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BATTLE TESTED - Tumultuous Preseason Prepares Lady Mustangs For Conference Clashes
12-26 OAK G-BB Prev1
Mackenzie Ruthman fights hard for an Oakdale rebound during a win over Le Grand. - photo by IKE DODSON/THE LEADER

Valley Oak League girls basketball teams that saw Oakdale High struggle to a winless 2011-12 campaign may expect more of the same from the Lady Mustangs after learning of Oakdale’s preseason struggles this year.

But that could prove to be a costly mistake.

Oakdale is just 2-7 in nonleague play, but features five defeats by 10 points or less and punished visiting Le Grand with an impressive display of depth and shooting on Thursday, Dec. 19.

Oakdale fell by just eight points to Division II stalwart West of Tracy (8-4), lost by the same margin to Division I Freedom of the North Coast Section.

And the Lady Mustangs are getting better every day.

Seven players found success at the hoop on Thursday against a Le Grand team that struggled to beat Oakdale players for rebounds and loose balls. Oakdale won 37-23.

Mackenzie Ruthman led the charge to outhustle Le Grand with key steals on Bulldog possessions and six points (most in transition). The senior guard was instrumental in feeding the ball to Oakdale’s biggest playmaker, Kylie Gust, who drained two treys and scored eight points.

Gust (plays wing in Oakdale’s lineup) made waves last year with a big late season charge to give Oakdale hopes for a conference victory. On Thursday she reminded home fans of those efforts when she joined the like of Madison Hackbarth (six points), Christina Cobarruvias (five), Hanna Holland (four), Francesca Orvis (four) and Janny Garcia (four) on the scorebook.

Garcia, Ruthman and Orvis (all seniors) played for Oakdale coach Justin Schwitters during his inaugural season as OHS head coach last year. The three will miss the presence of graduates Blanca Lara, Ashley Edwards and Jordan Esparza, and 2011-12 starter Emma Andreini (senior), who is not with the team.

The openings in Oakdale’s lineup has freed up opportunity for a strong junior cast that includes Cobarruvias (point guard) and Holland (guard). Cobarruvias has impressive handles for a first-year varsity player and will be key in fighting the trademark press of most conference teams. Her success will rely on cooperation with another steady ball-handler in Holland and the presence of freshman forward, Hackbarth.

Oakdale will be one of the smallest teams in the league (tallest player is 5 feet, 10 inches), but should utilize a deep bench and hockey-style substitutions to keep the game in their realm.

“Our strength is our ability to change defenses and control tempo to keep games low scoring,” Schwitters said. “We want to be able to keep games into low possession games and hope to be able to execute out of multiple sets.

“We are small and sometimes play a four guard lineup which means we have really good team speed. Since we are athletic it makes it very hard to press us, which is huge when trying to controlling tempo in games.”

Controlling the tempo of games will be vital if Oakdale is to stay competitive in a conference that sent four teams to the postseason last year and features even more talent than it did in 2011-12.

Manteca expects to be the class of the conference despite a surprisingly weak start to the year at 3-3. The early struggles will vanish when senior transfer Courtney Range becomes eligible. Range is a highly touted prospect ranked No. 38 in the country by ESPN. She has signed a letter of intent to play basketball with Cal. Joining her are a strong cast of returning players from a Manteca team that went 25-4 a year ago, including Mikayla Hasal (signed to play at Stanislaus State).

Manteca’s stiffest competition expects to be a Sonora team (5-3) that showcases sterling victories over the likes of West and Riverbank (8-3). Kimball returns every member of a 2011-12 squad that reached the postseason, and should also be in the mix.

 “Other than (Manteca, Sonora and Kimball), it should be a pretty competitive league,” Schwitters said. “The league won’t be as strong top to bottom, like it was last year.

“In my second year I have more knowledge of what it is going to take to win in our league, which is still the best league in the area by far.”

A lot has changed for Oakdale since their 0-14 struggle through league last year. The team enjoyed its first summer with coach Schwitters, grew during team camps, two different summer leagues and for the first time in school history, sent a junior varsity team to compete in summer league play. Since Schwitters took the reins so late in 2011, this was his first year to schedule his own preseason docket.

“The summer is when the biggest strides can be made to getting better as a team and for player as individuals,” Schwitters said. “This year our preseason has been so much more effective because I could choose to play teams that would help us build for league.”

Oakdale will begin conference play with a showdown against visiting Sierra on Jan. 2.