By Doug Chapin
POLAND — The signs were all there, the game probably was not going to be considered a classic.
It was the season opener for both teams. Both teams were coming off losing seasons and neither had many experienced players returning. In addition, both schools have first-year head coaches.
Despite plenty of turnovers and missed shots Monday, Fitch High and Poland played a competitive game (the largest lead was six points) with Poland winning 41-38 in overtime. In the end, both coaches saw plenty to be optimistic about.
“I think our defense kept us in this game tonight when our offense was struggling,” Poland coach Nick Blanch said. “Our defense has gotten so much better over the past few weeks, it’s been unbelievable.
“From where we started in the summer to where we are now, our defense is night and day,” Blanch said.
“It was a shaky start, both teams came out a little nervous and that’s normal in the first game of the season. But as the game went on, we got better. The girls never quit and that’s another thing we’ve been working on, not quitting no matter what the scoreboard says.”
Fitch coach Stacie Cepin says the Falcons also have made progress in the preseason.
“There has been a lot of good stuff, but we’re still trying to find ourselves right now,” Cepin said. “We’re trying to push a philosophy to work hard, out-hustle the other team and take care of the ball.
“We didn’t do that tonight, we definitely didn’t take care of the basketball. We missed a lot of layups, missed a lot of free throws. But we’ll be looking at the film and we’ll learn from this.”
In the final minute of overtime, sophomore guard Kelsey Malenic assisted on the bucket that put Poland ahead for good, then canned four of six free throw attempts down the stretch for the Bulldogs.
Senior post players Lauren Tedla (15 points, 14 rebounds) and Leanna Yeager (9 points, 13 rebounds) led Poland.
Senior guard Byanca Henderson led Fitch with 13 points and five steals. Sophomore wing Anissa Hill also scored 13 points and junior post Erica Braxton grabbed 10 rebounds.
“The girls have a great attitude. The desire to win in this program is through the roof,” Blanch said about the Bulldogs. “The girls come to work, they work hard every day, lifting weights, breaking down film. We’ve done a much better job adjusting to different defenses.
“Like tonight, they threw about three different defenses at us and we slowed the tempo down and got the ball to where it needed to go. We didn’t let their defense dictate the game. We were able to execute our offense against their defense.”
Fitch held the largest lead of the game, 13-7, in the first minute of the second quarter, but it took the Bulldogs the rest of the quarter to catch up, 13-13.
Then the Falcons went ahead 16-13 when Mariah Snowden made three free throws after being fouled on a long 3-point attempt with two seconds left in the half.
Fitch had a scoreless third quarter, but Poland scored only five and led 18-16 after three quarters. The visitors recovered and forged a 28-23 lead with 2:53 left in the game, but the Bulldogs rallied for a 30-30 tie headed into overtime.
“Taking care of the basketball, that’s going to be one thing,” Cepin said when asked about areas in which she expects the Falcons to improve. “Some of our better shooters, their shots just weren’t falling tonight. But the bottom line is we have to take better care of the basketball.
“Give credit to Poland, they played hard, they did a lot of good things,” Cepin said. “They did a nice job tonight.”