Win against Homer-Center girls boosts Blairsville squad
The nice thing about early season games is that coaches can attach whatever meaning they want to them, and there were two very different meanings given to Wednesday night's 65-54 Blairsville Lady Bobcats win over the Homer-Center Lady Wildcats.
Both teams came into the heated conference rivalry with a 2-0 record, but they have very different circumstances and team make-ups. That's what dictates the varied connotations applied by head coaches P.J. Vrankovich of Blairsville and Tom Lasher of Homer-Center.
The Bobcats have a deep bench that is untested because they are overrun with freshmen. Though they split with the Wildcats last season, Blairsville couldn't help but feel it had something to prove in its first conference match-up with the neighboring rival.
Vrankovich knew her team had speed, good movement up and down the court and some young talent underneath, but she had no idea how they'd react to a tried-and-true, senior varsity player the caliber of, say, a Katelyn Skinner. She had questions and doubts about how her young rotators would stand up to a team with a balanced arsenal like the Wildcats.
She got her answers Wednesday night, and she couldn't be more pleased.
"All of their guards can shoot from the outside, and we knew that we couldn't just focus on one player, though we did have a shadow assigned to Skinner all night," Vrankovich said of the HC squad. "This win proves to us what we are capable of if we continue to work hard in practice and put our minds to something."
What they have to say
On the other side of the court, the Wildcats know what they are capable of, and they have more long-term goals and expectations. They know they have a game-changer in Skinner, who had 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and three steals on the night.
They also know they have great accent players: A solid base in the center with sophomore Sydney Horel (11 points, four steals, four rebounds and two blocked shots), a pressuring defensive player with great perimeter shooting from Junior Maggie McLoughlin (15 points, four rebounds, three steals and three assists), and girls coming off the bench with an accumulation of significant post-season minutes.
"This is just one game. They have to come to Homer City to play us again," Lasher said of the Bobcats. "We'll see what happens. This was a good game, and we were just on the wrong end of it. Our girls played hard because these girls don't ever quit. So, we're not ready to panic yet."
Even when the Wildcats saw their greatest deficit early in the fourth period, a 14-point hole that they dug themselves into with sloppy ball control and turnovers, they cut the lead back down to three before the Bobcats pulled away again and solidified the win down the stretch at the foul line.
Diagnosing his team's loss, Lasher said, "One part of our problem was foul shots, and the other was turnovers."
The Wildcats turned the ball over on forced passes and steals seven times, and they gave Blairsville 33 rebounds with 21 of those on their own side of the court. At times, Homer-Center seemed frustrated and confused as the Bobcats hustled the ball up and down the court while still being physically aggressive under the rim.
"I told the team that tonight was going to be about who wants it more, who is going to out-hustle whom, and who is willing to give the greatest effort," said Vrankovich. "In practice we worked on and stressed boxing out and controlling the boards. We were aggressive, but we played smart not to get into foul trouble."
Vrankovich said her conference debut was satisfying because she was able to observe all of these factors coming together in this victory. She also feels the win will give young players like Chelsey Koren momentum and confidence.
Koren had 13 points, but perhaps her greatest contribution was D'ing up Skinner. She blocked two shots, hauled in five rebounds and swiped the ball on three occasions.
"She's a quality player. She has all the skills necessary to have a good high school career," Lasher praised.
When Koren wasn't attached to Skinner's hip, Mackenzie Livingston was. Livingston's moves and penetration to the hoop tallied 11 points, and she reeled in six rebounds.
Vrankovich worked her bench and kept fresh legs pushing the Wildcats, and even this seemed to take HC off guard.
"They played a lot more girls than I did," Lasher observed. "They moved the ball around well, and got it into a lot of girls' hands."
But, Lasher has been around long enough to know that, in the grand scheme of things, this loss can be easily rectified.
"All tonight means is that Blairsville is one game ahead of us. In games like these and rivalries like this, home court advantage is a big thing and means a lot," Lasher said, referring to the Blairsville students' frequent, supportive chanting. "They have to come to Homer City to play us. We'll have to see how that goes."
For the Bobcats, although this is only one win, it was an important one. The significance was not lost on anyone on the team or its fans, but they have little time to savor the victory. They play another tough competitor in Ligonier Valley tonight.
Junior guard Alyssa Smith, who also had 13 points for the Bobcats, said, "Tonight's win feels great."
Alluding that the team felt a bit disrespected, Smith couldn't help but feel vindicated by the victory: "I think this win will make us go further because we were able to see the great effort out on the floor. You could tell that we really wanted to win by the way we were going after the ball."
Koren said she was pleased to get the experience on the floor against a team that she holds in such high regard and she learned that attention to detail in practice paid off on game night.
"Homer-Center is a great team, and I'm just so happy that we could beat them," she said. "This was a great experience for me, getting the chance to play varsity."
Her next assignment: Maddie Grimm and the Lady Rams.