Fitch's girls basketball team entered the Division I sectional tournament Monday night winners of five games in a row and 20 out of 21 on the season.
That 20-win mark was the most in school history for a Fitch basketball team, boys or girls. Yet, the Falcons had to fight off the Spartans on Opening Night to prevail 48-46. Then on Jan. 27, Boardman became the only team to beat Fitch this season 52-49, so it was only fitting that Fitch's first game in the tournament would be against its nemesis from the other suburb.
"We had to battle both times," said Fitch head coach Stacie Cepin. "We played our worst game (in the Jan. 27 defeat)."
Another bad game against Boardman Monday would have put an abrupt end to a fantastic season for Fitch. The Falcons escaped another dose of Spartan surprises with a thrilling 65-62 first round victory.
"Boardman always brings their best against us, and it remains today a great rivalry,' Cepin said. "Being able to play at home with such a great atmosphere was fantastic. I am so happy the state went to this format (allowing schools with higher seeds to host early round games)."
Both teams battled back and forth in the first half, and it wasn't really until late in the third period when Fitch finally flexed some muscle. Down five points, the Falcons went on an 11-0 run to take a 49-43 lead heading into the final frame. The Spartans went on a 9-2 run to retake the lead midway through the fourth period. Keyed by Megan Sefcik's six consecutive free throws, Fitch was able to end the game on a 12-4 run to avoid a blunder to Boardman. Sefcik would end the night 12 for 12 from the charity stripe and collect 19 points. Cassie Custer matched her teammate with 19 points of her own.
Two of Fitch's five consecutive wins entering the playoffs came over serious tournament contenders. Fitch beat 18-4 West Branch 53-47 on Feb. 3 and lambasted 22-2 Lakeview 53-26 on Feb. 10. Factor in Fitch's 52-45 win over Struthers in between those two other victories and you can see why the Falcons are being taken seriously by the other Division I teams. It was the third time this season Cepin's club ran through a gauntlet of games unscathed.
"We have had three instances this year of three tough games in a row," Cepin said, "and that has prepared us.
The Falcons also beat Girard on the weekend before the tournament 70-48. A 21-10 run by the Falcons in the second quarter enabled them to eliminate any ideas the Lady Indians had of pulling an upset. Sefcik scored 30 points and had 11 rebounds in that win. Custer and Alysoun Mukaabya each scored 10 points.
Sefcik's supposed showdown a week earlier with another one of this area's phenomenal players, Lakeview's Aii Pavlik, never materialized. Sefcik scored 22 points and grabbled 11 boards, but Fitch's defense did a job on Pavlik. The Bulldog's best player was held to 11 points and Lakeview only shot 22 percent as a team.
"We had a game plan and it was executed to a tee," Cepin said. "Two or three girls stepped up to stop Ali. Every tough game the girls have learned to step up."
Tonight's battle with Canfield will be the third one between the crosstown and All-American Conference rivals. Fitch is 2-0 versus Canfield, and if it is to go 3-0, it will need to clampdown on sensational junior Cardinal scorer Rachael Tinkey the same way it did earlier this month against Pavlik.
Tipoff in Austintown is set for 7 p.m.