RIPON — The reality of playing in the Trans-Valley League is that since the league title is out of reach before the season ever starts, a berth in the second season becomes the attainable goal.
Such was the intrigue of Tuesday's Ripon Christian-Escalon battle.
The host Knights, who led start-to-finish and grabbed a 66-53 victory, recently dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 power rankings. They're a shoo-in to be in the 16-team field, so every win brings them closer to the better seed that carries with it the promise of home games and — in theory — an easier draw.
The Cougars' goal is much, much different.
The last time Escalon won a playoff game was 2005, when it celebrated a section title by defeating Ripon High at Arco Arena. Escalon was one-and-done in the 2006 playoffs and has gone 19-60 over the last three years to miss the postseason.
But this year is different. The Cougars were No. 16 in the Division 4 rankings entering Tuesday night and even with the loss is guaranteed a winning regular season and probably will reach the playoffs with two wins in their last three games.
So while Modesto Christian, which hasn't lost a league game this millennium, again will sail through the TVL, there is a battle below well worth following.
"Being in the top four makes your life a lot easier," said Ripon Christian coach Ron Vander Molen, whose team improved to 17-5 overall and 4-3 in the TVL by avenging an earlier loss at Escalon.
The Knights have a legitimate shot at a section title. They are looking up at Bradshaw Christian, Victory Christian and Valley Christian in the Division 5 rankings, but none of those teams comes close to playing a league schedule as difficult as RC.
Escalon (14-10, 3-4) finishes its season with a game Friday at Riverbank, then plays at home against Hughson next Tuesday before closing out the regular season at home against Ripon. Of the three, Ripon — currently No. 12 in Division 4 — appears to be the toughest hurdle.
"The kids may be pressing a little bit right now because they know they have an opportunity to do something that hasn't been done at Escalon in a while," said Cougars' coach Martin Louro.
"The kids are excited and we're playing better than most people expected us to play, but their goal is to get to the playoffs. We have to mature and learn how to play in these situations."
Escalon came out a little flat in this final meeting with the Knights. The Cougars' gameplan was to push the pace in its favor against Ripon Christian, which is not a fast team and dresses only eight players.
Instead, the Cougars got caught early in a half-court game, playing right into the Knights' hands. Ripon Christian guards Logan Vos (17 points) and Daniel Van de Pol (9 points) hit early shots from the perimeter, and forced Escalon to loosen up its double-team against Knights' center Tyler Goslinga.
Goslinga had only four points at halftime, but the Knights led 33-20 at the break. When Escalon picked up the intensity of its full-court pressure to open the third quarter, the result was an increase in RC turnovers mixed with easy baskets at both ends.
Goslinga scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, including the final six points, as the Knights took a 54-38 lead into the fourth quarter. Escalon tried to make a run in the fourth quarter but never got closer than 10 points. Brandon Shaw led the Cougars with 14 points.
So in TVL play, RC is third place, a game behind second-place Ripon and a game ahead of fourth-place Escalon. In the larger sense, the Knights are right where they'd like to be.
"I think we want to take care of the section this year," Vander Molen said. "That's a serious goal for these guys, and then we'll worry about the NorCals. We want to focus on the section and the rest will be icing."