After a grueling preseason, where the Knights traveled to Northern California and Arizona, St. Joseph's Mountain League grind continues.
The Knights will play their fifth game in 10 days Tuesday night when they travel to Arroyo Grande for a league showdown with the second-place Eagles.
St. Joseph is 19-4 and 6-0 in league, fending off every Mountain challenger in the first round of league competition.
The Eagles have come the closest to handing St. Joseph a league loss. The Knights nipped the Eagles 74-72 at home in the league opener on Jan. 3.
Arroyo Grande is 17-4 and 5-1 in league, having reeled off five straight wins by a combined margin of 111 points after falling to the Knights nearly three weeks ago.
St. Joseph is coming off a 76-52 loss to Bullard at the Edison Super Saturday Showcase in Fresno on Saturday. That loss ended a seven-game win streak for the Knights.
"We were able to get a game in Fresno and it was a good test for us and a way to reset after the first round of league," St. Joseph coach Tom Mott said of the Bullard game. "We needed to see where we were at. It was a grind and that was something we talked to the kids about. But they're young and they're excited for the challenge."
The Knights certainly are young. They rely on a core of sophomores for the bulk of their scoring.
In the Knights' win over Arroyo Grande on Jan. 3, sophomore Steven Vasquez scored 23 points. Last week in a 79-75 win over Mission Prep, sophomore Angel Ortiz led the way with 35.
Kainoa Keuma is the veteran scorer on the team. The senior is second on the Knights in scoring average at 14 points per game. Ortiz is the team's leading scorer, averaging 16 points a game. Vasquez averages 11 points per game and sophomore Jincho Rivera adds 10.7.
Mott said the team is "very happy with the results in league this year" and the team had to bring its "'A-game' most nights." He knows the second round of league play will be even more difficult, with Tuesday's game on the road and another game looming at Mission Prep. St. Joseph will host San Luis Obispo, which split the league title with Mission Prep last year, on Jan. 30.
Playing an Arroyo Grande team coached by Ryan Glanville will test his team's organization and competitiveness, Mott said.
"Ryan is a great coach and he has his teams well-prepared," Mott said. "They have some outstanding players this year and it's a good match-up of styles. They have a bunch of competitive kids up there."
Mott says most games come down to the little plays that don't show up in box scores, especially against a team like Arroyo Grande.
"Most coaches preach about the 50-50 balls and second-chance points," Mott said, adding that seniors EJ Brinez and Chase Artopoeus have consistently made those big little plays this year.
"EJ, he's not our leading scorer or leading rebounder, but he's out there always giving 110-percent effort and coming up with huge plays," Mott said. "Chase has come up with the same type of plays. Chase is strong defensively and with his intelligence. Those are two key guys."
On the flip side there's Ortiz, an undersized guard who facilitates the offense but prefers to score. Ortiz is the next in a line of standout guards to have played for Mott. Most recently, JoJo Walker led the Knights to a CIF Southern Section title in 2016 and is now making an impact at the University of Portland.
"(Angel) has done the things that we talked about before the season," Mott said. "Being more aggressive on both ends and offensively he's really doing a nice job. He still needs to put more effort on defense, but to be doing what he's doing as a sophomore is great.
"But we're not satisfied and neither is he. We want to be great and he wants to be great, too. He sees the big-picture stuff."
Ortiz had 18 points against the Eagles the first time the two teams played. Keuma made four of five free throws down the stretch to lock up the win.
Game Gomez led the Eagles with 14 points before leaving the game late with an injured ankle. Bryan Smith, Robert Hutchens and Caleb Whalen each put in 12 points apiece for Arroyo Grande in the Jan. 3 game.
Valley Christian Academy 47, Coastal Christian 43
In what head coach Randy Stanford called one of the best performances of the season for the Lions, VCA held on for the four-point victory on Monday night.
Three VCA players reached double figures: Mayley DeBernardi with 15 points, Grace Cose with 12 and Lindsay Mikkelson scoring 10 points.
Heather Knudsen (six points) and Jenna Mason (four) also added to the Lions' scoring on their Coast Valley League victory. VCA improved their league record to 6-3 and is now 10-6 overall.