There's no doubt that the Merced College women's basketball team has had a good nonconference season.
The Lady Devils are 11-7 after Wednesday's win over Mission College. They have three third-place finishes and one second in five tournaments, and a chance to add a consolation title today.
MC has risen to No. 10 in the NorCal poll and, after a 2-1 showing at last week's Delta Classic, will likely be moving even higher when the next poll is released in the new year.
Allen Huddleston knows the potential is there for something special. Every so often, you get the impression that his basketball team knows it, too.
Yet every time the Lady Devils look prepared to make that leap into the company of Northern California's elites, they suffer the proverbial step back.
The Delta Classic was the perfect example.
Squaring off with NorCal No. 4 and tournament host San Joaquin Delta in the semifinals, MC got the kind of marquee win it's lacked the last few years.
The Lady Devils won 69-58, looking like a team to be reckoned with.
It was the first time in six years that Huddleston's squad beat the Mustangs, and it looked like a possible announcement of the team's arrival.
Unfortunately, MC went out and laid an egg against No. 2 Foothill the next day.
It wasn't so much that the Lady Devils lost the title game, it was that -- with the exception of five minutes to begin the second half -- they never gave themselves a chance to win.
The energy just wasn't there. Neither was the hustle or heads-up plays.
It's that inconsistency from game to game that has left Huddleston frustrated, and MC mired among the pack of NorCal's middle class.
"I've been really disappointed with our lack of consistency," Huddleston said. "I thought we're a lot better than what we've been showing.
"A lot of it comes down to teams outhustling us down the stretch.
"We start five sophomores. You don't expect a team with that kind of experience to make the mistakes we've been making."
With Tuesday's OT loss to Ohlone, the Lady Devils have gone 3-6 against ranked teams this season.
In three of those losses, MC had been in control only to fold down the stretch.
"We thought (Delta) was a great win for us," Huddleston. "We thought that might be a turning point where we could compete with top-five teams on any night.
"Then we don't show up to play the next couple games."
Injuries certainly haven't helped the Lady Devils.
Not having the same eight or nine players to call upon each evening is a sure-fire formula for up-and-down play. But, as Huddleston pointed out, good teams find a way to fight through that.
Two key areas need to improve if MC is to make a serious run at the Central Valley Conference title and NorCal No. 1 Fresno City College.
First, the team can't be content to just fire jumps shots. Huddleston lacks pure shooters. Instead, he has a group of streaky players. When they're on, it can be lights out. When they're off, it can be downright painful. If the Lady Devils are cold from the floor, they can't just try to shoot their way out.
They have other options. Kenyatta Harper, Larshari Clayborne, Porsha Grayson and Kortani Brown can take just about anyone to the basket off the dribble, and Linda Murray and Rebecca Morris will always be in the key to clean up any misses.
Second, the bench has got to play better. Brown has been a regular force when healthy, but the rest of the group needs to contribute 15 to 20 points a game.
If MC can address these shortcomings, it could be a handful for any opponent the rest of the season.
"We've addressed both of those areas in practice," Huddleston said. "We've played decently so far, but we're capable of more.
"If we're going to reach our potential, it's time for the kids to make it happen."
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at email@example.com.