By STEVE GOLDMAN
For the Star Beacon
District finals can affect the nerves, and Saturday afternoon at Ravenna’s James L. Coll Gymnasium, both coaches admitted that that played a role with their team. However, the Pymatuning Valley Lakers were able to eventually push those troubles aside, helping them to earn a 42-32 win over Hawken.
The district championship, the first in the history of the PV girls’ program, advances the top-seeded Lakers to a regional semifinal matchup with Beachwood, 52-45 winners over Gilmour Academy in the North Ridgeville district. That game will be played at Cuyahoga Falls High School on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“It feels great,” PV coach Jeff Compan said. “These girls have worked hard to put themselves in this position, and I couldn’t be prouder. We struggled for a long time today during this game, and we finally got the nerves done late in that game, and we relaxed a little bit. So I’m very proud of these young ladies.”
Senior Geena Gabriel, who went past the 1,000-point mark for her career during the fourth quarter, began her comments about winning the district by echoing her coach.
“It feels great,” she said. “Ever since my freshman year, we always got kicked out (of the tournament) a little earlier than we should have. This year, it’s my last year, so I thought we might as well go out strong and keep playing our hearts out.”
“It’s pretty amazing for us to be the first team (in school history to win a district), and to try to keep going as far as we can,” junior post Megan Stech, who had a 9-point, 17-rebound, 5-steal, 3-block performance, said.
The one thing that consistently shone brightly for the Lakers, who rotated in only six players, was their defense. They continually made it hard for the Hawks to score, holding them to 12-of-55 shooting (21.8 percent) despite the fact they made 3 of their final 6 attempts. Hawken had only 3 assists in the game.
“Our defense was pretty strong,” Stech said. “We were trying to keep them contained.”
“We did (have trouble scoring),” Hawken coach Patty Hace said. “I think that there are elements of jitters getting to this point. We haven’t gone to district finals since 2000. So some of those kids that typically are depended upon to put the ball in the basket, I think put some added pressure on themselves to execute. And PV did a great job of defending those specific kids, kind of taking that outside shot away from a lot of them.
“We knew that they had good shooters and we wanted to defend the perimeter and contest shots as best we could,” Compan said. “And I thought for the most part, we did a good job of not allowing them to get open looks.”
The Lakers, undefeated at 25-0 and ranked first in the final Ohio AP Division III rankings, had defeated Hawken 61-26 on Nov. 30. But if any of the many vocal PV fans who attended the game expected something similar, they were in for a surprise. PV did lead for most of the way, but had a very difficult time shaking the fifth-seeded Hawks (16-9).
“I think the weight of the situation, and Geena was trying to get to 1,000 points (affected our nerves),” Compan said. “And we missed a lot of shots that we normally don’t miss. Give them credit, though. They battled us and banged us and made it tough for us.”
PV trailed briefly twice at 1-0 and 12-11, but took the lead for good when Stech drove the baseline for a layup to snap a 15-all tie less than two minutes before halftime. Two pairs of split free throws and a 3-pointer by Rebecca Dillon on the Lakers’ first possession following the break made it 22-15, but the Hawks kept hanging around. A long triple by Meredith Cohen, a senior starter who had missed the initial meeting, sliced it to 26-22 late in the third period.
But with the score at 27-23 less than two minutes into the final quarter, PV went on a 9-0 run, with Gabriel getting the biggest basket.
After the seniorhit two foul shots and then split a one-and-one to leave her one point short of the 1,000 milestone, she drove from the right side of the court for a layup to put her over the plateau, and provide a 32-23 advantage with 4:27 to play. Gabriel needed 8 points going into the game to reach the grand mark.
PV called a timeout after the basket to mark the occasion, and Gabriel was given a hand when her feat was announced to the crowd. Her basket also seemed to lift her whole team.
“Everybody relaxed at that time, and we joked about it on the bench,” Compan said. “We said, ‘Yeah, if we would have known that, we’d have had her just shoot it every time down until she got it, just so we could relax a little bit.’”
Gabriel, who had converted just 2 of 7 free-throw attempts entering the fourth quarter, went on to sink her remaining 6 tries, giving her 9 of 10 in the period and a game-high 15 points to go with 3 assists, 3 t hefts and 2 blocks.
“I was having trouble hitting foul shots,” she said. “I knew that I only needed two more (to reach 1,000 points), and I hit the first one but missed the second one, and it kind of still flustered me. But then when I made (the layup), I just felt like it was our time to go, that we needed to start playing and start going and making shots. I just felt like it pulled all of us together, and we started playing more as a team.”
A layup by Kelsea Brown (11 points, 8 boards, 3 steals) off an assist by Stech, followed by two Gabriel free throws, finished the run and made it 36-23 at the 2:47 mark.
“(Stech) has done such a nice job for us on the glass this year,” Compan said. “She battled in there. And sometimes she’s undersized, but she has a great knack for the ball. And she’s kept us in a lot of games when we’re struggling, just with offensive rebounds and putbacks. And she played a heck of a game for us.”
The Lakers shot somewhat better from the floor than their opponents, at 12 of 40 (30.0 percent). However, behind Gabriel’s 11 of 17, they went 17 of 31 from the line, including 11 of 15 in the fourth period. Hawken, meanwhile, was just 5 of 18 from the stripe including 1 of 10 in the fourth quarter. That included 4 missed during PV’s 9-point run.
“Honestly, we prepared the kids, and we let them know that PV brings a fan squad,” Hace said. “We tell the kids all the time, ‘Free throws are going to make those championships.’ But we weren’t able to (make them) today.”
Hannah O’Day led the Hawks with 13 points, including 8 of the 10 they scored in the final stanza, and also pulled down 9 rebounds. Teammate Lindsey Kutash matched O’Day with 9 boards and blocked 2 shots, while Alyssa Huot had 6 caroms and 3 blocks, Emma Whiting 6 rebounds and Emily Oliver 4 steals for Hawken.
The Hawks won the battle of the boards by a 45-40 count, establishing the differential in the first half.
“We really wanted to box out, and I thought that Hawken did a great job of pounding the glass against us,” Compan said. “And I thought that was really big in keeping them in the game. They got extra shots, they got extra opportunities. And I give them credit; they played very hard. But when we needed it, we got the hoop. So I was really happy with (the fact that) it seemed like we never got too anxious or too caught up in the moment. So I was really proud of our girls for hanging tough when it wasn’t going well for us today.”
“It was tons of fun today,” Hace said. “I think the kids played extremely hard to get to this point. They deserved and earned every moment of it. And I think it showed (in) great intensity coming into this game.
“Sticking with a team that’s completely undefeated, there’s something tp be said for the character of the kids that we have. So (I’m) super proud of them.”
Goldman is a freelance writer from South Euclid.