Spartans advance to Central Valley semifinals

Strathmore’s Isaiah Colunga dribbles the ball against Summit Charter Collegiate Academy this past Thursday night. The Srathmore Spartans defeated the Bears, 57-46, in the quarterfinals of the Division VI Central Section playoffs.(Kason Clark)

Strathmore boys basketball pulls out a 57-46 win on the road against Summit Charter Collegiate Academy; Spartans advance in the Division VI Central Section playoffs to next face Firebaugh

PORTERVILLE – Over the past two years, Strathmore and Summit Charter Collegiate Academy boys basketball have met four times. It has been an even series with a 2-2 stalemate across those four games. The Spartans and Bears met up for a fifth time this past Thursday night, and the result of this contest would not only determine who would get the edge in the series, but the winner would also advance to the semifinals of the Division VI Central Section playoffs.

Through the first three quarters of the contest on Feb. 15, the No. 5 seed Strathmore Spartans and the No. 4 seed Summit Bears went back and forth. But when the game got to the fourth quarter, the visiting Spartans took control and then held on for a 57-46 victory. As his team won to advance, Strathmore head coach Israel Valdez believes his team’s familiarity with Summit made the difference.

“We’re always prepared for what they’re going to do and what they do really well,” Valdez said. “We knew that coming in, we had to match their energy and then just play their personnel and to their strengths.”

It was the biggest meeting between the Spartans and the Bears since last season’s postseason contest in Strathmore. The Bears won that contest, 62-47, to eliminate the Spartans, so getting revenge this year was a strong motivation for Canyon Johnson and his teammates.

“I was ready to get some sort of revenge from last year,” Johnson said. “They beat us in our home last year so it just felt really good to take it here this year.”

The Spartans had to get that revenge on the road, which has not been kind to them this season as they had been 4-7 on the road this year. Even worse, the Bears had been stellar at home this season with an 11-4 record heading into the game, but Johnson and his teammates were ready for the playoff environment on the road.

“We knew it was going to be loud,” Johnson said. “This week at practice, we were working really hard and we were just bringing the energy that we knew was going to be in the gym.”

On the road, Johnson led the way with 26 points for the Spartans. His teammates Aeneas Ambriz and Dion Ambriz both contributed 10 points to help Strathmore improve to 18-11 overall and advance in the postseason.

But the Bears gave the Spartans all they could handle throughout the night. After the Spartans jumped out to a 13-8 lead in the opening frame, Kristian Avila scored five straight points for Summit to make it a 13-13 draw to end the first.

Then through the first few minutes of the second quarter, the Spartans and Bears exchanged baskets and the lead. Thanks to a layup from Aeneas Ambriz, the Spartans pulled ahead for a 19-18 lead with just under six minutes left in the half. The Spartans then held off the Bears to take a 26-24 lead into halftime.

After the break, the Spartans found a spark as they went on a 10-4 run to stretch their lead to 36-28 early in the third quarter. But the Bears closed the third on a 12-6 run to cut the deficit to 42-40 heading to the fourth. Avila got rolling for Summit with eight points during this stretch.

Liam Leyba then scored to open the fourth quarter to knot things up at 42-42. But after letting the lead slip away, the Spartans did not waver. Over the next three minutes of play, the Spartans took control with a 12-0 run to take a commanding 54-42 lead. As the Spartans began to pull away, Johnson credited their defensive energy for giving them a spark.

“In all of the huddles, we were just pushing defense,” Johnson said. “In the second half, we just came out and we were like, ‘let’s go, let’s get it and let’s get back on defense.’”

Even with the lead, the Spartans continued to play sound defense as the Bears only made two baskets over the final six minutes of the game. As the Spartans limited the Bears’ offense, they were mostly focused on slowing down Shawn Smith and his playmaking.

Summit’s Shawn Smith dribbles the ball against Strathmore. With their loss to the Spartans, the Summit Bears were eliminated from the postseason and finished their season with an overall record of 21-8. (Kason Clark)

“Shawn’s obviously the catalyst and he makes them go so we just tried to make it really difficult on Shawn,” Valdez said. “Everybody else after is going to play off him so we knew that if we contained him really well and then rebounded, we would give ourselves a shot.”

With Smith contained, Avila finished the night as the leading scorer for the Bears with 18 points. With the loss, the Bears were eliminated from the postseason and finished their year with an overall record of 21-8. While the year came to a disappointing end, Summit head coach Ken Caldwell was proud of the Bears’ season that saw them win an East Sequoia-Redwood League title.

“I’m really proud of this group of guys,” Caldwell said. “We went through the whole season with pretty much six or seven kids and they were able to win a league championship while playing heavy minutes all year long, so I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”

The Spartans now advance to the semifinals as they will next face No. 1 seed Firebaugh on the road. While the Eagles will be a tough opponent, Valdez is excited to see what the Spartans can do with a chance to advance to the Division VI Central Section championship game.

“We have an opportunity to do something really special with this group,” Valdez said. “It’s just the next game for us so all that we’re trying to do is prepare.”

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