With three sophomores in his starting lineup for most of the season, Merced High girls basketball coach Art Solis showed in his first year as the Bears coach he isn’t afraid to go young.
Solis used five sophomores in his rotation on Tuesday night as the No. 4 seed Merced opened the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs with a 50-41 win over No. 13 Bethel at Clemons Court.
“The young ones have grown a lot,” said Solis, whose team improved to 22-4. “We’ve still got a lot to learn and you do that with playing time.”
The playing time Solis’ young players have banked this season will help tremendously down the road for the program. They are gaining valuable experience. And just as importantly, the Bears have won doing it.
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Sophomores Sierra Smith, Amari Stamps and Kaitlynn Perez have all earned their way into the starting lineup. Khya Martin was called up off the junior varsity three weeks ago and has fit right in, scoring six points against the Jaguars.
Janessa Jones is another call-up from the junior varsity team for the playoffs and Solis wasted little time using her. Jones was off the bench and in the game in the first quarter against Bethel and found herself in playing important minutes down the stretch.
“Honestly, we all play travel ball together so we’re comfortable playing together,” said Smith, who scored nine points. “Even with the sophomores we brought up, we trust each other.”
Solis knows what he’s going to get from his sophomores.
“Sierra will just get after it,” Solis said. “Khya has been huge for us. Kaitlynn is all over the court getting rebounds and playing defense. Amari is what I like to call my bulldozer. When she drives the lane she’s not afraid to get hit.
“But we were put in scenarios tonight where we didn’t know how to react.”
When junior Amaya Ervin fouled out with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter, the Bears struggled without their leader.
Ervin helped Merced jump out to a big lead early with 13 first-quarter points.
“Our objective was to come out and go strong and be aggressive,” Ervin said. “That’s what I did. It’s all in the mind. I got to have it. I wanted it. Tonight was about going hard or going home.”
By the time Ervin picked up her fifth foul, she had scored 21 points to go a long with seven rebounds, five steals and four assists. Merced had a comfortable 47-30 lead.
After the Jaguars trimmed the lead to 49-41 with 1:40 left, the Bears weren’t feeling so comfortable.
“I’m not going to lie – when Amaya fouls out or is out of the game – I’m not saying we can’t win without her, but we really depend on her,” Smith said. “She’s such a good player.”
With Ervin out, the Bears were rushing shots intead of trying to work the clock down. On the defensive end, they were breaking down, allowing players to get to the basket for layups or fouling, which also stopped the clock.
“Those are all signs of a young team,” Solis said. “Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and be a better team. We can’t afford to make those mistakes in the next round whoever we end up playing.”
Next up for Merced is a quarterfinal game against No. 5 Bradshaw Christian (18-11), which defeated Valley 57-38 on Tuesday night.
Los Banos 67, Beyer 53 in Modesto – Erika Gutierrez poured in 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the No. 11 Tigers (19-9) upset No. 6 Beyer in the first round of the Division III playoffs.
Los Banos outscored Beyer 23 to 7 in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game. Sienna Hampton added 11 points and 13 rebounds for LB. Teammate Amelia Smith turned in a strong all-around game with eight points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Alicia Jones led the Patriots with 26 points.
Buhach Colony 2, Grace Davis 0 in Atwater – Yael Solano scored two first-half goals as the No. 5 Thunder defeated the No. 12 Spartans in the first round of the Division III playoffs. Adrian Bracamontes finished with five saves in goal for Buhach Colony (8-6-2).
The Thunder will host a quarterfinal game on Thursday with No. 13 Mira Loma upset No. 4 Sierra 2-1 on Tuesday.
Pacheco 6, Rosemont 0 in Los Banos – The top-seeded Panthers rolled past No. 16 Rosemont behind two goals from Gio Valtierra. Rodolfo Rivera, Eduardo George, Pablo Ortiz and Mario Valtierra all added goals for Pacheco (12-0-6).
The Panthers will host No. 8 River Valley on Thursday.
Le Grand 5, Amador 2 (OT) in Le Grand – The Bulldogs trailed 2-0 with about 20 minutes left before storming back to send the game into overtime. Andres Lua scored on a penalty kick to spark the comeback. Angel Barajas scored the equalizer late in the second half.
Celestino Garcia scored on a free kick in the final seconds of the first 10-minute overtime. Lua scored his second goal of the game to start the second overime and then younger brother Brian Lua scored for the final 5-2 margin.
The top-seeded Bulldogs (14-1-2) will host No. 4 Encina in the Division VI semifinals on Thursday at 3 p.m.
Stone Ridge Christian 4, Buckingham Charter 3 in Vacaville –Bryce Louters scored all four goals as the No. 7 Knights upset the No. 2 seed Buckingham Charter. Jordan Hooker recorded two assists for Stone Ridge Christian (11-10-1). SRC will face No. 3 Greene Academy in the Division VII semifinals on Thursday.