Season-closing wins buoy jr. hoopsters

Dan Falloon

The Muskie junior girls’ basketball team is entering the NorWOSSA playoffs on a roll.
Heading into today’s showdown at Fort High, the black-and-gold beat both of their league rivals last week to finish the regular season with a 4-4 mark.
It began with 20-12 victory over Kenora on Tuesday before the Muskies dominated first-place Dryden 33-10 on Thursday.
That’s exactly the order the team will need if they hope to hoist the league crown at the end of the day.
Fort High faced Kenora at 10 a.m. today in the semi-final, with that winner moving on to meet the Eagles in the final at 3:45 p.m. in the big gym.
Muskie coach Dan Bird was pleased with the way his team has played, especially in Thursday’s win over the Eagles.
“We were able to get in some good scoring opportunities and we kept them at bay,” he lauded.
One area in which Bird has noted a vast improvement is in rebounding—an aspect of the game he sees as huge if Fort High is to be successful in the playoffs.
“[There was] a big improvement on the boards, controlling the boards in both games,” he observed.
“If you can control the boards, you’re going to control the game, and that worked out for us.
“All across the court, I thought there was a definite improvement from our previous outings up in Kenora and Dryden,” Bird concluded.
In the pair of wins last week, four of the five starters were rookies.
The effect of putting out that lineup to start the games has had a two-fold effect—giving the younger players confidence that they can play at the high school level while putting some fire in the veterans sitting on the bench.
“Starting those Grade 9s the last two games, like Sarah Bagacki, Keira Lindgren, Courtney Spade, and Alyssa Windego, that has given them confidence now,” noted Bird.
“They’re the ones consistently working hard in practice, so they deserved it.
“Now it’s given us some bench strength going into Wednesday,” he reasoned. “They’re comfortable going out there now.
“I’m glad they played as well as they did.”
Meanwhile, by the time the senior players hit the floor, they’re jazzed right up and act as a second wave of intensity on the floor.
“Putting them in there, they want to go,” Bird stressed.
“It’s been a carrot as coaches having those Grade 9s start and then subbing in our regular lineup,” he added.
“They’re hungry by then. It keeps that intensity up for us.”
While Bird has been pleased with the play of every rookie, Bagacki, in particular, has caught his eye in terms of her improvement across the board.
“We’re really happy with Bagacki coming along as she has,” he lauded. “[She’s improved] work ethic and rebounding.
“She’s starting to get the confidence of getting that rebound and putting it back up.
“She’s just not panicking with the ball anymore, and I think that goes for all our Grade 9 players,” Bird said.
In a sense, Bagacki seems to epitomize the leaps and bounds taken by the younger players this season. Bird explained the rookies also have improved their knowledge of how to play in certain scenarios.
“They know what to do in situations where they’re covered well and to back the ball out when they can’t get a shot off, trying to draw the foul,” he remarked.
Bird said he wasn’t going to decide on his starting lineup until after the week of practice leading up to the playoffs, but admitted it even could be a hybrid of the Grade 9s and 10s.
With any combination, Bird expects his players to be the vocal on the bench as an added boost to those on the court, as they have been all season.
“We don’t want to let up on that,” he stressed. “We’ve been thanking the girls for the bench being our sixth man.
“They’ve been really supportive of girls coming off the court when we sub.
“You can hear them on the bench during the game,” he continued. “I like that. That’s giving those players on the floor confidence, and keeps the pace of the game going in our favour.
“They’re a good bunch of girls, for sure.”
Bird’s keys to victory in the semi-final game include shutting down Kenora’s top players, preventing their forward from getting inside for close-range shots, while also keeping their sharp-shooting guard from getting easy, uncontested shots from the perimeter.
He felt both tasks were well done in last Tuesday’s win over the Broncos.
Should the Muskies advance to face Dryden, however, Fort High will face a noticeably different test in the up-tempo Eagles.
“We have to equal their intensity,” Bird warned.
“They’re different from Kenora in that they love to push the ball,” he noted. “They’re always going for the fast break, so we have to take away their fast-break opportunity, and we have to close the lane.”
Dryden’s style of play limits the Muskies’ defensive options as they try to hinder the Eagles from getting close to the hoop.
“You’ll never see us go man-to-man against Dryden,” Bird said. “It’s going to be zone so we can take away their driving capabilities.”
Conversely, that driving style of play is exactly what the Muskies will need to do if they qualify for the final.
“We have to drive against them,” Bird stressed. “We have to play better against their man-to-man and that’s what we’re going to concentrate on—improving our man-to-man offence.”
Still, Bird is bullish on the team’s chances of advancing to today’s final and, with a solid effort, of even winning it all.
“Should we get there [to the final], I truly believe we have the better of the three teams,” he remarked.
“When I compare player for player, I believe that we have the better squad and we’ve just got to play to our capabilities.
“We should be in that gold-medal game and fare well,” he enthused.