Hector Nava and Keith Hunter are good friends.
They forged a bond while working together at Golden Valley High School. It hasn’t waned since Nava moved across town to take over Merced’s boys basketball program.
They even used last Friday’s off night to road trip to Elk Grove and watch two possible playoff opponents as Jesuit battled Pleasant Grove.
All of that will be put on hold for one evening.
Hunter’s Cougars will travel to Clemons Court tonight to square off with Nava’s Bears in their most significant meeting since Nava left GV three years ago. Golden Valley (21-5, 8-1 CCC) has already clinched a share of its third consecutive Central California Conference title. Merced (20-6, 7-2 CCC) can earn a share of the crown with a victory. Tip-off is set for 7:15 p.m.
“You’ve got two teams with something to play for on the last day of the regular season,” Hunter said. “Conference titles, playoff seedings and town bragging rights are all up for grabs. It should be a great evening for basketball and in a great environment.
“Hector is a friend. He’s an excellent coach, but I probably won’t be pulling for him (tonight). I’m sure the same goes for him.”
Nava credits Hunter with much of the success he’s enjoyed this season.
“I go to Keith all the time for advice,” Nava said. “He’s had such a big influence on me as a coach. For me to put it all together and beat him would be the biggest compliment I could give him. It would show how far I’ve come as a coach.”
The Cougars won the first encounter 62-56 at home Jan. 29. GV started fast and, despite a Merced comeback, never relinquished the lead. Evan Stillahn helped see to that by scoring 18 of his 21 points in the second half. Christian Carroll scored 14 points and Ben Fletcher 11 in the victory.
With guys like Travante Richard, A.J. Stewart and Jonathan Chairez all shooting a little sharper since the first meeting, Nava hopes this second meeting will play out differently.
“The big thing is that we’re playing at home and we’re undefeated at home this season,” Nava said. “We’re consistently playing the kind of defense I knew we were capable of at the beginning of the season, and we’re shooting the ball much better as a team.
“If we can put the two together, we’re going to be a scary team.”
On the girls’ side, Merced has locked up a share of the CCC title. The Bears (15-10, 8-1) can grab their first outright title since 2006-07 with a win over Golden Valley. The Cougars (12-14, 3-6 CCC) are limping to the finish line, having lost three in a row after leading scorer Camille Flores was forced out of the lineup because of a nasty gash.
Atwater (15-11, 7-2) and Buhach Colony (18-7, 7-2) will hope for an upset and an opportunity to grab a share of the title, but even if Merced wins, plenty will be on the line at the Thunder Dome. Neither the Thunder nor the Falcons are ranked in the top 10 for MaxPreps’ Sac-Joaquin Section Division II rankings, so both will likely open the playoffs on the road.
Winning the rivalry clash, however, likely will be the difference between having a manageable first-round game and opening against one of Division II’s heavy hitters or needing to win a play-in game.