TRAC basketball takes center stage: Your 2017 Tri-River Athletic Conference boys’ basketball preview

Clovis West senior Adrian Antunez is the Golden Eagles’ top player, averaging 24 points per game in leading the team to a 17-1 record. He’s committed to play at Fresno Pacific University next year. [Photo by Nick Baker]

By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor

The stage has been set and the basketball boys of the Tri-River Athletic Conference are ready to rock and roll. After traveling up and down the state and even into Nevada for some preseason tournaments, all six teams have an impressive combined record of 70-26 going into the rugged 10-game league which begins on Jan. 13.

It’s often been said that games in November and December is a time for coaches to get a beat on their team, see what rotations work and get in shape for crunch time. Wins are nice but improvement is necessary.

And speaking of coaches, the biggest basketball news in the Central Section, let alone in the TRAC, is the return of Vance Walberg to Clovis West, replacing Tom Olrich who left at the end of last season. Walberg coached the Golden Eagles from 1990-2002 – amassing a 343-68 record, 11 league titles and six Central Section Valley championships before leaving to coach in college and the NBA. Also of note is the fact that Walberg has a special relationship with Clovis North coach Tony Amundsen who he coached at Newark Memorial in the late 1980s.

While the TRAC coaches with Walberg and Amundsen are a virtual who’s who among the coaching elite along with Adrian Wiggins of Clovis East, Pat Geil of Buchanan, Wil Hooker of Clovis and Greg Streets of Central, it’s the players who are at the center.

Below is a breakdown of each team, players to watch and keys for each team to be successful.

Clovis West (17-1)

Coach: Vance Walberg (13th season at Clovis West overall, first season since 2001)

Players to watch: Adrian Antunez, Sr., Adrian Martinez, Jr., Walter Graves III, Sr.

Team strengths: Ability to score, full court pressure defense, hustle, wearing down opposition.

Pre-TRAC temperature: Hot. The Golden Eagles have taken flight by winning the Simi Valley Tip-Off, the Tustin Classic and running the table against four Bakersfield schools in their own Nike Clovis West Shootout. With 17 wins under their belt their only loss was to Beyer in the championship game of the Modesto City Tournament. They are on the bubble to be ranked in the top 25 teams in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.

The nitty-gritty: The biggest story in the TRAC this season is the return of coach Vance Walberg, the legendary coach returning to where he made a name for himself as a basketball innovator before moving on to college and the NBA. And his return is quite evident as the Golden Eagles are averaging 86 points per game with his patented “dribble-drive” offense, full-court defense and mass substituting. Leading the way is senior guard Adrian Antunez, a Fresno Pacific University commit who is averaging around 24 points and can score in a variety of ways. 6-foot-5 athletic senior Walter Graves is a leaper who can do a bit of everything on the court and Adrian Martinez, a Cal football commit as a quarterback and a junior, rounds out a dynamic trio.

Summarizin’: Clovis West is runnin’ and gunnin’ and are must-see basketball again led by seniors Antunez, Graves and uber-athlete Martinez. Those three are as deadly a trio as there is in the Central Section. Will teams be able to keep up with the Golden Eagles fast and furious pace?

Clovis North (10-5)

Coach: Tony Amundsen (4th season at Clovis North)

Players to watch: Elijah Straughter, Sr; Ben Avera, Sr, Chad Fugman Sr., Taj Gill, Sr.

Team strengths: Full court pressure, deep rotation, ability to score.

Pre-TRAC temperature: Medium-hot. The Broncos have played well in preseason tournaments making it to the championship game of their own Valley Children’s Tip-Off Classic before losing to Burbank and bouncing back by going 3-1 in the the Clash on the Coast tournament. They routed defending D-II Central Section champion Lemoore 96-53 at home on Jan. 3.

The nitty-gritty: The defending TRAC champions and Division I runners up last year will look to  two three-year varsity players in seniors Ben Avera and Elijah Straughter to pick up the scoring slack this season, and it’s so far so good. Avera, a 6-foot-5 Azusa Pacific commit, is long and athletic and can score inside and out with ease, averaging close to 20 points per game. He had a school record 41 in the season opening 97-35 win over De Anza. Straughter, a 6-foot-6 rebounder and shot blocker, is averaging 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks but dislocated his pinky finger and will miss some time to start league. Taj Gill is a three point specialist and Dom Reyes is a savvy point guard who can cause havoc on the court. Senior Chad Fugman will play a major role as well. The Broncos and Clovis West will be an intriguing matchup this year with similar styles.

Summarizin’: Clovis North will need tons of scoring from Avera and plenty of bench production for head coach Tony Amundsen’s team to compete for a league title this year. Straughter’s a great rim protector and has the ability to score, but will his finger injury heal in time to be effective in league? They’ll need his production.

Clovis East (11-5)

Coach: Adrian Wiggins (4th season at Clovis East)

Players to watch: Spencer Matthes, Sr., Jaylen Johnson, Sr., Jamie Antonda, Sr.

Team Strengths: Skilled offensive sets, good three point shooters, help defense, senior leadership.

Pre-TRAC temperature: Medium-hot. All the Timberwolves preseason games are out-of-section including tournaments in Las Vegas and the Santa Margarita Holiday Classic where they went 2-2 in each. They won the consolation in the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoops Classic, beating Beyer 63-60, a team that gave Clovis West their only loss on the season. Three of the team’s losses were in games they led in the fourth quarter. They beat Edison, Fresno and Bullard leading up to league.

