Ceres High School’s boys basketball team fell one win shy of qualifying for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs this past winter.
The Bulldogs missed out on the postseason because of their strength of schedule.
“I felt bad for the boys,” said T.J. Walker Jr., 2021-22 Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year and sixth-year leader of Ceres High. “We weren’t rewarded for what we did in league. We deserved to at least be in a play-in game.”
The Bulldogs will try to accomplish a pair of firsts under Walker’s guidance this season.
“We want to win league and go to playoffs,” he said. “This group is committed. They compete at practice. They play well together and like each other. I don’t have to get on them for not working hard. That’s half the battle. Every year is different. We’ll see how it all turns out.”
Ceres High returns four players from last season, including Adrian Ontiveros (Sr.), Lebron Stallworth (Sr.), Ricky Stanley (Sr.) and Tarrell Lee-Gill (Sr.).
The Bulldogs have nine newcomers: Xzayvier Martinez (Sr.), Jacob Swanson (Sr.), Zion Wesir (Sr.), Brandon Williams (Sr.), Aj Brown (Jr.), Gurman Dhaliwal (Jr.), Ezekiel Lopez (Jr.), Andre Pina (Jr.) and Manuel Ortega (So.).
Verlis Smith, Fernando Franco and Donivan Turley were lost to graduation.
A four-year contributor, Smith was voted Most Valuable Player of the WAC during his final season with the Bulldogs. He averaged 18.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Ontiveros, a 5-foot-7 point guard, was named to the WAC First Team as a junior. He averaged 13.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Stallworth had a breakout junior year. He averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while logging playing time at center and power forward. Stallworth earned second-team, all-WAC honors.
“This year’s team has more offensive weapons,” Walker said.
Ontiveros, Stallworth and Stanley were named team captains.
“They’re leaders,” Walker said. “They work hard. They’ve shown this since last summer.”
Ceres High will battle Beyer, Grace Davis, Johansen, Lathrop, Mountain House, Los Banos and Pacheco during the Western Athletic Conference season.
“The league is not going to be as top-heavy,” Walker said. “In the past, Beyer, Mountain House and Lathrop didn’t lose to anyone else until last year. I’m a fan of what Beyer does.”
“You can’t take anybody for granted in our league. We have too many good coaches and teams. You have to be ready to compete every night.”Coach T.J. Walker
“You can’t take anybody for granted in our league,” he added. “We have too many good coaches and teams. You have to be ready to compete every night.”
The Bulldogs finished fourth in the WAC standings (10-5) and posted a 17-11 overall record last winter.
Mountain House (12-2), Lathrop (12-2) and Beyer (11-4) took first, second and third, respectively.
Ceres High dropped two of three games to Beyer.
Ceres High’s season came to an abrupt end following its 71-70 loss to Beyer in a tiebreaker game that determined the conference’s final playoff spot. Ontiveros scored 31 points and buried eight treys, both career-highs, as the Bulldogs erased a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Ceres High was forced to play a tiebreaker game versus Beyer after losing 67-46 at Mountain House. The Mustangs ended up claiming the WAC title.
Surprisingly, the Bulldogs didn’t receive an at-large berth to playoffs despite collecting 17 wins.
Ceres High scheduled tougher preseason opponents this year in an effort to boost its power rating.
“Our strength of schedule is way tougher this year,” Walker said. “I tried to schedule teams that made playoffs (last season). I felt like this team could handle it mentally.”
Ceres High’s boys basketball program made its last playoff appearance in 2016-17. The Bulldogs compiled a 15-12 overall record and placed second in the WAC (7-3) during Julio Marquez’s final year as head coach.
Ceres High won its last conference title in 2010-11. Walker was an assistant coach.
“We know what we want to do,” said Walker, who has a 40-56 career record with the Bulldogs. “We want to get to playoffs and win (league) championships. I feel we’re going to get there. The only thing I can do is get the kids to compete and we’ll see where the chips fall.”