By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Blake Steele had the laces loosened up on the sideline early Wednesday night.
The Warren County High School senior had put in more than enough work to help the Wildcats dispatch Manassas Park, and Steele was settling in to watch his teammates close out a sure victory.
Steele and the rest of the Wildcats' starters can thank Manassas Park's Troy Fields for spoiling their light night. The Cougars' senior guard almost single-handedly made a game of it with 35 points, including 23 in the second half, to force the Wildcats to send the starters back in to seal up a 64-50 victory.
"We let one kid pretty much bring his team back," Steele said. "That's pretty impressive. He was having a good night."
Warren County (15-4, 11-3 Bull Run District) rarely looked in trouble against the smaller Cougars, building a 21-point halftime lead that ballooned to 33 at 53-20 on Steele's two made free throws with 3:40 left in the third quarter.
Manassas Park (1-18, 1-12) closed out the quarter on a 10-0 run, with Fields scoring all the points. Fields tallied all 12 points for the Cougars in the quarter, helping whittle the deficit to 23.
Warren County coach Vernon Mathews, who'd substituted liberally throughout the game, continued to do so in the fourth quarter. That's when Fields changed the Wildcats' plans, as he tallied nine points during an 18-2 run that slashed Warren County's lead to 55-48 and prompted Mathews to call timeout to reinsert his starting lineup.
"I didn't think the guys that we'd subbed in adjusted well to [Fields]," Mathews said. "We should have realized that once he gave up the ball we couldn't let him get the ball back, and I thought we just let him keeping getting the ball and shooting. I don't know if we were hoping if he'd start missing or what, but he had a whale of a game. He brought them back."
That move worked wonders, as the Wildcats forced five straight turnovers and put together a 7-0 run to quell any more drama. Steele, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, scored the Wildcats' final four points.
"We relaxed and credit to Manassas Park, they never quit," Mathews said. "They just kept coming back."
The Wildcats connected from long range with regularity, especially in the first half as five different Warren County players hit 3-pointers. Shivam Mehta drilled a pair of treys in the first quarter, and Jontae Rollins (10 points) and Casey Stewart (10 points) hit one each as Warren County jumped out to a 22-8 lead.
Warren County extended that advantage in the second quarter, as Steele worked over the Cougars in the paint for 12 first-half points and Austin King (two 3-pointers) and Cameron Ford combined for three more treys.
"I thought we played a really good first half," Mathews said. "We played probably 12, 13 different kids in the first half, just trying to work some different kids in with the first unit. I thought when they came in with the first unit they played pretty good."
Mehta, who got the start, finished with nine points. Mathews utilized 15 different players in the game as the Wildcats rapidly close in on the end of the regular season. Warren County is currently second in the Bull Run standings.
"A win's a win, and right now every win's crucial," Mathews said. "We'll take the positives out of this, which was the first half and how we excited the different presses that we did. We'll go back and address some of the things that happened in the second half."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>