The nitty-gritty: This year’s team was primed to have a big season but the loss of two projected starters put a damper on that thought. First, junior swingman Brandon Recek transferred to Clovis West (and has been ruled ineligible for the season) and prized freshman 6-foot-5 Jaylen Green decided to go to San Joaquin Memorial. But, no matter for head coach Adrian Wiggins, as the former Fresno State women’s coach has a group of seniors who work hard and are extremely coachable led by seniors Spencer Matthes, Jaylen Johnson and Jamie Atonda. The Timberwolves lack size (they have four players listed six feet or taller) and must rely on great shooting and tough nosed defense to be effective.

Summarizin’: Clovis East plays with intensity, grit and smarts and will be a challenge for every team this year in the league behind strong leaders in Matthes, Johnson and Atonda. Their five-game winning streak bodes well and is a good momentum builder for the Timberwolves.

Buchanan (13-4)

Coach: Pat Geil (3rd  season at Buchanan)

Players to watch: Tyree Leggett, Sr., Spencer Heimerdinger, Jr., Jonah Crumpton-Murray, So.

Team strengths: Team defense, controlling game tempo, inside-out offense game.

Pre-TRAC temperature: Medium-hot. The Bears have had a mighty fine preseason with 13 wins including making it to the championship game of two tournaments before losing to Central 72-67 in the McDonald’s Classic and 81-54 to Place at the Rocklin Holiday Tournament. They have quality wins at home against Modesto Christian on a buzzer beater by sophomore Jonah Crumpton-Murray and manhandled Edison 74-44 on Nov. 29.

The nitty-gritty: Gone is Donovan Mitchell to Wake Forest but Buchanan is a much more rounded team this year with two excellent players in senior guard Tyree Leggett (20 points per game) and junior big-man Spencer Heimerdinger. Leggett is quick and can create his own shot and Heimerdinger is a polished post player who, at 6-foot-7 can score with a variety of moves, averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game. Sophomore Crumpton-Murray is a talent in waiting. Head coach Pat Geil’s team will be a tough matchup for anyone in the TRAC this season, evidenced by their tough loss to defending Central Section champion Central High.

Summarizin’:Buchanan had an excellent pre-league and will be looking to win their first league title since 2012 when they were co-champs. The trio of Leggett, Crumpton-Murray and Heimerdinger are a formidable trio and will need to combine for around 60 points per game to stay among the top of the TRAC.  

Clovis High School (11-6)

Coach: Wil Hooker (2nd season at Clovis)

Players to watch: Anthony Martinez, Sr., Cooper Huyck, Jr., Caleb Malalis, Jr.

Team strengths: Team defense, low turnover rate, quality ball movement.

Pre-TRAC temperature: Medium. Stayed in the Central Section for their pre-season games, including the Hoover Invitational Tournament and going 3-1 in their own Clovis Elks Tournament which included a quality win 61-43 win over Bullard. The 10 wins are nice but there was a head-scratching 61-50 home loss to Division III Kingsburg.

The nitty-gritty: Wil Hooker, in his second year as the Cougars head coach, likes to play a slow tempo, relying on offensive sets and screens to score, averaging 58 points per game. Senior guard Anthony Martinez is the team’s leading scorer averaging 16 points per game and is teamed with 6-foot-6 junior Cooper Huyck, who’s averaging nine points and four rebounds.  

Summarizin’: Clovis High will need Martinez to step up his scoring and Huyck to control the middle and play tough inside. Hooker, the third leading scorer in Fresno State history, knows how to coach but the Cougars will have to be firing on all cylinders to compete against the upper teams of the TRAC.

Central (8-4)

Coach: Greg Streets (2nd season at Central)

Players to watch: Cash Williams, Jr., Cam’Ron Wilson, Jr., Kobe Foster, Sr.

Team strengths: Athletic, talent, speed.  

Pre-TRAC temperature: Medium. The Grizzlies started off the year with five straight wins including a championship win over Buchanan at the McDonald’s Classic in Stockton but they ran into some tough sledding at the Clovis West Shootout against Bakersfield competition, losing three straight to Ridgeview, Bakersfield and Independance. Bounced back nicely at the Modesto Christian Tournament, losing in the championship game to the No. 14 ranked team in the state, Salesian College Prep 68-49.

The nitty-gritty: The defending Central Section D-I champions, who beat Clovis North in last year’s finals, return two excellent starters from last year’s team in junior guards Cashemine Williams and Cam’Ron Wilson. Both have played varsity since their freshman year and average 19 and 18 points respectively this season. Overall, the team is athletic and has the ability to score in bunches.

Summarizin’: The Grizzlies have two excellent scorers in guards Williams and Wilson but will not have the services of senior Jaylon Johnson, who verbally committed to Utah for football will not play this season dude to shoulder surgery. They are not as talented as last year’s team but have just enough to challenge for a league title.

TRAC First-half schedule

Jan. 13

Clovis North at Clovis West

Clovis East at Clovis

Central at Buchanan

Jan. 17

Clovis North at Clovis

Buchanan at Clovis East

Clovis West at Central

Jan. 20

Clovis at Central

Clovis East at Clovis North

Buchanan at Clovis West

Jan. 24

Buchanan at Clovis

Central at Clovis North

Jan 25

Clovis East at Clovis West