes, but our versatility covers up those flaws sometimes.”
In the post game interview room, the champions were as versatile with their emotions as they were with their talent on the floor in edging Sheldon-Sacramento 60-56 for the section title.
Modesto Christian ranged from giddy to shocked to humble to focused.
“Before the game, my assistants said that this would be like a heavyweight fight,” Fantazia recalled.
“We knew that we just had to stick to the game plan and hope our players make more plays than they do.”
At the end of a see-saw battle that saw neither team lead by more than six points after the early moments of the game. The Crusaders were able to make one more play than the Huskies.
Miraculous 35-foot Clock-Beating Shot
Also, it was a miraculous 35-foot clock-beating shot that seemed to hang in the air for a good five seconds before it hit nothing but twine to deliver a wild win for Modesto Christian and another heartbreaking finals defeat for Sheldon.
With 31.8 seconds left in the game and the Crusaders trailing 56-55, they in bounded the ball and struggled to find a path to the basket as the shot clock wound down.
Senior guard Junior Ballard found himself with the ball closer to mid-court than the hoop when teammate Michael Pearson (pictured at top of the story) saw the shot clock and yelled at his teammate to take a shot.
“It was just instinct,” Ballard said of his high-arching game-winner. “I didn’t know that the shot clock was running out. Mike told me to shoot, so I just put it up.”
Tyler Williams, who hit buzzer-beaters at the end of the second and third quarters, made two free throws with 1.1 seconds left for the final margin of victory.
“This bracket is ridiculous,” Fantasia said. “Our bracket is basically an open division. Winning Division I is just so much more special than any other title.”
Modesto Christian has won a record 19 Sac-Joaquin Section boy’s basketball championships, including two Div. I titles.
The small private school’s reputation and pedigree has risen to new heights since the advent of the CIF Open Division in 2013. The Crusaders own a 6-4 record in Open Division play and have appeared in two NorCal Open Division finals.
Modesto Christian (28-3) begins this year’s CIF Northern Regionals Open tournament as the the No. 3 seed.
In addition, they will host Bellarmine-San Jose (24-3) to start their fifth run at a NorCal and State Open Division Championship in six years of the format designed to pit the best of the best teams regardless of school size.
In fact, school size has long been secondary to the Crusaders, who have embraced the role of the small school competing with the “big boys.”
Whether it was under the direction of longtime head coach Gary Porter or Richard Midgley, who guided Modesto Christian to its first five Open Division regional appearances.
Additional, the team has been more about the whole than its parts. The Crusaders have had star players, but the sum of its parts always outweighed the individual players.
This season, Fantazia’s young group is all-in on the team concept and stepping up when called upon.
Five Crusaders averaged double figures in scoring this season, led by Ballard’s 16.9 points per game. Senior Tyler Williams averaged 12.1 points per game, plus juniors Dathan Satchell (13.3 ppg) and Aaron Murphy (11.4 ppg), and sophomore Michael Pearson (12.2 ppg) provided balanced scoring.
Senior forward Gabe Murphy provides an inside presence and leadership as a “glue guy” for Modesto Christian.
The Crusaders fell behind early in the SJS final. But, Fantazia quickly altered his lineup to search for the combination he needed to keep up with Sheldon.
By the time the game was over, nine players saw the floor and all of them scored and contributed in their own way to the victory.
“If something is not working, we can switch it up right away,” Fantazia said of his team’s versatility.
“We can go big or go small. We have a lot of guys that can guard different positions, and it makes my job easy.”
The CIF State Open Division field will be far from easy.
But, Modesto Christian’s deep and talented roster will have a good shot at extending the season without shortening its bench.
“All season long, our guys have stepped up,” Fantazia said. “It’s every coach’s dream to have a team like this.”
Countdown to Showdown
Before the season even started, people have been anticipating a clash of nationally-ranked powers in the CIF Northern California Open Division girls final.
