TURLOCK -- This could be Travis Souza's last opportunity to rid himself of a burden: Turlock High's point guard has faced Merced eight times, but has yet to beat the Bears.
And he's not alone. The Bulldogs don't have a player or coach with a varsity win over Merced.
"We haven't beaten Merced in the four seasons I've been here," said coach Doug Cornfoot, whose 'Dogs lost 75-71 to the Bears in OT this season. "The last four games were decided by four points or less, and we were in it to the end."
Turlock was 0-3 vs. Merced last season, losing by a combined eight points, and was 0-4 in Souza's first two years.
Souza gets his last regular-season shot tonight: Turlock visits Merced in a Central California Conference battle between The Bee's top large-school teams.
Top-ranked Merced and No. 2 Turlock (both 18-4 overall, 6-1 CCC) are tied for first in the conference. The Bears are trying to win a fourth consecutive title, and Turlock is after its first since 2006.
The common thread over the last four seasons has been Souza. He's come a long way since Cornfoot saw him beating older players off the dribble even before he enrolled.
"I saw him at open gym the summer before he was a freshman," Cornfoot said. "Travis' size, and the way he handled the pressure, made it clear he was ready to play varsity."
Souza became a starter late in his freshman year and has evolved into one of the most talented Bulldogs ever, lofty praise at a school that celebrated its 100th anniversary his first year.
"He's at the gym three, four nights a week during the offseason working on his shot," said Cornfoot, noting Souza shoots 45 percent from the perimeter and 81 percent from the line. "He spent a lot of time in the weight room.
"One thing Travis realized is he needs a more explosive first step, so he can drive past defenders when they get on top of him. He's willing to pay the price to keep improving."
He's averaging 19.8 points a game to go with 5.5 assists and 5 rebounds. All the while, Souza runs the offense and is expected to go just as hard as a defender.
If he can improve his quickness, he can improve his prospects. Army and Azusa-Pacific have shown the most interest, and Cornfoot is now fielding calls from Wyoming and Loyola-Chicago.
"I think he's just below the top three or four picks at a lot of schools," Cornfoot said. "If they miss on their top picks, I think they'll turn to Travis."
A right-hander, Souza goes left with only a minor loss of effectiveness and his ability to pull up at the free-throw line for a jumper has expanded his game. He averages six free throws, most often coming when he continues driving to the basket -- or in the closing seconds of a game.
It's no coincidence Souza is enjoying his finest season, he has his best supporting cast:
- Eric Wetzel, a 6-4 senior and a three-year varsity starter, is a scoring threat from 12 to 14 feet. He averages 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, and is usually defending the post.
- Anthony Hubbard, a 6-2 junior, averages 12.9 points and hit three treys last week vs. Atwater. He helps with the ballhandling and provides a third scoring option.
- Ashton Richardson, a 6-3 junior swingman, has scored in double figures five of the last seven games.
"We've got kids who understand they can score 20 or 25 a game and finish in the middle of the pack, or score 12 to 15 and play for a title," Cornfoot said. "Anthony and Ashton are young and make aggressive mistakes, but Travis and Eric realize good things happen when they get the ball."