Soto steals the show as Spartans secure PVL crown

Spartan Pride.
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© Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Rio Mesa High players celebrate as the final seconds tick off the clock during their 78-65 win over Camarillo. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers

This wasn’t just another rivalry game pitting Spartans against Scorpions.

It was for a Pacific View League championship, and maybe something more.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Rio Mesa High boys’ basketball team could finally celebrate something it hadn’t accomplished in 21 years—winning a league title.

Behind a virtuoso performance from senior point guard Joseph Soto, the Spartans trekked on enemy soil to upend Camarillo 78-65 in front of a standing-roomonly crowd Wednesday night.

“This is our eighth time playing Camarillo,” Soto said, “and this is the sweetest of them all.”

For Soto, the game was a microcosm of his up-and-down career at Rio Mesa.

He stretched out for a dazzling Derrick Rose-esque layup but then forced an off-balance jumper.

Soto and the Spartans settled for too many outside shots early, going 1-for-13 on 3-pointers in the first half.

he Scorpions led 38-31 at intermission and jumped ahead by nine points early in the third quarter.

Suddenly Soto transformed into the maestro of distribution.

Soto drove at will to the basket and fed Frank Fassl and Dillan West for easy layups. Soto put on a point guard clinic, running the offense to near perfection.

Of course he added a bit of flair to the production, draining four trifectas from NBA terrain.

For Spartan head coach Chris Ruffinelli, winning a Pacific View championship with Soto was satisfying.

“With Joseph, it’s been a ride for four years,” Ruffinelli said.

“After the game, he said, ‘I owed it to you.’”

Fassl scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half—all layups primarily set up by Soto— while West added 19 points.

The Spartans also avenged a 78-66 setback on Jan. 21.

“It’s awesome,” Fassl said. “I haven’t felt this good in a while.”

Camarillo (18-8 overall, 8-2 in league) dominated the paint in the first 16 minutes. The taller Scorpions had 12 offensive rebounds in the first half.

Rio Mesa boxed out and picked up the defensive intensity after halftime.

“We were crashing the boards. We didn’t do the same thing in the second half,” said Camarillo forward Jake Maulhardt, who led the Scorpions with 16 points. “We got in foul trouble, and (the referees) weren’t calling anything down low.

“They didn’t play more aggressive. They were more physical. It’s tough. We wanted to win this game real bad.”

West gave Rio Mesa (19-7, 9-1) a shot in the arm during the decisive third quarter.

The senior forward scored five points in a 7-0 run that cut the deficit, 42-40.

“He brings it every night,” Fassl said of West. “He gets rebounds, he makes his free throws and he attacks the basket.”

Soto’s layup with 52 seconds remaining in the third gave Rio Mesa a 53-51 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The savvy point guard finished with 23 points.

“We had to lay everything out there,” West said. “We knew it would be tough. We played as a team.”

Martel Tyler, a sophomore guard, added six points for the Spartans.

“We had to go out and play hard,” Tyler said. “We wanted it more than they did.”

Rio Mesa’s Reggie Dixon, a sophomore forward, notched six points off the bench while T.J. Cabebe and Nick Hernandez played important minutes.

The Spartans will host a firstround playoff game next week.

For one night, they wanted to savor the victory.

“I haven’t been coach for 21 years, but it feels like a load off my back,” Ruffinelli said.

“This is a great group of kids. I wanted it for these kids.”

The coach said Soto played with fire.

“He had something to prove,” Ruffinelli said of Soto. “And he proved it. Joseph Soto of two years ago would have kept (shooting.) Now he’s attacking the basket, distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved.”

Soto, who received a pat on the back or a hug from nearly every extended member of the Rio Mesa family, had a few moments to reflect on the big win.

“This means everything for Rio Mesa, from the teachers and everyone who’s followed us year in and year out,” Soto said. “Mostly, we did it for ourselves. Today we won. I hope we don’t have any more doubters.

“When we walked in the gym, we knew. This is our game. This is our time. And we showed it.”

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