After Falling Nine Points Shy Last March, An Even More Talented Modesto Christian Basketball Team Sets Sights On A CIF Open Division State Title •
PICTURED ABOVE: Modesto Christian senior guard BJ Davis. (Berry Evans III photo)
It’s a quarter past 5 o’clock on a midweek evening and Modesto Christian basketball coach Brice Fantazia has just wrapped up another practice.
His voice on the phone is a mixture of fatigue and excitement.
The Crusaders are in the midst of their third official week of practice as they prepare to take on a schedule full of state- and national-title contenders. One which begins Nov. 25 against Coronado-Henderson (Nev.) at the Bishop O’Dowd Thanksgiving Classic in Oakland.
Eight days after that, the team will be at a showcase in Sacramento and will meet state preseason No. 1 Centennial-Corona. That matchup is notable because Centennial is the defending CIF Open Division champion — a title they earned with a 59-50 win over Modesto Christian.
It’s a loss that continues to sting for the several returning stars on this year’s roster.
“It’s no secret that we want to win an Open Division state championship,” said Fantazia, now in his seventh season leading his alma mater. “It’s the only thing we haven’t done as a program.
“Reaching that moment last year, we got there and got a taste of it. Now the guys just want to get back and get that loss out of their memory. I like to remind them that my last year of high school, we won the state championship and it was like my high school career never ended. I want them to know that feeling and everything that comes with it.”
There’s no question that the talent is there to do it.
Modesto Christian returns four of its five starters from it’s NorCal Open Division championship team, including the reigning CalHiSports.com State Sophomore of the Year, Jamari Phillips, and CalHiSports All-State guard B.J. Davis.
Phillips is among NorCal’s most sought after junior recruits with offers from nearly all of the Pac-12 as well as select SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 programs. Davis is a senior who will suit up for San Diego State next season.
The two guards are just the tip of the iceberg for the talent that’s returning to the Crusaders for the ’22-’23 season. The squad also welcomes back 6-foot-10 senior center Prince Oseya, as well as 6-6 junior forward Manesse Itete.
There’s also a pair of impact players who return this season after missing all of last year rehabbing ACL injuries. That would include 6-3 senior guards Darius Smith and Henoc Kabeya. The Crusaders also had a few transfers arrive, most notably were Jalen Brown (a 6-2 guard from Alvarez-Salinas) and Kody Weary (a 6-6 senior who returns to the area after a year playing for Coronado).
Fantazia is no dummy either. He knows the challenges that come with rosters like that. With great power comes great responsibility.
“I think maybe the hardest job we’re going to have — and I shouldn’t complain about it, I know — but it’s keeping guys happy,” Fantazia said. “Every kid at Modesto Christian for basketball is there because they believe in how good they are. It’s not like a normal high school where some kids are just happy to be on the team. It will be a challenge keeping those egos in check and everyone humble. Keep that main goal in mind.’
Phillips and Davis are definitely doing their part as captains.
“Jamari Phillips — he’s a top 20 talent in the nation and everybody knows how exceptional he is. He was a young 15-year old and he didn’t know how to lead his peers. I think playing with Team USA helped him out a lot in that area.”
Phillips was invited to train with the U17 National Team during July.
Davis, one of the state’s best two-way guards, is also taking on a bigger leadership role. He and Phillips have formed an important leadership duo that’s proven very effective so far.
“Both of them have stepped up in that role,” Fantazia admitted. “They’re both learning to lead with their voices in addition to their actions.”
That comes with maturity, and Fantazia believes this group has stockpiled plenty of it.
Before he met any of his transfers or new players, Fantazia admits to worrying about depth last season.
“Last year we struggled a little bit with injuries and we weren’t real deep,” Fantazia said. “It showed up in the state final where we had guys wiped out. We had guys going 32 minutes and we broke down a bit at the end.”
Actually, in last season’s state final, the Crusaders played Centennial dead even over the last three quarters. It was just a sluggish start that cost them.
As the first games arrives at the end of November, Fantazia would like to see the team avoid its own sluggish start to the season. And that will be an early test for putting aside the aforementioned egos and tuning out the noise that comes with rankings, hype and expectations.
“Everyone thinks they have the best team in the state before the first game,” the coach said. “It’s great right now. But we’ll see on Nov. 25 when we start playing some of the best teams in the nation. We’ll see.”