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Cougar Boys Fall To Mustangs In Road Playoff Battle
Basketball Finale
Battling throughout the contest, Cougar Joey Fross goes up strong to the hoop here; he had 26 points in his final career game with the Escalon varsity squad, knocked out in the first round of the Section playoffs in Division IV. Marg Jackson/The Times

They basically ran into a buzz saw.

Heading out on the road for a short trip to Venture Academy in Stockton, the Escalon varsity Cougar basketball boys ended their season with a 90-67 loss on Friday night, Feb. 18.

The No. 6 seed Venture Academy Mustangs hosted the No. 11 Cougars in the first round of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs and, despite a solid showing of fan support for EHS, the Cougars could not overcome the taller, faster and more athletic Mustangs.

“This was a tough draw for us as a first round opponent. They were the best number six seed that I can remember seeing in person. We were slotted as the number 10 seed in the final rankings, but CIF does not allow league opponents – Ripon was number seven seed – to play in the first round, so they moved us to the number 11 seed, which matched us up against Venture,” explained Escalon head coach Nate Bartelink. “It was probably the worst possible match-up for us given the strengths of their team and the areas that we have struggled with this season. But to win a section title, you have to beat four really good teams along the way. We had issues this season taking care of the basketball against pressure, defending quick, athletic teams, and defensive rebounding at a consistently high level. Each of those areas were major issues in this game.”

Though the Cougars hit the first bucket of the game, a three-pointer, the lead quickly evaporated as the host Mustangs went on to post a 24-9 lead by the end of the first quarter. From there, the Cougars were close in terms of the scoreboard in each quarter, but just didn’t have enough firepower to close the gap that Venture established over the first eight minutes.

Venture outscored the Cougars 16-12 to lead it 40-21 at the half, then posted quarter advantages of 28-25 in the third, 22-21 in the fourth to take the 90-67 victory.

“After watching a lot of film in preparation for the game, we knew we had to take care of the ball, limit our turnovers and keep them out of transition. We were unable to do that. We knew they were quick and athletic, but they were quicker and more athletic than we expected,” admitted Bartelink. “They were the fastest Division IV team that I have seen in person as a varsity coach. We did not start off the game well. We turned it over eight times (20 for the game) in the first quarter, which got them into transition, where they thrive. It’s almost impossible to defend live ball turnovers.”

Regrouping after the frantic first quarter, Bartelink said they came back to the court with some determination but Venture Academy matched the intensity.

“We started to adjust to their speed a little bit as the game moved forward, but the lead was around 20 points at that time and we could never get much closer. We started to score at a high rate, but we simply could not get stops,” the coach noted. “Venture had four really skilled players that were a challenge to defend. Their athleticism allowed them to get into the paint without much interference. When we did defend the initial drive, they did a good job sharing the ball and had a couple shooters shoot at a high percentage from the three-point line.”

As the teams traded buckets throughout the third and fourth quarters, the Mustangs were able to hang on to the comfortable lead.

“The second half score between the two teams was 50-46 in favor of Venture, showing that defense was not really played by either team,” Bartelink said. “I was proud that our guys kept battling until the very end. We ran into a buzz saw on that particular night and you have to tip your cap to them. They were the better team. They will be a tough out as they move forward in the playoffs.”

Leading the Cougars was senior Joey Fross, who put up a team high 26 points, including six treys, along with seven assists and five rebounds. Fellow senior Russell Weinbrecht had 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks. Junior Jack Anderson had 11 points (three three-pointers) and junior DeSean Owens chipped in with 10 points on the night.

“It was disappointing for our season to end in that way. We were hopeful to make a deeper playoff run, but we had a few losses during the season that we can look back on that negatively impacted our playoff seeding, and possibly a reason we didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs,” Bartelink said. “I told the guys in the locker room after the game that this is a lesson that things in life do not always go as expected or how you want. What matters is how you handle disappointment; that life goes on and what matters most is how to move forward.”

After having a shortened, no playoff season last year due to COVID restrictions, and still seeing the pandemic have an impact this year, Bartelink said nevertheless, it was a successful campaign overall.

“I am proud of the guys for battling some adversity and still having the success we did have this year. Winning 19 games is something to be proud of. It’s the most wins a varsity team in our program has had since 2005. It’s always difficult for a season to end; especially so abruptly,” he pointed out. “It’s hard to say goodbye to guys that you spend so much time with for several months. We are going to miss our four seniors; Bryce McKenzie, Matthew Silva, Joey Fross and Russell Weinbrecht. I appreciate the commitment and contributions they made to our program. With Russell leading the charge from this graduating class, along with the other recent varsity players, our program is in a much better place than it was four years ago. They should all share in being proud of that.”

And while this season saw continued improvement for the team, the coach said there are still goals they want to achieve.

“Reflecting on the big picture, I am pleased with the direction that our program is headed. We have a lot of guys putting in a tremendous amount of work outside of what is required. That type of ongoing commitment is what it takes to have sustained success,” Bartelink summarized. “We have now been in the playoffs for two straight years (no playoffs in 2021 due to COVID), but we are not satisfied. We need to continue to address our weaknesses in pursuit of the next level of success. I’m looking forward to that challenge. While we are losing some very talented seniors, the cupboard is not empty. We have some good players remaining in the program and I’m excited for what the future holds. I’d like to thank everyone within our great community for the ongoing support.”

Junior Jack Anderson, 3, brings the ball down the court as the Mustang defense gets into position. Trailing the play is Cougar Russell Weinbrecht, 24, one of four EHS seniors who closed out their career with the playoff loss on the road Friday night in Stockton. Marg Jackson/The Times