Before the last third of the league season commenced, coach Doug Cornfoot issued a challenge to his Turlock High boys basketball players. He wanted them to take every game as a do-or-die situation.
In other words, every game was a playoff game.
A loss would mean their goal of achieving the Central California Conference title became that much harder to reach. So now that the Bulldogs have earned the school’s fifth league title, a realization is staring back at them: the playoffs are here.
No. 7 Turlock will welcome No. 10 McClatchy High of Sacramento to the school’s Bulldog Arena today at 7 p.m. in a first-round game of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I Tournament.
The other area boys team to play tonight is Denair High, which is the No. 10 seed in Division IV and will travel to Capital Christian High in Sacramento for an opening round playoff game. And despite making a late-season run, Hilmar High came up short of a postseason appearance.
“I think it is a big advantage,” Cornfoot said about his Bulldogs opening the playoffs at home for the second consecutive year. “I feel we have the best fans in the area and they really come out and support us.”
Last season, the Bulldogs had a historic run that ended in a CIF State Tournament berth. This time, their focus is much more near-sighted — especially knowing they’ll face a big, athletic team like the Lions.
Two players on the McClatchy roster are listed at least 6-foot-6, with one of them being the versatile senior Shawn Smith. He is averaging a team-best 15 points to go with his six rebounds per game.
But no other Lion is averaging in double-digits.
McClatchy (17-10 overall) comes from the competitive Metro Basketball League, which qualified four teams into the playoffs — including Sacramento High, the top seed in Division III.
This season’s Bulldogs (20-6 overall) have been challenged all season. Last week, they captured an outright CCC title, the program’s first in five years. And they’ve been doing it with two league MVP candidates in seniors Anthony Hubbard and Matt Ruesga. Hubbard owns a team-best 15.2-point average, making him one of four Turlock players who are scoring in double-digits.
Those two and their teammates have been ready for the playoffs for the past few weeks, especially after their coach issued that challenge to take every game as a do-or-die situation. In turn, the Bulldogs finished that stretch with a 5-0 record and a league title.
“We have played in some very stressful games and that will help us be battle-tested,” Cornfoot pointed out.
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