By Ben Brooks - firstname.lastname@example.org
BERRYVILLE - Strasburg High School girls basketball coach Joel Morgan realizes that the only thing a No. 1 ranking in the Group A state poll gives his team this early in the season is a big bull's-eye squarely on its back.
The unbeaten Rams delivered what they hoped would be an early knockout in the second quarter of Tuesday night's Bull Run District game at Clarke County, only to see the scrappy but fatigued Eagles make things a bit too close for comfort.
Though never in serious danger of being knocked off for the first time this season, the Rams (11-0, 2-0) managed just 11 second-half points and survived their toughest challenge to this point.
"Obviously, I think our kids are probably aware of it," Morgan said of the most recent state writers' poll. "I certainly hope we're not thinking about that. We've got a lot of room for improvement."
After spotting Clarke County a 6-0 lead, Strasburg closed out the first quarter on a 13-4 run, led by senior Jaclyn Ayers' eight points.
The Rams continued their onslaught in the second quarter. Stepping up its full-court defensive pressure, Strasburg forced eight second-period turnovers, outscored Clarke County 19-4 and held the Eagles (7-6, 0-1) scoreless over the final 5:22 to grab a 32-14 halftime advantage. Stephanie Conde scored eight of her 10 points in the period.
Instead of putting the Eagles away to start the second half, Strasburg went scoreless from the field until Katlyn Ayers' steal and layup with 1:10 remaining.
"We had opportunity after opportunity to extend the lead in that third quarter, but we couldn't do it," Morgan said. "They whittled it down and then started feeling better about things. When that started, our girls starting getting tight."
Although the Eagles struggled offensively in the third quarter as well, they gained some necessary momentum. And when Kasey Canterbury drilled a 3-pointer with 2:49 left to play to cut the deficit to 42-35, there seemed to still be hope.
However, the Eagles hit another costly drought and went scoreless the rest of the way, missing five shots and committing three costly turnovers.
"If we can get a little better taking care of the ball I still think this can be a great team by the end of the season," said Clarke County coach Tim Lawrence, whose Eagles were playing their sixth game in seven days. "I'm not big on moral victories, but I saw a lot of things we can build on tonight. A lot of teams, down that big to such a highly-ranked opponent, would have put their heads down. I couldn't be more proud of this group."
Conde and Ayers led the Rams with 10 points apiece. Senior post player Jenna Smoot struggled from the field and finished with just five points. But Strasburg, which played without injured starter Gabe Giersch, got 12 key points off the bench.
"Jenna [Smoot] and Jaclyn [Ayers] are their all-district players everybody knows, but those other kids have really developed over the years," Lawrence said. "It's not just those two anymore. Those other girls did the job for them and won the game tonight."
Canterbury led all scorers with 12 points. Jessica Dinkins added eight for the Eagles.