Modesto Christian guards BJ Davis (left) embraces fellow guard Jalen Brown following their victory in the championship game of the Holiday Hoop Classic in December. (Diego Hernandez)

'Getting ourselves ready for playoffs': MC heads east to Quincy (Ill.) Shootout

Ron Agostini

The 2022-23 Modesto Christian Crusaders answer the question, “How do you transition from Plan A to Plan B and still succeed?”

Their emphatic answer: By having great players and not panicking.

MC has recovered from the unexpected exit of two starters, both elite talents, who returned from last year’s banner season, one that ended in the CIF State Open Division final. But look at the Crusaders now: 16-4, ranked 7th in California (by Cal-Hi Sports) and riding a 13-game winning streak.

“It’s Modesto Christian. No one is going to feel sorry for you,” coach Brice Fantazia reminded Thursday night. “We’ve hung in there with kids who bought into the culture.”

Everything MC does is calibrated toward the postseason. Its latest assignment is fascinating: The annual Quincy (Ill.) Shootout, a 17-game showcase of the nation’s best programs. Fantazia, a graduate of nearby Culver-Stockton College (Mo.), brings his team for the second straight year back to the city of about 39,000 and its tradition-steeped high school basketball team.

Modesto Christian’s two opponents both come from storied big-city programs: St. Rita of Chicago (11-8) and its tall front line of FBS talent on Friday, and defending Missouri state champion Vashon of St. Louis (7-7) on Saturday.

“We’re getting ourselves ready for the playoffs. This event will help us find out where we are,” Fantazia said. “We were section champions last year (Sac-Joaquin Section I) and we were right there (in the state final).”

The Crusaders and mighty Centennial of Corona were deadlocked at 48 with 3:21 left in the 2022 championship game at Golden 1 Center before Centennial pulled away to win 59-50. MC was close, very close last year. Another major run was expected this season.

It didn’t start that way. A rugged schedule and injuries led to a 1-2 body blow after only a few games. Manesse Itete, the physical 6-foot-6 270-pound inside force, elected to pursue a promising collegiate career in football. In fact, he’s visiting Pacific-12 Conference schools this weekend. Fantazia said Itete could return to the team in a few weeks.

Then came a blockbuster disclosure during the week of the annual MC Holiday Hoop Classic won by the Crusaders. Junior guard Jamari Phillips, last season’s leading scorer and one of the nation’s best backcourt talents bound for the University of Arizona, chose to hone his talents at AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, Ariz.

Modesto Christian accepts such hits as the price to pay in the often unpredictable and sometimes unseemly chase for top-tier players.

Fantazia and assistant Chris Teeven advised the remaining team to not look back. So far, so good.

The Crusaders have stabilized by falling back on, yes, talent. Junior guard BJ Davis, Phillips’ running mate last year, averages 18.3 points and six rebounds per game. His shooting and decision-making make him MC’s most important player and a future San Diego State Aztec.

Also encouraging is the improvement of 6-10 senior post Prince Oseya (8.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 blocks). He was instrumental in Modesto Christian’s road victory earlier this month over defending Nevada state champion Liberty of Henderson.

The Crusaders also upgraded by the addition of 6-2 senior guard Jalen Brown, a transfer from Alvarez High in Salinas. He has collected some of the slack from Phillips’ loss by averaging 15.1 points per game.   Adding to the mix is freshman guard Rashod Cotton, who improves almost each night.

“Jalen and BJ are who make us good,” Fantazia said. “Jalen was a kid no one knew about. Now they know.”

Modesto Christian didn’t exactly rest this week for its trip east. The Crusaders grinded out a dramatic 68-67 neutral-court win over No. 14 St. Joseph of Santa Maria on Monday night. The win wasn’t secured until a blocked shot by football star Jeremiah Bernard at the buzzer. Two nights later, MC coasted to a 59-42 victory over West, followed by its plane trip the next morning.

The meeting against Vashon will mark Modesto Christian’s fifth opponent this season that won a state title in 2022. Which makes the Quincy Shootout another stress test for Plan B.