Modesto Christian sophomore forward Mana Itete is guarded by Gregori's Kobe Nunes during a scrimmage ahead of the 2021-22 season. Itete is averaging a double-double for the Crusaders. (Kris Zweigle)

'My second family': Congo native carving out special role with Modesto Christian

James Burns

SALIDA — Far from home, Mana Itete, a blossoming two-sport star, has embraced Modesto Christian High School, a cozy campus at the northern edge of Stanislaus County.

He calls it a second home and these Crusaders a "second family." However, in the same breath, with a sincere tone and a steely gaze, the 16-year-old Congolese is quick to note that his second home is just a pitstop on his journey.

Like many of the student-athletes that enroll at Modesto Christian, especially those that travel internationally, there is a purpose for the personal sacrifice. Itete left his family and his home to create a college opportunity.

"I don't really miss my family right now, because that's my second family," Itete said, pointing toward the gym, where many of his coaches and teammates waited for Tuesday's tip. "They make me feel great. They make me feel comfortable."

Here’s what he didn’t know when he left his home to chase a basketball dream: His future may hold a major crossroad. Turns out, Itete is a promising football player, too, attracting interest from two of the country’s signature programs — Clemson and Penn State. Despite missing time with ankle and hamstring injuries, Itete’s big body, high motor, and excellent academic record are enticing to college coaches and scouts in both the basketball and football world.

In other words, Itete, a 6-foot-7 man-child, may have to decide between sports … between passions.

For now, his focus is on basketball and delivering Modesto Christian, the Sac-Joaquin Section all-time winningest program, its fifth Holiday Hoop Classic title. The Crusaders have made a tournament-best nine finals appearances and moved one step closer to a 10th with Tuesday’s 73-46 victory over Clovis East.

Modesto Christian's Jamari Phillips hangs in the air for two of his game-high 24 points as the Crusaders advanced to the semifinal round of the Holiday Hoop Classic with a 73-46 victory over Clovis East on Tuesday, December 28, 2021. (Samantha Schmidt)

Sloppy to start, Modesto Christian erased a five-point deficit with a 14-2 spurt to start the second quarter and never looked back. Jamari Phillips helped trigger the run with six consecutive points. The super sophomore finished with a game-high 24 points.

BJ Davis scored 12 of his 20 points in the first half and 6-foot-10 center Prince Oseya gave the Crusaders a boost off the bench with 10 points. Itete tallied the Crusaders' first points on an offensive rebound, but struggled to find a rhythm. He finished with four points and seven rebounds, including three on the offensive glass.

"He's really raw," Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said, "but he's got stuff you can't teach. Amazing hands, moves well for his size, and he's one of those kids where, obviously, when he comes on campus you're like 'Whoa.' The first thing you see is his size, but then you start to see the stuff you can work with."

On a roster full of scoring guards, Itete is the muscle, a barrel-chested rebounding machine. He is averaging a double-double, matching his output during a COVID-shortened freshman season. In an opening round win over Beyer, Itete scored 11 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in three quarters of action.

He spent all of the fourth cheering on his teammates, an admirable character trait not lost on the Crusader coaching staff. Twice, Modesto Christian assistants had to pull Itete back to the bench as he cheered on teammates in the fourth quarter.

"I want to be a good teammate," he said. "If I'm playing or not, I need to be happy for them."

Modesto Christian center Prince Oseya (13) throws down a two-handed dunk during the second half of a 73-46 victory over Clovis East on Monday, December 28, 2021. (Samantha Schmidt)

Fantazia believes Itete has a chance to become one of the greatest rebounders in school history, even on par with its most cherished alumni, Chuck Hayes who started for Kentucky and later enjoyed a lengthy NBA career.

What excites Fantazia and others who watch Itete run the floor, squeeze the ball with soft hands, and step through traffic with nimble feet: He’s still just a boy … a boy blessed with a man’s body.

Itete could grow as tall as his brother and father, who measure out at 6-10 and 7-0, respectively. He’s already the strongest Crusader, despite missing most of the basketball team’s strength workouts because of football. And he’s got a motor and drive that have become hallmarks of Modesto Christian forwards, including recent graduates Gabe Murphy (Northwest Nazarene), Anthony Townes (Pacific) and Robinson Idehen (Santa Barbara), all of whom went on to play at four-year universities.

"Everyone wants glamour. Everyone wants the highlight plays," Fantazia said. "We need someone who does the dirty work and he's bought into that. He can be one of the best rebounders to come through this school and that's saying something when you have Chuck Hayes, Reeves Nelson, and Robinson Idehen, and Anthony Townes was an amazing rebounder too."