HOWLAND - There were many positive signs for the Howland Tigers girls' basketball team Wednesday night, but one of them wasn't seeing Kelly Barzak clutching her right ankle less than three minutes into a game against the Niles McKinley Red Dragons.
Barzak is to the 16-0 Tigers what Alexa Williams was to last season's team. You can also compare Barzak's importance to Ellie Shields' contributions of a couple years ago and Angela Cape prior to that.
Heck, why not go back to Kim Lazor in 1989, when she established the school single-season scoring average of 21.5 points.
Get the idea?
Barzak, a 6-foot-1 senior, fits in well with the long list of outstanding post players produced in Howland. To see her in pain and on the floor after rolling an ankle wasn't what coach John Diehl needed a few weeks before the start of a tournament run that could see the Tigers enter the process with an undefeated record.
"She's our team leader," Diehl said of Barzak after the Tigers' 71-22 All-American Conference win. "Whenever times get tough, the girls look to her to score or set up somebody outside. We're probably in the most difficult part of our schedule. In the last three games we have Salem, Firestone and Canfield coming up. All those teams are very good. We need her at full go to beat those three teams."
Barzak initially limped off the court, but the ankle seemed much better after she received ice treatments. She didn't play the rest of the game, but it didn't matter as the Tigers were able to rely on their depth to control play from start to finish.
Diehl breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Barzak didn't suffer more damage to what was described as a high ankle sprain. No coach can make up for the loss of a player who was averaging 20.2 points and 10.1 rebounds entering the game last night. Barzak has been successful on 67 percent of her foul shots and 55.9 percent of her shots from the field.
Barzak won't reach the coveted 1,000-point barrier, but she's close to breaking the 21.5-point scoring average that Lazor established as the team record. Barzak hasn't scored more points because she had to wait her turn while Shields and Williams finished their high school careers.
"They had very good years, and now it's our year to have people to look up to," Barzak said.
Barzak is more comfortable talking about the team instead of her play as an individual. With the regular season nearing an end, she's looking forward to what the tournament run might offer.
"I think all the seniors are leaders," she said. "Of course, you want to win every game."
Barzak, who played for the volleyball team, wants to play basketball and volleyball in college. Division II universities have shown considerable interest, including Lake Erie College. Youngstown State has indicated an interest of late.
While Diehl might have cringed a bit when he saw Barzak roll her ankle, he felt better knowing that help is always close at hand. Taylor Williams, a 6-1 freshman, stepped up in Barzak's absence to score 24 points and grab 15 rebounds.
Again, the line of strong post players is making Diehl's job a little easier to handle.
"She has really soft hands around the basket," Diehl said of Williams. "When she gets the ball in the paint, she's going to score, too."
Diehl can never get tired of seeing talented post players come up through the system. Barzak certainly fits in well.
"She's kind of the silent leader type," he said. "Her shooting around the basket is probably the best of all of them. Her footwork is the best of all of those post players. She understood the game especially the defensive part of the game a lot earlier in her life than Angela or 'Lex' (Alexa Williams) or Ellie. She's a better student of the game than they were."
YOUNGSTOWN - The closer the Howland Tigers girls' basketball team inches towards an undefeated record in the regular season, the less it wants to dwell on the possible achievement.
But it was hard not to think about a 20-0 record after the Tigers showed resiliency in holding off the Canfield Cardinals, 50-48, in an All-American Conference Red Division game Jan. 28 at the Chevrolet Centre.
"I don't want to say we don't set goals, but I like to say one game at a time," Howland coach John Diehl said after the Tigers improved their record to 14-0. "After tonight we can look at the goal of an undefeated season and maybe winning our division and getting a number one seed at the tournament."
This game turned into a shootout between Howland senior Kelly Barzak and Canfield junior Julian Halfhill. Halfhill, a 5-foot-6 guard, was steady throughout and occasionally spectacular in scoring a game-high 30 points. Barzak, a 6-1 post player, started strong with 10 points in the first quarter and finished strong with nine in the fourth in tallying 25 points.
"She's an amazing player," Barzak said of Halfhill. "We have different games. She's a hard player to stop."
The Cardinals (9-6) limited Barzak to six combined points in the second and third quarters. They weren't as successful in the other two quarters.
"They did a really nice job of isolating Barzak in the first quarter, and it really opened up everything for them," Canfield coach Pat Pavlansky said. "We tried four different defenses in the first half. We've been a man team the last month. They did a lot better job than we did."
The Tigers had a 33-25 lead at halftime after leading 16-14 after the first period. The Cardinals went with halfcourt pressure in the third quarter, which limited the Tigers to five points in the period.
Halfhill, who scored 10 points in the third stanza, tied the score at 33 on a drive to the basket at the 4:08 mark. Barzak answered with a three-point play. Halfhill added another two points, but Taylor Williams made two free throws for give the Tigers a 38-35 lead.
Halfhill wasn't done in the quarter. She connected on two more fielders before the buzzer sounded to give the Cardinals a 39-38 lead.
"Coach Diehl always says that every good team has a run," Barzak said. "We had our run in the first half and they had their run in the third quarter. We just had to get another run towards the end."
The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter. The Tigers took the upper hand for good at 46-44 on a three-point play by Barzak.
Trailing 49-46, the Cardinals moved to within one point of a tie on a shot by Halfhill in the lane. Howland's Abby Nicholas made one foul shot to provide the final margin.
The Cardinals had possession for an inbounds play at halfcourt with 3.8 seconds remain ing. The pass was knocked out of bounds by the Tigers, giving the Cardinals another chance with 2.1 seconds remaining.
Megan Long broke up a lob pass for Halfhill near the basket to seal the win.
"I was on Megan pretty good," Diehl said. "I talked about her making a big play for us as a senior. She did a real nice job on that play."