OAKDALE — Every time Oakdale High guard Cassandra Clark ran to a spot on the floor Tuesday night, Mariah Navarro was right there with her.
It wasn't the precise plan Manteca coach Andrea Hiatt had put in place, but it worked well for the Buffaloes.
"We had planned on using Mikayla (Hasal) to defend Clark, but we got in foul trouble early and had to switch," Hiatt said. "Mariah's our first player off the bench, and she came in and did a great job with her defense."
Navarro shut down the Stanislaus District's No. 3 scorer, and Manteca pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 47-35 win over Oakdale in a Valley Oak League opener featuring two of the league's four title contenders.
Manteca (8-4), No. 5 in The Bee's district rankings, used a box-and-one defense on Clark start to finish. If Clark penetrated, Navarro got help from a teammate — but she was on her own as Clark ran around the perimeter.
"I focused on staying in front of her, getting to the spot before she did," the 5-8 Navarro said. "She's their shooter and the plan was to shut her down."
Oakdale (9-2) began the night No. 2 in the district rankings, but was never able to establish a consistent offense as Clark was being hounded.
The 5-foot-9 guard had nine points, well below her season average of 20.7, and managed just one basket from the set offense. Her other two baskets were on a fast break and a rebound.
Mikayla Hasal was guarding Clark at the start, but Hiatt switched defenders after Sharon Washington went to the bench with two fouls. The loss of the Buffs' top player meant Hasal had to assume a larger offensive role.
"Mikayla's a freshman and it would have been a lot to ask to have her run the offense, then hustle back and try to find Clark on defense," Hiatt said.
So while Hasal focused on the offensive end, Navarro worked on defense.
"Mariah knows how to run the box-and-one, knowing she can never lose her player," Hiatt said. "She has got good hands, too. Any time that ball is away from your body, she's grabbing it."
The defensive switch produced results on offense, too. Hasal had 10 points, she averages six, and her ballhandling eliminated Oakdale's ability to force turnovers.
Unable to score in transition, Oakdale had to rely on its half-court offense. Clark, the only Mustang averaging more than seven points. is the key to making that work.
It's only the second time the Mustangs were held under 43 points. The first was a 78-31 loss to Dublin (10-2), and Clark didn't play in that loss.
Do you see the trend here? Oakdale coach Gary Smith certainly does. He expects to see more gimmick defenses designed to slow down Clark.
"We're going to have to find ways to keep people from focusing on Cassandra, but she has to adjust to it, too," Smith said. "If she picks up a second defender on her penetration, she needs to keep going hard to the basket to draw a foul."
Clark is a 79 percent free-throw shooter and converted 10 of 11 in last week's 53-44 win over Central Catholic, but Navarro was able to play tight defense and avoid fouls.
Even with her strong effort, Manteca struggled to put the Mustangs away. Davina Bennett's put-back gave the Buffaloes a 30-21 lead late in the third quarter, but Oakdale's Naydee Fernandez answered with a free throw and a driving layup to keep it close going into the fourth quarter.
Oakdale got within 34-30 on Dominique Powell's put-back with 6:15 to play, but Manteca used two defensive plays to build its led to eight points.
Bennett hit a layup in transition, then Hasal was fouled while stealing the ball. Her two free throws made it 38-30, and Dallas Mould's return of a missed shot made it 40-30.
"The great thing is Sharon doesn't care if she gets 19 or nine, so long as we win," said Hiatt, who is pregnant and expects to deliver the last week of the regular season. "I have to remind myself to stay calm on the bench. When I get excited, I can feel him kicking."
The league includes defending champ East Union, The Bee's third-ranked team, and perennial contender Sonora. Those two play Thursday at Sonora's Bud Castle Gym.
"The VOL, in my opinion, is the best girls' league in the area," said Smith, who began coaching in the district in the mid-1970s. "We've always got four or five teams who are competitive, and it's a league that plays defense. It should be quite a race this season."