By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Brian de la Porte, first-year head coach of Ceres High's varsity boys basketball program, prefers to focus on the present instead of the past.

The Bulldogs graduated two starters from last year's team, including Valley Oak League first-teamer Brett Sayad. The 6-foot-7 forward-guard averaged 21.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He's currently the second leading scorer for the Modesto Junior College Pirates.

"It would be great to have a kid like that, but he's gone," Brian said. "It's time to move forward. It's all about the players I have now."

Ceres High just missed qualifying for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs in 2007-08, snapping a two-year streak of appearances. The Bulldogs are hungry to atone for last season's disappointment.

"Everyone has a year of experience," de la Porte said. "I expect them to play better because of that."

Ceres High's 13-player roster features eight returners, including Marcus Hilgen (senior guard), Tony Bradford (senior guard), Martino Bertolotti (senior guard), Raj Singh (senior guard), Brandon Avila (senior forward), Scott Meyer (senior center), Lance Hunter (junior forward) and Justin Canatsy (junior guard).

Balpreet Sandhu (senior forward), Johnny Clark (senior guard), Mark Schwark (junior guard), Kaven Gill (junior guard) and Vineel Kumar (junior forward) are new to the team.

Hilgen enters his second season as the Bulldogs' starting point guard. He averaged 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game on his way to earning Valley Oak League honorable-mention accolades as a junior. Marcus shot 81 percent (39-for-48) from the free-throw line.

Ceres High posted a 14-13 overall record and finished in a three-way tie for third place with Manteca and Sonora in the VOL standings (7-7) last year.

The Bulldogs lost five of their final seven conference games following a 5-2 start.

City-rival Central Valley eliminated Ceres High from playoff contention on the final day of the VOL season. The Hawks avenged a 41-point road loss with a 56-48 victory over the Bulldogs.

"We got a lot of hard work in front of us," de la Porte said. "We have a chance to be a good team. The kids are going to have to step up."

Added Hunter: "We're going to be better this year because we're not going to rely on just one player."

The VOL sent just two of its eight teams to the playoffs last year, including conference champion Weston Ranch and second-place Sierra.

Manteca, Sonora and Sierra figure to be the front-runners this season, followed by Central Valley, Weston Ranch, Ceres High, Oakdale and East Union.

Manteca will be sparked by the play of Nick Scheible (6-3 senior guard-forward), Kiwi Gardner (5-7 sophomore point guard) and Dominique Barnes (6-4 senior forward).

Scheible was named to the VOL first team as a junior. He averaged 16.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest.

Gardner earned second-team honors. He averaged 14.0 points, 3.5 assists and 2.8 steals.

Barnes averaged 7.2 points and 7.4 rebounds.

Sierra has arguably the top player (Christian Williams) and head coach (Scott Thomason). Williams, a 6-2 senior guard, garnered VOL first-team honors last year.

Sonora will be led by VOL first-teamer Brenden Evans. The 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound senior forward averaged 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds a season ago. He also knocked down 28 3-pointers.

"We have some talented players," de la Porte said. "We're going to be pretty competitive. I think we're going to surprise some people. It's going to be a fun year."

Brian graduated from Ceres High in 1999. He coached multiple sports at his alma mater the past eight years. He assisted Jason Martin, his predecessor, for two seasons. Martin stepped down on March 9 to spend more time with his family. He led the Bulldogs to four playoff appearances in nine years.

"He's a good friend of mine and a mentor," de la Porte said. "He's helped me a lot."

•Hawks will rely on veteran

Exhausted from a taxing year of football, Central Valley High School senior quarterback Trevor Mew took a break before joining the Hawks' basketball team for his third varsity season.

"He was run down mentally and physically," varsity hoops coach Darryl Dickson said. "He needed a couple weeks off. He's refreshed now."

Central Valley will rely heavily on Trevor during its 2008-09 campaign.

A Valley Oak League honorable-mention selection a season ago, the sharp-shooting guard-forward averaged 11.6 points. 4.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.

"If you had 15 Trevors, you wouldn't lose too many games," Dickson said. "He provides leadership, dedication and a will to win. He's extremely good at applying what's been taught. Some of our kids don't get that."

Mew and Co. will strive to improve on last year's showing.

Central Valley compiled a 10-18 record, and beat East Union twice, and Ceres High and Oakdale once en route to a tie for fourth-place in the VOL standings at 4-10.

The Hawks also challenged undefeated conference champion Weston Ranch twice.

"It would be pretty cool to make playoffs and win league," Mew said. "It would be nice to go out on top."

Central Valley will look to make history without three key members that graduated in June, including VOL second-team honoree Yama Noorzai. The standout guard averaged 15.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per contest.

The Hawks gladly welcome the addition of 5-foot-3, 125-pound freshman point guard Keymonte Wooten.

"It's definitely a blessing," Dickson said. "Obviously, it helps our program. He has a lot of talent but has a lot to learn."

Wooten plays the same position as his older brother. Kiwi Gardner, a sophomore at Manteca High School, made a name for himself at the varsity level last year.

"He (Keymonte) understands the game so well," Mew said. "He's so quick. I don't see anybody being able to play him man to man."

The Hawks must also receive solid contributions from returners Chris Beleele (senior center), Robert Morgan (senior guard-forward) and Brian Blunt (junior guard). The trio received a significant amount of playing time last season.

Asked if finishing in the top three in league and advancing to the playoffs were realistic goals for Central Valley, Dickson said: "I'm expecting some real positive things. If our leadership steps up, and we play like we're capable of, we'll go far."

"If we can put all the pieces together and play with confidence, we should be competitive," Mew said. "I'm going to go out there and give it all I got. I'm just sick of losing."