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Poland clinches outright NE-8 title

Correspondent photo / Lowell Spencer Poland poses with the Northeast-8 championship plaque.

POLAND — The Poland Bulldog boys basketball team needed a victory to clinch the Northeast-8 Conference title all to themselves. But that victory meant beating a tough archrival in the Struthers Wildcats.

The Bulldogs overcame injuries and a ferocious comeback by the Wildcats to escape with a 41-37 overtime victory that earned them that league championship. The game was the Bulldogs’ last league contest as they closed with an 11-1 league record. The league championship was the Bulldogs’ first title in five years, and the first for coach Eric Fender in Poland.

“This means so much. It has been five years since we have brought a league title home,” senior forward Danny Nittoli said. “We worked so hard, and everyone in this gym deserves this championship. We had high expectations, and this was a goal. We achieved it, and now we are moving on to districts.”

“It’s great. The biggest thing for me is the excitement and the joy on the kids’ faces out there,” Bulldogs head coach Eric Fender added. “They work so hard from the beginning of the year. We are still battling without having Cole (Fulton) out there. We miss him greatly. But those guys rallied around one another and battled for a hard-fought win against a well-playing Struthers basketball team.”

With the loss, the Wildcats fall to 9-7 on the season and 7-4 in the league. The loss also snapped a three-game winning streak that the Wildcats were riding into the game.

“It’s not a bitter loss because it’s Poland. It was bitter because we fought hard,” Wildcats head coach Michael Wernicki said. “This was a good tournament pre-course. This is what a tournament game is going to be like. We were down two with four seconds to go and we had a shot right in front of the rim. There is not much more I can ask for. My kids played their butts off and I’m extremely proud of them.”

After the Bulldogs failed to score on a last-second shot in regulation, it was a senior who stepped up in the extra session to give the Bulldogs the momentum they needed to win the contest. Andrew Todd launched a three just 25 seconds into the overtime that was all net and staked Poland to a quick 34-31 lead. But it would be junior forward Jacob Hayes who would seal the game with two free throws with 1.4 seconds remaining that gave the Bulldogs a two-possession, four-point final margin.

“Any time you are struggling to shoot the basketball, you’re trying to get the kids to have confidence in themselves,” Fender said. “We work on trying to be confident in one another.”

The Bulldogs jumped out of the gate in the first quarter with Hayes connecting on a three at the 3:43 mark to give them a 7-2 lead. They held a 10-5 lead at the close of the first quarter.

By the time Nittoli powered his way to the basket at the 4:21 mark of the second period, the Bulldogs had doubled up the Wildcats at 16-8. But the Wildcats sophomore guard Tommy Cole came off the bench to give his team a much-needed boost. He would connect on a three and a jumper in consecutive possession to give them an 8-2 run to close the half. The Bulldogs would nurse a two-point, 18-16 advantage going into the halftime locker rooms.

“I feel like I’m used to this kind of moment with a big crowd,” Nittoli said. “We have a young team, so I felt like I kind of needed to take control and finally our young sophomore (Tukalo) took over and did his thing and led us to the championship.”

“He carried us in the first half,” Fender added about Nittoli’s first-half effort. “Then we got some other guys to step up in the second half. He rebounded the heck out of the ball and got some easy buckets.”

“Tommy is a sixth starter. I have a really good four-man rotation with my guards in Grady Moore, Lucas Patti, Andrew Kopnicky, and Tommy. When we came into the year, none of those guys had played any varsity minutes,” Wernicki said.

Andrew Kopnicky connected on a three to start the second half, and suddenly the Wildcats had taken their first lead in the game at the 7:09 mark of the third quarter. A basket by Jodel Estrada boosted their lead to 3 at 21-18 before a basket by the Dogs Carmine Tukalo reinstated the Bulldogs in front 24-23 late in the period. But a basket and one by the Cats Sincere Miller gave the Wildcats a 26-24 lead at the close of the third period.

“It’s a mental grind after that,” Wernicki said of the second half. “It’s a possession-by-possession game. Every rebound becomes critical and every decision on a shot and every execution or missed execution becomes magnified. But that is what these games are like.”

A basket by Lucas Patti gave the Wildcats a four-point advantage at 28-24 early in the final stanza. But the Bulldogs responded with a 4-0 run to knot the game at 28-28 at the 4:43 mark of the frame. The game closed with Estrada adding a basket and one, and Tukalo connecting on a three with just 2:28 remaining in regulation leading the two teams to go into overtime tied at 31-31.

“This is the type of environment that tournament games look like,” Wernicki said. “I’m really excited about the next two weeks and what our team can look like when we get to the tournament. This is a team that can win some games in the tournament.”

The Wildcats will have a week to regroup as they won’t play again until next Tuesday when they host the East Golden Bears in nonconference action. The Bulldogs will return to the court Friday night when they host another rival, the Canfield Cardinals.

sports@vindy.com

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