And, after the section championship concluded, the potential matchup of MaxPreps’ national No. 1 Archbishop Mitty-San Jose and No. 5 St. Mary’s-Stockton still looms large and is whetting the appetites of basketball junkies in NorCal.
St. Mary’s did its part to keep the dream as well as their SJS championship streak alive with a convincing 71-48 win over Folsom.
But, the Rams’ 11th consecutive SJS title appeared to be in jeopardy early on as the Bulldogs beat St. Mary’s vaunted press and led 23-13 in the second quarter.
Also, the deficit was a surprise to many in attendance, but Rams’ head coach Tom Gonsalves was not among them.
“It started out rough,” he said, “but we knew before the game that it was not going to be easy. We knew that we had to be prepared to battle.”
St. Mary’s got out of its press, clamped down on defense, and let its own talent shine on the court as expected. Senior captains Ariel Johnson, Aquira Decosta and Neenah Young took over the game and sparked a 25-4 run that spanned the second and third quarters.
They cruised to victory from there, leaving no doubt about who should be the biggest threat to Mitty’s undefeated season.
“We played to our strengths,” Gonsalves said of his team turning the game around.
“They could not match up with (Johnson’s) speed, so we were going to run a lot of isolations for her, and she did an outstanding job doing what we asked her to do.”
Johnson finished with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting and dished out three assists. The Baylor-bound Decosta recovered from early foul trouble and connected on 8-of-11 field goals to score 22 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds.
Young found her range, connecting on 3-of-5 three-pointers, and finished with 13 points. The Rams shot 50 percent from the field, including 6-for-12 from long distance, as a team.
Despite the resounding win over the section’s No. 2 seed and the NorCal Open Division’s No. 4 seed, Gonsalves and the Rams are not looking ahead to a showdown with Mitty.
“It’s all tough competition,” Gonsalves said of the Open Division before the seedings were announced. “We know that we have a war in the first round, even though we will be the No. 2 seed. We will have the 7 seed, but No. 7 will be real good.”
That No. 7 turned out to be Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa (27-5), a team whose resume includes competitive losses to perennial state power La Jolla Country Day and NorCal Open Division-qualifiers Pinewood-Los Altos Hills and Salesian-Richmond.
Well , if the Rams can get past the Cardinals, a well-rested No. 3 seed Pinewood would await.
In addition, the Panthers advanced to the semifinals of the NorCal Open Division after Carondelet-Concord forfeited its game due to a violation of team rules at a postgame party that followed Carondelet’s North Coast Section championship win.
Pinewood upset St. Mary’s in the 2016 regional Open Division semifinals, so Gonsalves and many of his players understand that the road to a state berth is treacherous.
Whether or not the Rams can navigate that road, which could include the long-awaited showdown of NorCal powers, remains to be seen.
Lastly, St. Mary’s has the experience of being in the Open Division every year since it was formed in 2013, and now it has the experience of overcoming a slow start against a top team to build from as well.
BOYS OPEN DIVISION
First Round – Friday, March 9 (all games start at 7 PM)
No. 8 Folsom (25-5) at No. 1 Salesian-Richmond (30-1)
No. 7 Capital Christian-Sacramento (22-8) at No. 2 Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland (25-5)
No. 6 Bellarmine-San Jose (24-3) at No. 3 Modesto Christian (28-3)
No. 5 San Joaquin Memorial-Fresno (25-6) at No. 4 Sheldon-Sacramento (26-5)
GIRLS OPEN DIVISION
First Round – Friday, March 9 (all games start at 7 PM)
No. 8 Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland (19-10) at No. 1 Archbishop Mitty-San Jose (27-0)
No. 7 Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa (27-5) at No. 2 St. Mary’s-Stockton (26-2)
No. 3 Pinewood-Los Altos Hills (25-2) BYE
No. 5 Salesian-Richmond (26-5) at No. 4 Folsom (27-4)
Story By JIM MCCUE | Photos By JAMES K. LEASH