Members and coaches of the Renaissance Academy boys' basketball team frequently point to their challenging regular season schedule as a reason for their ongoing postseason success.
Now that experience is proving to be quite relevant to the Wildcats' quest for a state title in a more direct way, as they will have a rematch with a regular season foe for the second state tournament contest in a row.
It worked out pretty well for Renaissance in the CIF State Boys' Division V Championships Southern California Bracket semifinal on Tuesday, when the Wildcats avenged an earlier loss to Ribet by beating the Fighting Frogs, 75-59, to advance to the Southern California finals, where they will meet Village Christian at 3 p.m. Saturday at Colony High in Ontario.
Third-seeded Renaissance (26-7) has some recent history with the fifth-seeded Crusaders (30-3), as well, having pulled off a 60-44 win over Village Christian in the 43rd annual Bulldog Tournament at Burbank High in the second game of the season on Nov. 30.
"Village is a very tough team [with] a lot of height," Wildcats senior guard Vince De Guzman said. "We're in for another dogfight. We beat Village earlier in the year and we know they're going to come out for us. We know we have the target on our backs and we're ready for them."
Since being handed their first loss of the season by the Wildcats, the Crusaders went on to win 16 in a row and 21 of their final 22 regular season games to make a perfect run through the Olympic League and advance to the semifinals of the Southern Section Division 5-AA playoffs, where they lost to Ribet, 64-52, on Feb. 24.
"I think our guys are real excited to get an opportunity to play on this stage," Crusaders Coach Jon Shaw said. "Last time we did a poor job of guarding their two best players [De Guzman and senior center Jessy Cantinol]. We gave them too many second-chance points and lost them in transition too much."
Village Christian (30-3) has advanced through the state tournament with wins over San Diego Jewish Academy, Mission Prep and Division 5-AA champion St. Bernard, which defeated Ribet for the sectional title. The Wildcats' state path, which began on the heels of the program's first-ever CIF sectional title in Division 6, has taken them through Vincent Memorial and Rock Academy before besting Ribet.
"I think it's a lot different [now], there's a lot on the line, it's win or go home," Renaissance senior point guard Troy Fontanilla said of rematching Village Christian. "We've both played each other, we're both good teams and it should be a good game.
"Like in the Ribet game, we both know each other and we both know how each other play. We've both just got to play hard."
Village Christian is led by sophomore guard Bryan Alberts, who averages 18.6 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 steals. The Wildcats will also have to account for the Crusaders' 6-foot-7 twin towers up front, sophomore Marsalis Johnson (15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 3.4 blocks) and senior Marquis Salmon (13 points, 7.9 rebounds and two steals).
Renaissance relies on the double-figure production of De Guzman and Cantinol for most of its scoring, but has also gotten a boost from Gerrick Uneau and Rick Hilaire during the state playoffs.
"We know who their scorers are, they know who our scorers are," Fontanilla said. "We've just got to execute."
Wildcats Coach Sid Cooke said that just as his team fared better in the rematch with the Fighting Frogs, the familiarity factor could just as easily give the Crusaders a leg up over his team the second time around.
"It's going to be tougher, I think, because they've seen us," Cooke said. "I think the key is really being aware of where they are because they beat St. Bernard's and St. Bernard's is a very good team. We have a game plan as far as throwing different looks at them.
"I'm expecting them to do different things that they did last time. I'm trying to prepare for every scenario."