AUSTINTOWN - Approaching the first round of the Division I District Tournament, those who know the past history of fifth-seeded Austintown Fitch and 15-seeded Boardman would understand this game would not be as easy as the numbers show.
During their regular seasons, they both shared a win. Fitch came out on top in late November. In the end of January, Boardman forced the Falcons to have their only loss of the season, winning by three points.
But on this particular meeting, the Falcons continued their undefeated home stretch and overcame the Spartans, 65-62. Fitch improved its home record to 11-0 and to 21-1 overall. Boardman finished 8-15.
"They bring their best against us, as it should be," Fitch coach Stacie Cepin said. "Great rivalry for years. The old SVC (Steel Valley Conference) rivalry. That will never go away."
All parties involved in this contest loved the new tournament change put in place by the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) where sectionals are played at the highest seeded team's court.
"I'm so happy the state went to this format," Cepin said. "All over our brackets, teams are able to play other teams within their communities. This is great. It's great for the game that we can get this kind of atmosphere in Division I basketball in this area because it's never happened before."
Boardman coach Jeff Hammerton agrees with Cepin.
"I love the format," Hammerton said. "The crowd tonight was just unbelievable. I have to thank the student body. They met at the Boardman Park tonight and anyone that didn't have a ride caravanned to get here. So for a Boardman-Fitch game, it was a special game tonight. I know I appreciate our fans being there tonight and so do the girls."
Cepin believed that the confidence within the players won them the game.
"Our kid's confidence to withstand the runs that they had was key," Cepin said. "The games that we have had, actually in the last few years, but especially this year, it's been that type of game. This is no surprise. We knew that it was going to be a good one. It was just about making the big plays when we needed it. Getting a couple key stops that we got and being able to execute offensively."
Going into the second half, one point separated Fitch from Boardman. The Falcons won the third quarter battle by five points which helped give them the lead they needed.
With 4:46 left in the fourth quarter, senior Megan Sefcik picked up her fourth foul and admitted that it affected her play.
"Yes, definitely," Sefcik said. "I'm more of an aggressive player but I knew I had to play smart. I'm used to playing with a couple of fouls early in the game if I needed to but I knew just be smart with my fouls."
She finished with three field goals and a perfect 12-12 from the line for 19 points. The only points she scored in the second half came from the line. Cassie Custer stepped up, connecting on 13 of her 19 points in the second half.
"Playing together and playing as a team," Custer said was most important in this win. "We all knew that we had to commit to each other in this post-season. Just making big plays down the stretch and definitely staying together as a whole team."
Cepin knows the worth of the girls on her team, especially Sefcik and Custer.
"I put a lot of faith in that kid (Sefcik)," Cepin said. "She's a smart girl. She knows how to stay on the floor. She is unbelievable with the things that she does and how she makes this team better. I know that we made a few mistakes but I know Cassie Custer made a few drives that really helped us, too."
Hammerton, although very proud of his team, needed them to hit more free throws to seize the win.
"We play so hard," Hammerton said. "It just seems like one little thing costs us games. Tonight, it was the free throw line. They shot 28 free throws, we only shot 18. We missed 7 of them. When you look at a 3-point game, they get 10 more points at the line, that's probably where the difference is."
Senior Spartan Kelly Tomcsanyi led all scorers with 25 points, nine of them from the floor. Jenna Kuczek followed Tomcsanyi with 17 points.
Fitch continues into the next round against Canfield at Fitch on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m.