HHS Girls Basketball
Hughson girls basketball team on a roll as heart of TVL schedule approaches

The next two weeks will be an important test for the Hughson girls basketball team, which faces the four other schools that are most likely to compete for the top spot in the ultra-competitive Trans-Valley League.

The Huskies (12-5, 2-0) are on a roll, having won six games in a row, including an impressive victory over TVL rival Riverbank for the championship of the Pitman Classic tournament the week after Christmas and blowout wins against Livingston and Hilmar to open the league season.

Tuesday night, Hughson travels to Riverbank (14-2, 2-0) in a showdown for first place. Two weeks ago, the Huskies prevailed 52-47 in the Pitman tournament in a game they led from start to finish.

“That’s a huge game,” said Hughson Coach Tim May of Tuesday’s matchup. “The odds of us beating them three times in one year aren’t good. If Riverbank wins, we know we have to get them the second time at our place. But if we win, Riverbank knows they have to get us the next time. It’s all those in-between games that will decide who wins the league title.”

The schedule doesn’t get any easier after Riverbank. The Huskies are home against Ripon (6-8, 1-1) and defending TVL champion Escalon (10-5, 1-1) before finishing the first half of the TVL season at Ripon Christian (8-5, 0-1) on January 20.

“I definitely don’t think you’ll see an undefeated team in the TVL this year,” May said. “It’s probably going to be a one- or two-loss team. So, if we can come out of the next two weeks 4-0, that would be huge.”

May believes the Huskies are just hitting their stride after an intentionally challenging pre-season schedule. Last year, after the Huskies were knocked out in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs, May and Athletic Director Joel Bernard decided to strengthen the non-league schedule this season. Gone were some of the smaller schools who might have been easy wins, but offered less competition. Taking their place were larger schools from Modesto, Atwater, Ceres and Oakdale and an upgraded tournament schedule.

The Huskies opened with four victories, but then dropped five of their next seven games.

“We’ve lost five times by a total of 20 points,” said May, who admitted briefly second-guessing playing so many tough teams early in the year.

“There was a moment where I thought it was the worst decision I ever made,” he said. “But then it clicked. It’s not always easy to know if we’re one of those teams that we’re almost there but just don’t know how to win yet, or are you right there and getting better even in a loss. Now that we got through it and came out 10-5, it was the best decision.”

As usual, the Huskies lean heavily on two things for their success – aggressive defensive pressure at every position and the all-around ability of senior guard Olivia Fiveash, who has started every game she’s played since she was a freshman.

Defensive intensity has always been May’s calling card in his eight seasons as head coach. This year’s roster – which may be the most talented he’s had – has completely bought into the concept.

“The difference is, even last year when we had a good team, our girls sometimes played to the level of the opponent, good or bad,” May said. “This year, we’re sharing the ball. We’re moving it around. We’re playing consistent defense. We want to be the best defensive team in the league.”

Fiveash is the glue that keeps everything humming. After missing most of last season because of shoulder surgery, the senior co-captain leads the team with 15.7 points per game.

“She’s a seasoned basketball player. She comes from a basketball family,” May said. “She has that extra work she’s done for years that a lot of girls don’t do. She’s a calm, cool leader. Her basketball IQ is up with the best I’ve been around.”

The coach paused, then offered Fiveash the ultimate compliment: “It sounds sexist, but she plays like a boy.”

The Huskies are far from a one-girl team, however. Senior center Alexandra Gehrke averages 7.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and “has played out of her mind,” May said. The Duron sisters – Madi, a junior co-captain, and Jessie, a sophomore – also are important contributors.

“Olivia and Madi are taking over the team,” May said. “Their leadership is important. It’s always better when the coaches don’t have to talk so much.”

May expects Tuesday’s showdown at Riverbank to be another tense affair.

“Riverbank has seven players who play travel ball; that’s unheard of in the TVL,” he said. “They want to get out and run. We want to slow them down. To do that, we’ll have to play good defense.”

As tough as the TVL is shaping up to be, May likes how his team is playing. The opportunity to win the school’s first girls basketball league title in more than 30 years is within reach. So is the potential of a home playoff game. As of today, the Huskies also are ranked as the sixth-best Division IV team in the Sac-Joaquin Section; Riverbank is right ahead at No. 5. The top eight teams will play at least one home game in the playoffs.

“We expect to be playing a playoff game at home this year,” May said. “The league title is our first goal. We’d like to win it. That’s the reason we went so hard in preseason. We’re not going to see anyone in league who’s going to apply more pressure than we’ve already seen. We really talk about winning every day. Every practice, let’s get better. The question is, ‘Can we execute?’ ”