River defends crown

MORRISTOWN – There always seems to come a time when a senior has to assert herself during a season.

For River, that came Thursday evening.

Taking on a talented Bridgeport squad in a rubbermatch between the two clubs, Lady Pilots’ senior Cassidy McCullough proved, on both ends of the floor, that she wasn’t quite ready for track season to start.

The Lady Pilots’ standout scored 25 points on the offensive end and played lock-down defense.

Those factors combined helped result in River trimming down the sectional nets for the third straight season after posting a hard-earned 53-49 victory against the Lady Bulldogs before a huge crowd at Union Local High School.

“I know the girls wanted to beat Bridgeport badly the second time we played them during the regular season and I saw the same focus from the girls leading up to this game that I saw that week,” said River head coach Rick Isaly. “I knew we’d come out and play a good game.”

Next up for the Lady Pilots is a date with perennial power Hiland at New Philadelphia High School next Thursday in the Division IV Eastern District semifinal.

“I think every year about the level we want to get our program to and there’s no better way to do that than go play a program already at that level,” Isaly said. “I know it’ll be a big task, but I think we’ll be ready for the challenge.”

While the Lady Pilots are returning to practice today, Bridgeport head coach Rob Zitzelsberger is bidding farewell to his club, which finishes with an impressive 21-3 record.

“We set a record for wins in a season at Bridgeport, which is pretty impressive after back-to-back 8-10 teams,” Zitzelsberger said. “If we can get the girls to play together, stay together and work in the off-season, we’ve got a nice upside.”

The Lady Pilots wasted little time in asserting themselves against the Lady Bulldogs.

After Bridgeport frosh Caitlyn Kroll scored her only field goal in transition off a Lady Pilots’ turnover, River scored 16 points in a row to take a 19-6 lead, which led to Lady Bulldogs spending two timeouts.

“We let them get too big of a lead,” Zitzelsberger said. “I thought we did a good job of stopping (Jensen) Caretti in the paint and getting them into some foul trouble, but we just couldn’t overcome that deficit.”

River owned an 11-6 lead after one. McCullough and Laken Ramsay each had two buckets in the first.

In the second period, the Lady Pilots got their one-two combination of McCullough and talented frosh Jensen Caretti going at the same time. Plus, Bridgeport was never able to get comfortable against the Lady Pilots’ press.

“I just wanted to keep pressing because I feel with this team and the athleticism we have, we can wear people down,” Isaly said.

The lead swelled to as big as 15 at 23-8 before the Lady Bulldogs put together a run. However, each time it appeared as if Bridgeport was gaining momentum, McCullough or Caretti had the answer.

“McCullough is pretty good,” Zitzelsberger said. “It was back-door cut after back-door cut. We just couldn’t stop them from getting her the ball inside.”

McCullough, who is the reigning Division III State Champion in the 300 low hurdles, scored seven in the second. Caretti had six points and seven boards.

“My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball in places where I could score,” McCullough said. “I just made the shots.”

Bridgeport was able to even stay close in the first half thanks to impressive junior point guard Nicole Smolenak. She scored nine in the second.

The Lady Bulldogs came out in the third and made a strong push, scoring 10 of the half’s first 12 points. Senior Kaitlyn Benda and junior Maclaine Murad each drained a triple during the spurt, while Smolenak also had three goals in the period.

However, McCullough just saddled the Lady Pilots on her back. She connected on five field goals, none of which were outside of two-feet because of her ability to slice through the Bulldogs’ defense.

“We didn’t play well against Frontier and when that happens it just makes you want to go back and work harder to get ready for this game,” McCullough said. “We knew what we needed to do and who we had to guard. I just didn’t want it to end here.”

Bridgeport took a 42-35 lead into the fourth, but another Benda trey got Bridgeport within four early in the period. However, River responded by scoring eight of the game’s next 11 with McCullough and Caretti again doing the damage.

Another Murad triple and four straight points from Smolenak kept Bridgeport close at 50-45, but Caretti was able to drive down the right side for bucket, which pushed the lead to seven and sent the Lady Bulldogs into foul mode.

McCullough’s offensive production was complemented by Caretti’s 12 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Ramsay donated eight points.

Bridgeport, meanwhile, was led by Smolenak’s 19 points. Murad added 13.

Kroll, the Lady Bulldogs’ leading scorer for the season, was limited to just three points as McCullough drew the defensive assignment.

“We wanted someone in Kroll’s face the entire game,” Isaly said. “There’s no one better to do that than Cassidy. When you’ve got a girl with Cassidy’s foot speed and athleticism, it’s just a blessing.”


RIVER (53) – Lak. Ramsay 4, 0-2 8; Lan. Ramsay 0, 0-0 0; Bowers 1, 0-0 2; Weaver 1, 3-4 5; McCullough 12, 1-2 25; Williams 0, 1-2 1; Caretti 5, 2-7 12; Totals: 23, 7-17 53. BRIDGEPORT (49) – Kroll 1, 1-2 3; Smolenak 6, 7-8 19; Murad 5, 0-0 13; Higgenbotham 0, 0-0 0; Benda 3, 0-0 8; Renzler 2, 0-0 4; Massey 1, 0-1 2; Millard 0, 0-0 0; Totals: 18, 8-11 49.

Three-Point Goals: R – None. B – Murad (3), Benda (2).

Staskey can be reached at sstaskey@timesleaderonline.com