Whittier Christian basketball teams pick up close wins against league rival
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
CERRITOS – Playing without guard Christian Alvis-Labadie, the Whittier Christian boys’ basketball team dug deep in order to defeat league rival Valley Christian in a tough environment, 46-42, Friday night at Valley Christian School.
The sophomore guard was ruled out for the remainder of the season after re-aggravating a separated shoulder during practice on Thursday afternoon. He originally suffered the injury on Tuesday night against Maranatha.
“In the back of our minds, we were all playing for Christian tonight,” said Ryan Esslinger, senior captain. “We had to pull out the win for him, which meant giving extra effort at the end. We were tired, but we fought through it and got a good team win tonight.”
Without Alvis-Labadie, Heralds Head Coach Sherwin Durham asked Esslinger and Kaipo Villeza to step up and play all 32 minutes in the back court.
Villeza, who was also fighting an illness, helped the Heralds build an early lead with eight points in the first quarter.
Esslinger saved his best work for later, finishing off the Crusaders by scoring seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter.
“We thought it was going to be a tough game, you can’t come in here thinking it’s going to be easy,” said Sherwin Durham, Whittier Christian head coach. “It’s all heart. These kids have been working hard for us all year and we know we’re going to get an effort from them every game, whether we win or lose.”
Instead of adding another guard into the lineup, Durham decided to run with three big men, using Jake Rivera as a small forward and having him play around the perimeter.
The system didn’t hinder the Heralds defensively, or in transition.
However, even with three big men in at all times, Esslinger came away with eight rebounds, which ranked second behind nine rebounds by Stephen Nolin.
“Our bigs do a great job of blocking out their men so I can come in and take a rebound,” Esslinger said. “I have to give them the credit for that. We just came up big on the boards, it was part of our game plan. We wanted to make sure we outrebounded them.”
Villeza got the Heralds started quickly by scoring the team’s first five points. Whittier Christian went on a 9-0 run to finish the quarter, which included a buzzer-beating half-court shot by Villeza that pushed the lead to 16-6.
The Crusaders (9-16, 1-6) woke up a bit in the second quarter, led by Jordan Mitchell, who scored five of his seven points right before halftime.
Still, the Heralds led 26-17 at halftime.
“You could see that they were tired, you could look in their faces and know they were tired” Durham said of his two guards. “But this is what it’s all about. The season is winding down, they’ve been playing a lot of minutes for the entire year, so this is just another 32-minute effort from them.”
Valley Christian continued to claw away in the third quarter as forward Ronald Massey found space for six points and guard Stedmon Bryant hit a momentum-shifting 3-pointer toward the end of the quarter.
The Crusaders then went on a 7-0 run to tie the score with 6:12 remaining as the Heralds started to look fatigued.
But the Heralds (16-8, 4-3) had one final push in them. Shawn Stolt hit a layup and Esslinger put in two baskets from the baseline to give Whittier Christian a quick six-point lead.
However, Valley Christian brought the lead back down to two points with a pair of free throws by Vaj Rice.
The Heralds tightened up on defense, and Esslinger sealed the victory on free throws down the stretch.
“It was pretty intense in here down the stretch,” Esslinger said. “In the stands, both sides were going crazy, we just had to settle down, not force anything and try to run the clock out…. Kaipo came out big tonight early on and that was huge. He’s close to the smallest guy on our team, but he played big tonight.”
Villeza led all scorers with 12 points on the night, while Rivera added 10 points and Nolin added seven points and nine rebounds.
Bryant and Massey led the Crusaders with eight points each.
The win guarantees that Whittier Christian will finish no worse than third place in the Olympic League, which only guarantees playoff spots to the top two teams.
“Our focus was where it should have been tonight and this win is huge,” Durham said. “Last season, we barely squeaked in as the last team in the bracket. Hopefully we can avoid that this year and try to make a run at it.”
However, because of the Heralds’ overall season record, they should qualify for at-large consideration.
