By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Central High School senior guard Mary Wakeman considers every game the Falcons play as something of a tutorial for the next time her team plays, providing information and opportunities build on that knowledge to get better.
On Friday against Huguenot in the Region 3A East championship game, the host Falcons got the final lessons that might prove useful for this season. Huguenot pulled out a hard-fought 48-43 victory to take home the championship hardware, but the squad from Richmond might have provided the final preparation Central needs to come away with a better result in next week's 3A state tournament at James Madison University's Convocation Center.
"Every game kind of builds on itself and winning really big games has gotten us pumped up, and our home crowd definitely got us pumped up," Wakeman said. "But sometimes you just have to focus on the fundamentals, the basics like the free throws, the layups, the turnovers. I think that a week of practice is going to do us good for states because we'll have time to work on everything that went wrong tonight."
Central (19-9) faces another imposing task against Spotswood in next week's state semifinals (to be played either Friday or Saturday). But while the Blazers might be tempted to bask in the glow of their own regional championship with their 56-45 win over Broadway on Friday, Central is certain to bear down to correct some of the issues which cropped up in their loss.
"We crumbled at the end of this game," Falcons coach Mallory Skarupa said. "We played for 30 minutes -- 31, 32 minutes -- together, and then we started not sticking to the game plan and we had a little bit of a breakdown."
Huguenot (15-9) had its own game plan -- namely, containing Central standout senior point guard Katelyn Poston. That was easier in theory than in practice, Huguenot coach Bo Jones Jr. soon learned in the first quarter.
"We tried different stuff against different people, but what I was told in the scouting report was all she could do was shoot," Jones said. "Like in the first minute, I thought to myself, I should not listen to whoever told me because that was wrong. She's fast, she's strong and has a high IQ."
Jones had already planned on a box-and-one, but after seeing Poston repeatedly spring open for drives to the goal he instructed his players to really clamp down by face-guarding Poston wherever she was on the floor. From then on, it was a relay of Huguenot players sticking like glue to Poston.
"We made two [Poston] work a whole lot, man, but we put four girls on her and all my girls were tired come third quarter," Jones said. "So I didn't have too much left. Yeah, [Poston] is a great player."
The extra attention did have its effect, as Poston was held to well below her season scoring average with only 12 points.
"I've never had anybody that close in my face," Poston said. "We knew going in it was going to be a box-and-one, but we didn't execute what we practiced."
Count that as another lesson learned in time for states.
"We're going to work on that," Poston said. "We have a full week, which will be great and really beneficial to us. Playing Spotswood or Broadway, both are really great teams, and I know their defense is going to be up in our face. So hopefully that was a good eye-opener for us, kind of like Strasburg was going into the conference tournament."
Huguenot's own star player, freshman Taya Robinson, got a decidedly different treatment from Central. The Falcons came out in a 2-3 zone and stayed in it for much of the night, limiting some of Robinson's drives in the half court but exposing themselves to Huguenot's shooters.
"We thought we had her contained pretty well," Skarupa said. "I mean, obviously she can hit some outside shots but she's not the only threat that they have."
Point guard Kera Jackson did her share of damage for Huguenot on drives and dishes to center Destiny Sheed, and Robinson still got her points with a game-high 26.
Robinson admitted she was surprised she didn't face a gimmick defense. Plenty of teams have tried it this year, and not many have had much success in slowing the 5-foot-10 freshman.
"Nah, not too many," Robinson said.
Wakeman said locking down defensively on Robinson -- should the dueling Falcons meet again in next week's state championship -- might swing the outcome in Central's favor.
"It's definitely a good learning experience, when you have to overcome somebody," Wakeman said. "She's one of the best players that we've faced, so I think seeing her before it's elimination time is going to mentally and physically prepare us for what to expect at states."
Skarupa was more concerned with what her team did when they had the ball than focusing on any single player on the defensive side.
"Our offense wasn't quite there," Skarupa said. "And we needed to get some second-chance points, and not everybody was crashing. It's hard to crash and get back with a quick team like that, but that's what you have to do."
That's another lesson for Central, and next week's practices provide the last opportunities to make use of that information as they regroup for a final run at the state championship.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>