Bradshaw Christian’s Mike Ruble coaches with all heart (even after open-heart surgery)

Bradshaw Christian girls basketball coach Mike Ruble, one month after open-heart surgery, says he’s “excited and blessed.” The Pride faces Christian Brothers for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship Saturday at 2 p.m. at Golden 1 Center.
Bradshaw Christian girls basketball coach Mike Ruble, one month after open-heart surgery, says he’s “excited and blessed.” The Pride faces Christian Brothers for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship Saturday at 2 p.m. at Golden 1 Center. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

The first leg on the marathon sprint to the season’s finish line starts Friday and Saturday at Golden 1 Center.

That’s where the Sac-Joaquin Section championship basketball games for six divisions will play out. Big dreams in the big house.

The CIF Northern California playoffs start next week with the ultimate goal of reaching the CIF State finals at Golden 1 Center on March 8-9.

The story lines this weekend are plentiful. Here’s a filler course:

Ruble Pride

He has played professional basketball across the globe, helped get a new school off the ground and running at a full sprint in short order at Bradshaw Christian, and he’s won a ton of games with the girls basketball program.

But Mike Ruble’s greatest challenge was within — his heart. It’s been a month since the 6-foot-8 coach known to snarl, sneer and growl (and later high-five, hug and laugh with players) had open-heart surgery.

“I’m excited and blessed, and Bradshaw is back again,” Ruble said.

Seeded eighth in Division III, the Pride (17-13) faces No. 2 Christian Brothers (21-8) for the championship Saturday at 2 p.m. Jasalyn Brown had five 3-pointers in a semifinal win over Nevada Union while Anaya Mejia and Cookie Marques continued to play well.

Bradshaw Christian went 7-0 in section title bouts under Ruble at Arco Arena, all since 2008.

Falcons fly

Christian Brothers entered this season with high hopes, having won the 2018 D-III section girls championship with a wealth of talent returning.

But three starters left the program, one moving out of state and two to focus on academics. Under second-year coach Shandyn Foster, the Falcons have surged again. There is one senior on the roster, Chance Sims, whose 20 points helped engineer a 56-49 win over No. 3 Placer in a semifinal. The kids are growing up fast.

Upset city

Union Mine, seeded fourth, has plowed through the D-IV girls field with offensive balance and defense, including toppling top-seeded Colfax 39-31 in a semifinal.

Now, the Diamondbacks (20-7) take on two-time defending section, NorCal and state champion West Campus and coach John Langston and star guard Gabby Rones. The game is at 2 p.m. Friday at a venue where West Campus (15-14) won its two state titles.

Union Mine has been led by Alli McDonald, averaging 21.3 points, and Carley Zaragoza, averaging 19.4 points and 11.3 rebounds.

Titans and Dragons

Defending champion Antelope plays No. 2 Sacramento in the girls D-II final Friday at 6 p.m. in a matchup of star guards.

Antelope (29-2) is paced by 5-star sophomore recruit Jzaniya Harriel, averaging 23.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.1 steals. Sacramento (24-7) has been paced by senior 4-star guard RyAnne Walters, who averages 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 4.6 steals. She’s headed to UC Santa Barbara on scholarship.

It will be the unsung players that likely decide this title game.

Ranch living

Liberty Ranch has won league championships, section and NorCal playoff games under coach Josh Williams, already one of the region’s top mentors and sportsmen.

But the Hawks of Galt have yet to win the immediate prize of a section crown. Top-seeded Liberty Ranch (29-2) has a shot Friday at 4 p.m. against No. 2 Sonora (26-4) in a matchup of dazzling and prolific junior guards who go by Patterson. Liberty Ranch’s Jalen Patterson scores 23.1 a game, and Sonora is paced by Austin Patterson, averaging 22.5 points.

Pacers and Rams

A year ago, a young Grant team succumbed to the experience and tradition of St. Mary’s in the D-II boys final at Pacific. Friday’s 8 p.m. rematch includes a more experienced Grant team, and the same tenacious Rams outfit from Stockton.

Grant (24-6) is led by DeeJuan Pruitt (16.9 points), Corey Yerger (14.0), Steven Richardson (12.6) and AJ McGee (10.7). St. Mary’s (17-13) is paced by Bryce Johnson (17.8), Jamar Marshall (14.7) and Carson Simi (12.0).

Small schools, grand hopes

Competing for section championships is old hat for small-school heavies Forest Lake Christian of Auburn and Valley Christian Academy of Roseville, but neither club has played in a venue quite like Golden 1.

The girls teams meet for the D-VI honor Friday at 10 a.m. — what a great excuse to get out of school, eh? The programs have combined for six section banners, Forest Lake in a D-V three-peat from 2003-05 and VCA since 2014.

Forest Lake (22-5) has been led by Amber Jackson (16.1 points) and Lily Sween (15.4). VCA (25-3) is led by Bernada Rreshpja (27.2) and Grace Williams (12.6).

Jackson fives

Argonaut is one of two schools to bring both programs to Golden 1 this weekend (St. Mary’s is the other), and that means the town of Jackson — population 4,700 or so — may flood to Sacramento on Saturday for a doubleheader.

The Argonaut girls (22-8) won the 2017 D-V section title and play top-seeded Mariposa County (25-1) at 10 a.m. That will be followed by the D-V boys contest between defending champion Argonaut (20-10) and top-seeded Brookside Christian of Stockton (25-3).

Grand finale

The showcase game at Golden 1 Center is Saturday at 8 p.m. in a showdown of section super powers.

Defending champion and No. 3-seeded Modesto Christian (25-6) aims for its 20th section banner and fifth in D-I while top-seeded Sheldon (21-10) seeks its sixth D-I title and fifth this decade.

Both teams will be placed in the prestigious CIF NorCal Open Division. Last season, MC edged Sheldon 60-56 in the section final at Pacific, though Sheldon recovered to win the NorCal championship, reaching the state title game at Golden 1. This is Sheldon’s first trip back to Golden 1.

“I think everyone wanted to see a Sheldon-Modesto Christian game,” Sheldon senior guard Kaito Williams said. “I know the players did.”

Sac-Joaquin Section basketball finals

At Golden 1 Center
Division I
No. 1 Bear Creek vs. No. 3 St. Mary’s, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Division II
No. 1 Antelope vs. No. 2 Sacramento, Friday, 6 p.m.
Division III
No. 2 Christian Brothers vs. No. 8 Bradshaw Christian, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Division IV
No. 2 West Campus vs. No. 4 Union Mine, Friday, 2 p.m.
Division V
No. 1 Mariposa vs. No. 2 Argonaut, Saturday, 10 a.m.
Division VI
No. 1 Forest Lake Christian vs. No. 2 Valley Christian, Friday, 10 a.m.


Division I
No. 1 Sheldon vs. No. 3 Modesto Christian, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Division II

No. 1 Grant vs. No. 3 St. Mary’s, Friday, 8 p.m.
Division III

No. 1 Weston Ranch vs. No. 3 Central Catholic, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Division IV

No. 1 Liberty Ranch vs. No. 2 Sonora, Friday, 4 p.m.
Division V

No. 1 Brookside Christian vs. No. 2 Argonaut, Saturday, noon
Division VI

No. 3 Vacaville Christian vs. No. 8 Turlock Christian, Friday, noon
Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.