Chardon Hilltoppers girls’ basketball Coach Erik Hoenigman said he had a good feeling that Riverside would be a formidable opponent for the Western Reserve Conference title.
His hunch was correct as the Beavers ran away with the game in the fourth quarter to beat Chardon 78-59 last Saturday afternoon at The Barn, snapping the Hilltoppers’ four-game winning streak.
“Riverside stepped up and flexed their muscles and they should have because it was a good group,” said the second-year coach. “At the end of the day we gave them all that we could but we did not have the height and we just had girls running out of gas.”
Prior to the beginning of the 2022-23 season, Chardon (10-11, 6-5) aspired to clinch its first WRC banner since joining the conference.
The Hilltoppers’ dream season came crashing down when multiple key players suffered injuries, resulting in inexperienced players getting more playing time and being thrust into new roles.
“It has been hard,” senior forward Anna Landies said. “We started off with one of our starters, Kayla Oriani, tearing her ACL and then Emily Noerr got hurt. We went through a lot of ups and downs and it obviously has not gone the way we wanted it to.”
The season became more of a learning year and ultimately resulted in Chardon being seeded 25th in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division I tournament.
Having already wrapped up outright ownership of the league banner, the Beavers finished their regular season with a perfect conference record by spoiling Chardon’s senior day.
For the second consecutive season, the Hilltoppers honored another small senior class with Noerr, Oriani, guard Julianne Sweet and the 5-foot-10 Landies being the only graduating upperclassmen.
Hoenigman acknowledged that it has been nice to have a steady flow of continuity with so few players graduating from the program, but that also has left Chardon with not much varsity experience.
“You need five seniors and five juniors if you want to compete,” he said. “Riverside did not really dig deep into their bench and we were down to 10 or 11 girls on Saturday getting time because we had to but eventually it will play a role.”
The current season may not have been the WRC title season the Hilltoppers hoped for, but Hoenigman said the underclassmen have become battle-tested by playing significant varsity minutes.
Chardon’s trend of small senior classes will continue into next season and it will have only one senior on its roster.
“I am proud of our underclassmen and freshman,” Landies said. “They have been thrown into things that I have not gone through. They are 14-year-olds going against 18-year-olds so they have really stepped up and learned to be confident and share the ball.”
Despite the Hilltoppers fielding a more inexperienced roster this year, they eventually hit their stride and won eight of their previous nine games before their regular season home finale against Riverside.
“We knocked off some pretty good teams after losing a lot of close games,” Hoenigman said. “Everything was starting to come together and when going up against a team like Riverside, you have to have some tall girls and we have the heart and desire but sometimes you have to be able to go get the rebound.”
Riverside raced out to a 12-4 lead in the first quarter but the Hilltoppers went on a 5-2 run to trim the lead to five points.
The duo of junior forward Savannah Laurenty and senior forward Sam Volpe paced the Beavers by combining to score 21 points in the opening period.
The Hilltoppers moved the ball around and shot seven-of-14 from the floor but Riverside topped that by shooting at a 60% clip to take a 26-17 lead at the end of the opening period.
Chardon started the second quarter fueled by a 5-0 run, cutting the lead to 26-22 but the Beavers responded with an 11-5 surge to take a double-digit lead for the first time.
The Hilltoppers cut the deficit to trail only 34-42 but Hoenigman said it was clear everything was going Riverside’s way.
“There were a lot of 3-pointers and a lot of rebounds we were not boxing out on,” he said. “We still gave ourselves a chance and were still in the game.”
Junior guard Nicole Krakora sparked Chardon by scoring 6 points at the beginning of the third period, cutting the Beavers’ advantage to a two-possession game.
“Sometimes I have to get on Nicole a little bit, and I got on her and she responded,” said Hoenigman.
A year removed from being a top defensive unit, the Hilltoppers have not experienced the same success this season, but recorded one of their best defensive quarters of the year when they forced nine Riverside turnovers in the third period.
“We were getting rebounds and running down the floor,” Hoenigman said. “I told them they had to play for four full quarters. It cannot be three-and-a-half against good teams but the full four.”
Chardon’s resurgence in the third quarter kept the score close for most of the period and the Beavers were clinging to a 58-54 lead at the end of the period.
The Hilltoppers trimmed the lead to 2 points at the start of the fourth period with a 3-point shot by the 5-foot-10 Noerr but things then unraveled.
Chardon committed seven turnovers as Riverside pulled away with an 11-2 run to push the lead back to double digits.
Landies admitted some of Chardon’s old defensive habits crept back into the mix.
“We showed a little bit of laziness in not getting on the help side in the fourth quarter, which really hurt us,” she said.
The 5-foot-10 Laurenty stabilized Riverside’s offense by scoring 8 points in the final quarter and the Beavers outscored Chardon by a 20-5 margin.
Following their regular season finale against Mayfield on Wednesday night, the Hilltoppers will play fifth seed Walsh Jesuit in the opening round of the OHSAA Division I Region 1 Northeast 1 in Cuyahoga Falls at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
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