By Stephen Smoot
There was a time when freshmen did not play varsity in any sport. Bigger programs had separate freshman teams. Other schools buried freshmen on junior varsity. In every sport, Pendleton County has had to rely heavily on freshmen and they come through time and time again.
Pendleton County’s girls’ basketball head coach Donnie Kopp has had to throw his freshmen directly into the fire and, in the season opener, they delivered.
The Wildcats have made a habit of close opening season games with Union. Two years ago, Union upset Pendleton County, but last year, the Wildcats came home from Grant County with a win. Last week’s game brought just as much drama and excitement.
Union’s strengths lie in strong and steady inside play complemented by good outside shooting. With a roster full of new players and players new to contributing, Pendleton County is still forming its team identity.
The tip off went to the Tigers and they drew first blood with a layup. The first quarter saw baskets difficult to score from both teams. After giving up the first points, Pendleton County scored the next seven points off fast breaks and a Susan Vincell free throw.
Kopp’s new system, borrowed from the Glenville women’s and West Liberty men’s program, emphasizes keeping every player fresh. All 10 players give approximately equal time with two shifts shuttled in and out hockey-style.
Union used a three and a layup to tie the game with less than five minutes to go in the quarter. Union pulled ahead briefly 11 to 7, but the Wildcats edged back to a one point deficit at the end of the quarter.
Kopp said after the game that “we missed a lot of easy shots.” The Wildcats had more opportunities than Union to score from the floor, but the shooters struggled early. Union extended the lead to 13 to 11 at the 6:11 mark in the second. Gabby DePue, fouled on the high post, hit one of two free throws, followed by a three-point shot from Jenna Smith.
Union responded with a layup, but a layup by Olivia Gonshor put her squad ahead again. Julia Mongold followed with a 15-footer to extend the lead to four, then a 17-footer with only seconds left in the half. Pendleton County took a 21 to 17 lead in the half.
The Wildcats performed well in their defense, generally running a man-to-man and a press after made shots. Union’s strong inside players, however, were difficult to stop when they got the ball on the post.
The Tigers hit a pull up three to cut the lead to 21 to 20, then followed with a layup to give them a brief lead. With about five minutes left in the quarter, Gonshor buried a three-point shot that gave the Wildcats the lead that Union never took away again.
The two point guards, Nataley Hedrick and Avery Townsend, did not score a lot of points. They did, however, provide outstanding ball handling, game management, and defense. Townsend’s steals helped to generate points at the other end throughout the game. DePue, Jameigh Miller, and Vincell rebounded well and limited the ability of the Tigers to use their size advantage.
Miller also hit a timely three pointer to break a 24 to 24 tie with almost three minutes left in the third.
In the second half, Kiera Heavener brought hustle and heart to the effort and held Union at bay. She had two steals in the middle of the third and more in the final stanza. She later scored a layup off an offensive rebound.
With 3:52 left in the game, the Pendleton County 40 to 35 lead looked nearly insurmountable, given the difficulty in scoring baskets for both sides. It was then that both teams played less tentatively and started attacking on offense and defense. The pace looked more mid season for both teams.
Union hit two free throws, then a layup, to come within one with 1:13 left in the game. With 43 seconds left, Townsend extended the lead with a clutch three-point goal. Union followed four seconds later with a three made off a high pick and roll at the top of the key.
Within two points and finally hitting the deep shots they wanted, Union posed a huge threat. Behind 43 to 42, they fouled Jessica Parker, one of the three freshmen on the team. Parker coolly hit two free throws to push the lead to three.
Union was tied up on their next possession, giving the Wildcats the ball. Townsend passed the ball to Parker, who was intentionally fouled with 19 seconds left. She made one, giving her team a four point lead and removing the chance of a one shot tie for the Tigers.
One should praise Parker for her coolness in a tough situation, making the plays to seal the first win of the season as a ninth grader. Kopp also stuck to his game plan when, perhaps, other coaches may have scuttled the strategy and gone with his most experienced players at the end. Showing his confidence in every player to do what was necessary, however, will pay bigger dividends going forward, regardless of how the season opener turned out.
After the game, Kopp said that he “saw flashes” of the team that he expects them to become. He praised his freshmen, who avoided most mistakes one would allow for them in the situation, exclaiming “we had Olivia Gonshor, Jessica Parker, and Sarah Vincell. They’re ninth graders!”
Kopp also praised Heavener, who was a reserve last year, saying, “She works her hind end off,” and has “heart.”
Of his team, Kopp said, “We just have to keep the players at it and we’ve got to believe in it.”