OAKDALE — Revenge can be a powerful motivator, as Sierra High discovered Tuesday night.
"When we played Sierra at their house, we lost by four in overtime," Oakdale guard Cassandra Clark Clark said. "When you lose like that, it gives you a little extra energy next time."
As if chasing a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth wasn't enough motivation for Clark and the rest of the Mustangs.
The backcourt tandem of Clark and Carley Barton had 16 points apiece, and Oakdale played a smothering defense for a surprisingly easy 44-17 Valley Oak League win over Sierra.
Oakdale (17-6, 8-5) began the night at No. 14 in the Division III power ratings, right behind VOL rivals Manteca and Sonora. The top 16 go to the playoffs, but a lower seed means a first-round game against a power.
"I don't want to be that last or second-to-last seed, and travel to face a No. 1 or a 2," said coach Gary Smith, whose club has won four of its last five. "We've done it before and it's not fun."
Regardless of where Oakdale ends up, there is no easy path.
Division III features some of the best teams in the state. Topping the list is St. Mary's (20-1), the nation's best team according to a few of the national polls.
Del Oro (20-1), Vanden (19-4) and Sacramento (18-4) are all in the state polls, and behind that trio sits El Dorado (21-1) and VOL-leading East Union (21-4).
"We have to get in the playoffs first," Smith said. "We do that by playing hard defense and defending every play."
Sierra (6-7, 11-12), which averages 40 points a game, can attest to that after being hounded into turnovers by a physical trap that ran the length of the court. It desperately needed a win to stay in the playoff race, but was in a deep hole from the start.
Clark and Barton combined for the first eight points, then Alanna Jones got behind the defense for a layup and a 10-0 lead.
After Sierra's Jasmine Currimao hit a trey, Oakdale ran off seven straight for a 17-3 lead. Clark hit a trey, then the 5-9 junior capped it with a steal and a layup at the other end.
"We want to be real aggressive, so we trapped with two girls to force Sierra into mistake," said Clark, who averages 19 points. "The VOL's very good this year, and you're going to run into a good team every night. You've got to be ready or you're gonna lose."
The trapping defense was effective because the Mustangs sealed off the weakside with one player, while two players attacked the ball and two defended the high and low post.
With the T-wolves unable to see through a swarm of arms, Oakdale got a dozen steals off the trap. When Sierra did escape, it often had only seconds left to shoot before the 30-second shot clock expired.
"The energy is a big difference for us," said Smith. "We were unable to run this trap earlier in the season because we weren't getting maximum effort for everyone. You get all five girls working hard on defense, it gives you options."
Johns, in addition to providing weakside defense, had 10 points — double her average. That kept Sierra from overplaying Clark and Barton on the perimeter, and continued a recent trend for Oakdale.
"We've been getting a third scorer most night, but it's not always the same girl," Smith said. "Cassandra and Carley are steady, and that third girl is giving us a scoring boost."