SALIDA — It's going to be a star-studded affair tonight, as Modesto Christian hosts one of the most anticipated girls basketball games in the history of the Stanislaus District.
The Crusaders rank among the state's elite, as they have each year since Robb Spencer arrived in 2001, and boast Division I college signees Brandi Henton and Taryn Garza.
Even with that resume, the Crusaders could be in awe when the ball tips off tonight.
St. Mary's of Stockton is the top-ranked team in the country. Three Rams have signed with Division I colleges, and Chelsea Gary (No. 4) and Afure Jemerigbe (No. 14) are among the nation's top 14 seniors, according to analysts.
With such star power, no wonder these teams are a combined 35-3. Tip off is at 7 p.m.
If the Crusaders hope to celebrate the biggest win in the program's history, however, it's going to take more than their two college-bound kids to do it.
That means the trio of Alexus Tillman, Danielle Thompson and Valerie Moore are going to have to get involved.
"It's all about the challenge, how you play when everyone is watching," said Thompson, a 6-foot junior averaging 17.8 points and 7.8 rebounds. "St. Mary's is one of the programs that everyone wants to be."
Tillman, a 5-6 junior point guard, knows that better than anyone at MC: She played for St. Mary's last year and celebrated with her teammates after the Rams won a state title.
"They're similar programs, using aggressive traps on defense and trying to run at any opportunity," Tillman said.
The transfer left Tillman ineligible until Jan. 9, when she had seven points, five assists and two steals in a 90-56 win over Clovis East. She's averaging seven points, four assists and two steals in six games, and her ballhandling ability has allowed Henton to shift to the shooting guard.
Tillman has played a role in the improvement of Moore and Thompson. They are combining for 27 points a game, compared to 15 last season.
"She's been with us all season. It's not like someone just showed up in the middle of the season," said Moore, a 5-10 sophomore who scored a season-high 20 against Clovis East. "Putting Alexus at the point, moving Brandi to the two guard makes us better."
But are they good enough?
"I've seen both up close and we can play with them," said Tillman, whose no-look passes caught the Crusaders by surprise during the first few practices. "We're aggressive, like St. Mary's, and with the schedule we've played, we're not going to intimidated."
Posting a 16-2 record while playing a demanding schedule has elevated MC to No. 2 in the CalHiSports.com state Division IV rankings. CalHi, to no one's surprise, puts St. Mary's at No. 1 in California.