By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- At some point this season, the seven-deep Fort Plain Lady Hilltoppers knew their lack of depth was going to end up hurting them.
When that time came around, though, it was not early foul trouble in a key contest that served as the problem. Rather, it was a two-week stretch in which the club rarely had enough healthy players to practice, let alone to play its games.
"That was a very difficult stretch," says Fort Plain head coach Phil Karker. "We usually couldn't practice because we didn't have enough kids in school."
When the team did practice, it was usually down a girl or two, and without its usual pep.
"This is a very tight group, so you can really tell when one is missing," says Karker. "If one's gone, the whole chemistry gets thrown off."
While many Section II teams have dealt this basketball campaign with a seemingly busier flu season, the bug hit the Lady Hilltoppers at just the wrong time -- as the club started what was supposed to be a four-games-in-10-days stretch.
"It was a struggle," says freshman guard Kendra Trembley. "It was difficult for us, but it also made us stronger in the long run because we know we have to work harder and fight harder to get the things we want because there's less of us."
The stretch began with a loss to Middleburgh -- the Lady Hilltoppers' only blemish so far this season -- and then saw Fort Plain win its next two games with dramatic comebacks against Mayfield and Galway. Against Mayfield, Fort Plain rallied from a 16-1 deficit after one quarter behind Abby Boyer's game-high 19 points; Galway jumped out to a similar start two days later, but the Lady Hilltoppers overcame their early 24-14 deficit to take a 63-46 victory.
But the three games in five days drained the Lady Hilltoppers' energy. With the team set to play Canajoharie a few days later, the clubs had to postpone the game.
"We'd only had two players in school that day," Karker says.
Still, despite those health woes for a couple of weeks, the Lady Hilltoppers finished their regular season in the Western Athletic Conference last week with a 15-1 record, including a perfect 12-0 mark in the league. Fort Plain next plays Friday in the WAC Cup at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, at 4 p.m., against the WAC South's Mekeel Christian Academy.
While most teams at this point in the season have a pretty good idea what type of sectional seed they will earn at next week's seeding meeting, Fort Plain's not one of them.
"It all depends on this weekend," says Karker, adding he could see his team being placed from anywhere between No. 4 and No. 12 in the Section II Class C bracket.
The reason? Fort Plain's record sparkles, but its first-place status in the WAC North is not as valuable a standing as it might be in other leagues.
"Our strength of schedule isn't that good," Karker admits.
That makes the WAC Cup a pivotal series of games for the Lady Hilltoppers, as the club gets a chance to possibly play two WAC South teams in an effort to boost its resume.
"We know that we'll be facing bigger challenges now, so we just have to work that much harder," says Trembley. "But we're ready ... for the challenge."
First time out
A first-year varsity player, Fort Plain senior Kayla Wilder smiles when asked when she had last played basketball before this season.
"I don't really remember," she offers.
On a seven-player team, Wilder typically rides the bench for most of the game, offering a couple minutes whenever the club needs to give one of its starters a break.
"She hasn't played a lot of minutes for us, but she's been great in practice," Karker says.
Wilder -- who, after some time to think, says she last played competitive basketball in sixth grade -- got to start her Senior Night last week and played all of the game's fourth quarter, a 56-30 victory against St. Johnsville.
"She did very well that night," Karker says.
Wilder says the season has been a tough one, as she has tried to learn the team's plays from scratch and get up to speed with the varsity game. But, she says, she is glad she made her return to hoops.
"I love it," she says.
Starting games alongside Wilder on the bench each contest is Briannah Florian, the team's 5-foot-10 sophomore.
After missing most of her junior-varsity season last year with an ankle injury, this season has been one of growth for the raw varsity rookie. Early in the season, she seemed hesitant with her moves; now, she is assertive in her movements within the team's offense and has shown off better footwork around the basket. Florian says a big part of her improvement has been because she gets to practice each day against Boyer, the junior leading Fort Plain in scoring.
"I'm the second post (player), so it's good going against her because she has so much skill," says Florian. "She's a really good post, so it's good to learn from her."
Karker says he has tried to bring Florian along slowly this season, but that he expects big things from her in the future.
"This is really her first year of playing high school basketball," says Karker. "She's only going to get better, so we're looking forward to that."