BERNE – The first time I watched Woodlan’s girls play this season, I left less than impressed. They went into Garrett sluggish and without much of a shooting touch.
It has been two months before I saw them again. They have improved considerably since and they have the energy to prove it.
Never was that more evident than the first quarter of Friday’s 50-24 ACAC semi final win over Bluffton. It was just less than four minutes into the game when Taya Kitzmiller dove after a pass to force the tide in Woodlan’s favor and extend an early lead to 5-0.
Read that again. She dove after a pass. Not recklessly or errantly. She saw a soft pass being made and clearly read that she could get to it for a steal but only with maximum effort. Not enough teams have that effort four minutes into a game, if ever in that contest. But Kitzmiller dove at the sideline, got ahold of the ball just enough to initially tie it up before ripping it away and pushing it ahead to Dakotah Krohn on the break. She did all that from the side of her body, laying on the court.
That typified Woodlan’s energy and effort on Friday night. It is why they were and why they are the favorites in this tournament. But none of what I said, minus the Kitzmiller specifics, applied only to the 6 p.m. round of games on Friday night in South Adams’ Stardome.
See, the last time I saw Woodlan boys in person, they were losing to Churubusco at home. They were sluggish and without much of a shooting touch. Notice there is a trend there. Neither when I saw the girls at Garrett or the boys at home just a couple of weeks ago were those performance clearly indicative of their seasons before or after those games. More isolated than not, those losses were what they were.
And Friday, those games got erased rather quickly.
These Woodlan teams know when, and more importantly, how to raise their intensity in pivotal moments. When Woodlan, girls or boys, are at the top of their games, there is substance to almost everything they do.
For the girls, throughout the first half, if there was scrum for the ball, a steal to make or a break to run, Woodlan was the team that came out of it successfully. At about the midway point of the second quarter, Addison Bayman drove in on Bluffton’s Meryl Frank, missed her initial shot but then ripped rebound away from Zoe Barger, the tallest player on the floor and took the tough angle directly under the basket to make a reverse lay in. It ended a bit of a Bluffton run and made it 14-6 in Woodlan’s favor.
The second half, with all due respect to Bluffton, was just a matter of the clock ticking down on the night. Woodlan was too aggressive, too emotional and too stubborn to lose at this juncture. For the most part, the game read all Woodlan; which is no surprise as they are hitting their stride at the perfect time. This team has the will to do big things and with the postseason ahead they will need all the momentum and enthusiasm that they can get.
When the boys game started, they didn’t have the instant edge. While the Warriors knocked down their shots and the game never slipped even into the danger range while they trailed, South Adams’ James Arnold was on another level. He was, as the kids say, a walking bucket and finished the first quarter with 11 points and the first half with 17.
“We had to stay positive. South Adams hit some shots that we hadn’t seen from a scout standpoint,” Woodlan boys coach John Baker said. “We knew we had to come out with some energy and bring some fight on the defensive end.”
Arnold never scored again. No disrespect to James Arnold; plenty of respect to Woodlan’s Joe Reidy who played the role of defensive stopper in the second half. When Woodlan came out of the locker room at halftime, there was certainly something different about them; lets call it knowing how to raise their intensity and having the substance to make it happen.
“We just came together, we got focused,” Reidy said of the halftime message.
“That is not typically Joe’s game,” Baker said. “Joe is more of a driver/slasher, rebounder, blocker but to guard a perimeter guy and step up, that definitely shows some growth on his side.”
But the knock for Woodlan, when there is one, has been that Reidy and Mitch Mendenhall, as their two primary scorers, don’t have enough depth behind them. And to anyone who says that, I say go watch Friday’s game. Trevor Wiedenhoeft hit critical shots, Colin Hahn stayed a steady hand, many contributed and down the stretch of the game, the plays made by Simon Handerson and Aiden Bayman sealed a 59-54 win. With 3:07 to play, Bayman missed a fast break layup, but Handerson – not one of those “primary” Woodlan guys – gathered a tough rebound and nailed a putback that rattled around the rim before falling in. Momentum Woodlan.
In the closing seconds, with Woodlan leading 57-54, Bayman showed why he can be the heart of the group when he came out of nowhere to snag a rebound of Handerson’s free throw miss to nail the most aggressive fading lay-up you’ve ever seen and clinch the Warrior’s trip to the ACAC Tournament finals.
“We need to focus, we need to come out with one mind, we need to play as a team,” Reidy said. “That is our biggest strength, play as a team.”
“You need contributions. It’s not 2-on-2, it is a 5-on-5 game,” Baker added. “You need guys like Simon Handerson to come in and give you some size. Trevor Wiedenhoeft, I felt, played a big game for us defensively. We have a lot of guys playing with confidence right now.”
I can’t help but think the boy’s win and the title opportunity heals some wounds of Woodlan’s loss to Heritage last year in the tournament in what was arguably the game of the year. That game too proved that Woodlan can step up and in at the right moments. This year though, they closed. Reidy pushed the door closed, Mendenhall helped slam it, then Bayman opened it back up just to smile and slam it again. Rather intensely I would like to point out.
At the end of the night, it was Addison Bayman’s 19 and Reidy’s 21 that led Woodlan offensively. They will turn that around in ACAC final games, both opposite Adams Central. The Warrior boys last won the conference tournament in 2017 while the girls have not done so since 1992. Adams Central hasn’t won a boys title since 1976 or a girls title since 2003.
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