By Dan Hiner
Poland’s girls basketball players knew who they needed to stop entering Monday’s Division II district semifinal game against West Branch.
However, Natalie Zuchowski still scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Warriors when in a 47-25 victory at Austintown Fitch High School.
West Branch (24-0) advanced to Thursday’s district title game for the seventh time in eight seasons. The Bulldogs beat West Branch in 2016 to prevent them from making eight straight appearances to the title game.
The Warriors will play Howland for a regional trip.
Zuchowski punished Poland (18-5) inside. She overpowered the Bulldogs’ front-court on the low block, and when she couldn’t, started going to her hook shot.
“That’s where you just gotta hope your kids are there for the fight, and my kids were,” Poland head coach Nick Blanch said. “I’m very grateful for the effort my kids put forth tonight.
“All I asked them to do was fight like hell and they did that,” Blanch said. “For two-and-a-half quarters we’re nose-to-nose with the No. 1 team in the state of Ohio — not just the No. 1 team just in this bracket, No. 1 in the state of Ohio. And they’re that way for a reason.”
Kayla Hovorka scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds for the Warriors. West Branch’s Hannah Ridgway also added 10 points.
“[Poland] is a great offensive team — averaging about 63, 64 a game,” West Branch head coach Walt DeShields said. “When we came into the locker room after the game, our girls were so focused they didn’t realize they held them to 25 [points].”
West Branch led 22-17 at halftime, but a 9-0 run by the Warriors to start the third quarter gave West Branch a comfortable lead.
Blanch was happy that his girls tried to fight back in the fourth quarter and didn’t quit.
“A lot of teams roll over and play dead for those guys and just go into it thinking they don’t have a shot,” Blanch said. “That’s the only thing I told my kids. I didn’t want them going into this game thinking we didn’t have a shot — go in and fight. And they did that.”
Poland had a couple attempts to get back into the game, but the Bulldogs were unable to get their shots to fall.
“Against [West Branch] those are the ones you need to fall right away,” Blanch said. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda — I’m just grateful for the opportunity.
DeShields said his team is taught to not look at the scoreboard. They didn’t know what the final score of the game was until they were in the locker room.
Sarah Bury led the Bulldogs with 10 points while Jackie Grisdale added six points.
Blanch said his team played will heart, and that allowed them to compete with a team that was taller and more physical. He credited seniors Bella Gadjos and Maggie Sebest for their leadership.
“They’ve done an extraordinary job. They led with heart,” Blanch said. “They thing is with them is they lead by example, they’re hungry, they get in that gym and they want results. They’re not here just to pass time. They want things to happen and will make the other better in the program because of desire and drive they show every day in practice.”
DeShields said the Warriors were “hurt” when they lost to Poland in the sectional a couple years back.
“We had three girls on the floor [from the loss],” DeShields said. “Zuchowski, [Sarrah] Tennefoss and Hovorka during the time, and they took that to heart.
“They didn’t want to be eliminated by Poland again and I thought that rose our level of play as well.”