West Ranch boys basketball focused on playoffs after stressful regular season

STEVENSON RANCH — The West Ranch boys basketball team is happy to have the regular season in the past.

The Wildcats (15-13 overall) had to forfeit three Foothill League games and two tournament games due to the use of a player deemed ineligible by the CIF Southern Section after a back-and-forth with the CIF-SS that at one point had lawyers involved on behalf of the player.

“At the end of the day, we want to win a CIF championship,” West Ranch coach Jeff Bryant said. “We did go through a lot during the regular season, but we’re kind of moving past that and we want to focus on the playoffs.”

West Ranch forfeited every game that the ineligible player, junior Prince Okonkwo, competed in and ended up finishing tied for second place with Valencia in the Foothill League, which earned the Wildcats a spot in the CIF-SS Division 1 playoffs.

They hosted Edison (20-8) in the first round Wednesday and came out with a 67-52 win.

Okonkwo, who returned to play on Jan. 27 after missing roughly a month, contributed nine points. Tracy Bryden and James Evans lead the team with 17 points apiece.

Zach Bauman’s 3-pointer got West Ranch a 9-2 lead with under five minutes in the first quarter, and James Evans’ layup kept the run going.

Bauman ended the game with 11 points — nine of which came from 3-pointers.

The Wildcats used their height and athleticism to win rebounding battles and create second-chance opportunities in the paint. Bryden, who is 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds, was at the forefront of those efforts. He’s also working on expanding his game this postseason by increasing his lateral quickness.

“Especially on defense,” Bryden said. “We’re going to be going up against guys that don’t have any size. They’re going to have tiny, quick guys. I’m gonna have to be able to guard them and not just sit in the paint and be a body.”

Edison’s Kaz Hampton hit a 3 as the Chargers hung tight in the second quarter. Strategic timing helped them sink shots when the moment was right and bring the score to 28-25 by halftime.

West Ranch pulled away in the third quarter and Bauman made a corner 3-pointer early on to extend the lead. He made a layup shortly after to put the Wildcats up 37-28.

The Wildcats will travel to Santa Margarita for their second-round matchup Friday.

The stress of eligibility and forfeits tested them mentally, but Bryant said that his team has grown from blocking out distractions.

“It just tested our character. It tested our unity,” Bryant said. “As a team, they’re brothers, they’re family and we all have the ultimate goal and it wasn’t just the Foothill League championship.”

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