It’s been a while since the Merced boys basketball team played in a meaningful Central California Conference game.
The Bears last vied for a playoff spot in the 2009-10 season, when they capped a run of four consecutive conference titles with a semifinal trip to Sleep Train Arena.
The victories have been a little tougher to come by since then. The Bears have only reached 10 wins once in the past three years and haven’t finished higher than fifth in the conference.
Head coach Hector Nava hopes all that changes this year. Merced is off to a 14-5 start and is 2-0 in the CCC heading into Wednesday night’s showdown with Turlock (13-5, 2-0). It’s still early in conference play, but first place will be up for grabs and that means a lot to a group of seniors that battled through the lean years.
“This is pretty much the biggest high school basketball game us seniors have played in,” Jonathan Chairez said. “Coach Nava keeps telling us how tough a game it’s going to be. It’s going to be a battle.
“After finishing fifth the last few years, we’re happy to have a shot at first place. But there’s a lot of season left. We’ve started well, but we need to keep pushing.”
Nava’s had no shortage of athletes during his three-year tenure, but he hasn’t had an abundance of natural basketball players. That’s one of the major differences this season.
Leading scorer Travante Richard is in his third year on the varsity. Chairez and Calvin Garcia joined the fold last season. The additions of guards Ulonzo Gilliam and A.J. Stewart this year have helped bring the Bears back into relevance.
“I think that’s where being around some of the good coaches I have in the past has helped me,” Nava said. “I knew coming in that the building of a program doesn’t happen right away. There was going to be some tough times and you just need to be patient and put in the work everyday.
“I think both the kids and I are enjoying some success coming from that hard work.”
The Bears have a real chance to shake up the CCC landscape when they travel to Turlock.
The Bulldogs are led by the three-headed monster of guards Devan Bains (11.4 points per game, 3 assists per game), Demsen McFaddin (10.6 ppg) and center Kenny Fraser (17.3 ppg, 9 rebounds per game).
Fraser’s size will present a challenge to Richard and forward Jermon Cook on the interior.
“The key for us is going to be everyone understanding their strengths, both individually and as a team, and playing to those strengths,” Nava said.
“We know it’s going to be physical. We know it’s going to be a hostile environment and we have to come mentally prepared to play.
“It’s still early. There’s a lot of games left to play, but the opportunity to be 3-0 with just seven games to play and only the top three teams going to the playoffs, is huge.”
Staff writer Sean Lynch can be reached as (209) 385-2476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.