Playing a rough regular season schedule was one way Canfield head basketball coach John Cullen thought would prepare his team for the rigors of the state tournament.
That slate includes multiple games against teams who either represent Division I or are perennial playoff participants or both. The way Canfield came out and played after the start of the New Year had to give Cullen confidence that his plan is working.
After losing a grueling game to Cardinal Mooney on Dec. 29, Canfield came back to clip Canton GlenOak on the road, 48-47 a few nights later. The Cardinals used that momentum to beat another Federal League team, Boardman 50-39 on Jan. 5. Canfield kept it going by winning a conference game in Salem, 69-46 on Friday. Cullen’s club is now 7-2 on the season thanks the sparkling play against some sterling competition.
“We had some nice wins,” said Cullen earlier this week. “(We beat) two Federal League teams in two games and got a big conference win. Winning two Division I games gives us some respect come tournament time. We want to be one of the teams that is on the radar of other teams.”
What made the two wins out of conference even more impressive was that the Cardinals were playing without super senior scorer Mike Podolsky who was serving a two-game suspension for a flagrant foul in the Mooney game.
“The Mooney incident was unfortunate,” said Cullen softly. “We feel stronger because of that. The kids came together without Mike in the lineup.”
One Cardinal who stepped against the Spartans in Podolsky’s absence was six-foot, two-inch senior Justen Vrabel. Since the Spartans were so much taller than Canfield, Cullen needed someone physical to bang with the bigger Boardman kids. Enter Vrabel, who stood his ground in the paint and snagged a team-high 10 rebounds. He also acted as the leader on the floor with Podolsky on the pines.
While Vrabel was being a force on the glass, senior Gene Wollet was picking up the scoring slack. Although he was bloodied and battered from a hard foul in the first half, Wollet wowed the people watching with 15 points. Three of those points came in the decisive fourth quarter when Wollet quieted the pro Boardman crowd with a huge three-pointer that gave Canfield a five-point lead. That shot enabled Canfield to roll to a 20-10 fourth period advantage, the largest differential in any quarter of the game, and to its 11-point victory.
“That was one of the big plays of the game,” Cullen said afterward.
Joe Hoelzel helped Canfield’s output with 12 points of his own. Hoelzel would come back on Friday and score 13 more points to help the Cardinals to their first Red Tier win of 2010. Dan Campolito would also score a baker’s dozen, but it was the return of Podolsky that had the Canfield faithful fired up the most. Podolsky punished the Quakers for 18 points including a pair of three-pointers. The senior’s return also allowed Canfield’s defense to settle back into its normal role. Canfield’s “D” stymied Salem all evening only allowing six points in quarters one and three. Salem was silenced when shooting the ball as well hitting only 30 percent of its shots. Canfield also forced 11 turnovers in the first quarter alone.
That type of defense can catapult an average team into being a good team. In Canfield’s case it can make a good team a great team. The Cards attempted to duplicate that defense on January 12 when they traveled to 1-7 Lakeview.
Canfield should have a more competitive time when it hits the road to Howland this Friday. The Tigers are 4-4 and are always a difficult matchup on their court. Coach Cullen is concerned about the athletic Tigers the same way he was about the Boardman kids. Of course, his worries were subdued versus the Spartans.
“(Howland) is a long, athletic, fast team,” said Cullen. “They can give us some problems. We weren’t sure how we would do against a similar team in Boardman. Hopefully we can do just as well (versus Howland).”