First though, Whittier Christian will close out its regular season with a home game against Village Christian, next Thursday at home.
“Our first matchup was good, but we’re down a point guard now,” Durham said. “We may reach down to the lower levels and bring up an extra body so that we can expand our guard play a little bit. I think we’re okay on the post.”
In a game where the winner had an inside track to the No. 2 seed out of the Olympic League, the Whittier Christian girls’ basketball team found an extra push in the second half and avenged an earlier loss to Valley Christian with a 42-39 win, Friday night at Valley Christian School.
Down by six points late in the third quarter, forward Sydney Lopez went to work, scoring the next eight points for Whittier Christian as the Lady Heralds went on a 12-0 run to take a six-point lead of their own, early in the fourth quarter.
“This win is huge, going into the game, the girls knew how big it was, we viewed it as a championship-type of game,” said Grace Ricafranca, Whittier Christian head coach. “We talked about going out there, fighting and wanting it and the girls did a great job with that tonight.”
Lopez scored 11 of her game-high 17 points in the second half and hauled in eight rebounds. Hannah Yoshihara was held scoreless in the first half, but bounced back with seven points in the second half to provide support.
Twice in the game, Whittier Christian (13-10, 4-3) faced deficits of five points or more. Both times, they fought back and reclaimed a lead.
“We’re a little bit experienced when it comes to close games and fighting from behind,” Ricafranca said. “We told the girls that if [Valley Christian] gets on a run, don’t get discouraged, keep mentally focused and stay in the game. We knew there were emotions riding on their senior night and we wanted to take advantage of that and rush them out a little bit. I think us being patient worked out for us in the end.”
Forward Christa Evans helped seal the victory late in the fourth quarter by grabbing two offensive rebounds off missed free throws, which allowed the Lady Heralds to take more time off the clock.
Off the bench, Evans finished with six points and seven rebounds, four of which came at the offensive end.
“She does a really great job of getting good positioning, especially on free throws,” Ricafranca said. “That was something that we needed with her going up against [Amanda] Chamberlain. Her intensity and her rebounding really helped us out late in the game to get that momentum.”
After a close first quarter, the Lady Heralds started the second quarter quickly with a 3-pointer by Amanda Ashworth.
Whittier Christian distributed the ball well, as five different players scored in the second quarter, leading to a 19-17 halftime lead.
The Lady Crusaders (10-15, 3-4) started to find a rhythm in the third quarter.
Led by Makenna Mageo, who scored all of her seven points in the third quarter, Valley Christian stretched a lead to 31-25.
However, that’s when Lopez went to work. The senior forward drove inside for two baskets and then hit a runner from just inside the 3-point line to beat the buzzer to tie the score at 31-31 heading into the fourth quarter.
She continued that streak by scoring the first three points of the fourth quarter.
“Sometimes when you don’t have that offensive flow, we need, we put the ball in Sydney’s hands and she knows what to do with it,” Ricafranca said. “She’s our biggest offensive threat, so having her go on that run was what the rest of the team needed to get going. We couldn’t have had this win without her.”
While the Lady Heralds had to contend with 6-foot-2 Amanda Chamberlain down low, they also put her in foul trouble midway through the fourth quarter.
Chamberlain and guard Amber Binford both finished with a team-high 10 points
Ashworth added another 3-pointer, Yoshihara hit a jumper and Christa Evans grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in to lead the Lady Heralds to victory.
The Lady Heralds now have a one-game lead over Valley Christian for the No. 2 seed and a guaranteed playoff spot, out of the Olympic League.
Whittier Christian closes its regular season at home against Village Christian, a team they went into double-overtime against a few weeks ago, next Thursday night.
“We have to do a better job on defense, in the first round, we took a while to wake up and gave up some easy shots that shouldn’t have been there,” Ricafranca said. “If we can come out aggressive from the start, we should be able to take care of them. If we can limit turnovers, relax a little bit offensively and not get into foul trouble, I think we’ll be okay.”