Keith Hunter knows his Golden Valley boys basketball team will be in the crosshairs of every Central California Conference team this season.
When you’re the two-time defending champ, and you return three third-year players in reigning CCC MVP Josh Sykes and sharpshooters Christian Carroll and Evan Stillahn, you’re going to be tough to top.
“I think we’re the team to beat,” Hunter said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that. It doesn’t mean we can’t be beat.”
The Cougars have looked the part of CCC favorites early on this season with a 12-3 record. Golden Valley won the Nevada Union Invitational with the help of a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Carroll in the championship game against El Camino. The Cougars came up short of winning a very tough Red Bluff Tournament, losing to a talented Lake Oswego (Oregon) squad 66-65.
Golden Valley rebounded from a poor showing in a San Diego tournament with a 70-35 win over Gregori on Tuesday.
“Rebounding and defense has been our primary focus in practice and games so far,” Carroll said. “Coach Hunter is constantly on us about rebounding and defense. He made us run three or four times (Monday) at practice for letting our guy get in the middle.”
Led by Carroll and Stillahn, the Cougars have been attacking teams from long range. Sykes’ length and athleticism is a tough matchup for opposing big men. Devon Powell and Ben Fletcher have also had some big games in the early tournaments.
Hunter also has a deep bench to turn to with pesky guards Damian Jimenez and Gus Perez.
“There is no substitute for experience and we have plenty of it,” Hunter said.
The Cougars toughest challenge may come from Turlock (10-4).
The Bulldogs return Kenny Fraser, who is averaging over 18 points per game. Junior guards Devan Bains and Demsen McFaddin are also back for Turlock.
Golden Valley will open CCC play tonight at Turlock at 7:15 p.m.
“It’s a pretty big game,” Stillahn said. “We want to come out and make a statement right away. We can’t take any team lightly.”
With the Sac-Joaquin Section going away from the power rating system to determine playoff spots, it will be an interesting race to see which teams will finish in the top three of the CCC to earn this season’s playoff spots.
Atwater (12-4) travels to Merced (10-5) tonight in a matchup of two teams with playoff aspirations.
The Falcons return four starters and most of their key players from a playoff team from last year. Senior Ben Peterson is averaging over 18 points and 11 rebounds and Josh Heller is chipping in with 10 points and just under 10 rebounds.
Merced is off to its best start under Hector Nava in his third season as the Bears coach. Nava’s team had a good showing in Sonora, winning the Columbia Tournament.
Merced is led by the trio of Travante Richard, A.J. Stewart and Jonathan Chairez.
Buhach Colony lost 10 seniors from last year’s team and is off to a 3-11 start.
The Thunder are feeling the effects of working their way through what BC coach John Bliss calls his the toughest schedule he’s ever put together.
Buhach Colony still can scare teams with center Kaden Verdin and John Zaragoza. The Thunder open tonight at Pitman against a Pride team that has surprised people with a 10-4 start.
“Our league is always competitive,” Hunter said. Everyone plays a little different. You have to play every night. Turlock has a lot of guys back with a lot of seniors like us. I haven’t seen Pitman but they’re winning games. Atwater has a lot of seniors and Merced is very athletic.”