By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- That they got here is saying something in itself.
Despite a bumpy second half of their regular season, the Fort Plain Hilltoppers still find themselves pretty much exactly where they want to be at this point in the season: Heading into the Western Athletic Conference Cup as a North Division representative with a chance to make a statement heading into sectionals.
Head coach Casey Russom says he knows a lot of people are surprised to see his club peaking at the right time.
"I think a lot of people weren't sure we'd get here," says Russom. "But I know the 12 boys in the locker room and myself, we knew we could."
The Hilltoppers' (10-5, 8-4) struggles began in late December, when the club -- then undefeated in the WAC -- visited Saratoga Central Catholic and were thumped, 72-25. Fort Plain senior point guard Joe Rays says that game got away from the club early and the Hilltoppers never were able to reign in the Saints.
"It just kind of kept compiling," he says. "Then, it got exponentially worse and we ended up losing by 47 points or whatever."
Soon after, the Hilltoppers scored an out-of-section victory, but the squad's troubles were waiting for it when Fort Plain returned to WAC play. The Hilltoppers lost their next two league games and three of four, dropping them into third place in the league. For a club filled with seniors that were on last year's team that specialized in winning close games, the streak of close losses was tough to stomach.
"It was different," says senior Jake Sardina. "We're so used to winning as a group ... and when we started losing, it was difficult for us."
"It can be tough when things aren't going your way," adds senior Chris Hanifin. "We lost a couple close games, but the thing was staying together as a team and getting past that."
The club posted a win against Northville to get back on track, making last Wednesday's game against SCC a contest to decide second place in the WAC North and the final spot in the WAC Cup.
But the days leading up to the SCC game were the most trying ones of the season for Fort Plain. Days prior to the SCC game, Bo Baker -- a former Fort Plain athlete -- died in a car accident.
"Everyone knew him, at least in some small way," Ray says.
"Our coaches helped us get through that," says Hanifin, his voice choking. "It was tough."
But the Hilltoppers had a game to play -- and they wanted to use it to honor Baker, especially the team's upperclassmen who were competing on their Senior Night.
"Coach said we would never have a time to play like that again. We were playing for something, for more than just a game," says Sardina. "We were able to bring a community together that day and I think that was more on our shoulders than our actual Senior Night or the game."
Sardina says the team felt a lot of pressure heading into that game. But, he says, the team was ready for the contest when the ball was tipped.
"We always come out swinging, you know?" he says.
That night, the Hilltoppers came through, posting a 73-70 victory in overtime, as Marcus Failing made six 3-pointers on his way to scoring 26 points, as Fort Plain clinched its spot in the WAC Cup after a tumultuous second half to its regular season.
"I'm very, very proud of how the guys got through it all, because it was a pivotal moment," says Russom. "They could have really packed it in and said they couldn't win the league anymore, and nothing is left to play for.
"But there was a lot left," Russom says.
Friday, the Hilltoppers' prize for earning their trip to the WAC Cup is a date with the league's power, Mekeel Christian Academy.
The Lions come into Friday's game -- at 8:30 p.m., at Fulton-Montgomery Community College -- sporting a 13-2 record and a 13-game winning streak. While MCA does not have Collin Stewart -- who, last year, scored 47 points against Fort Plain in the WAC Cup championship -- this season, the Lions have built a potent offense this season around Caleb Stewart, who is averaging 19.5 points per game. But the Hilltoppers -- who played MCA in the past two WAC Cup finals -- are undaunted by the Lions and are looking to spring the upset as the Section II postseason nears.
"We want to use this as a shot into sectionals, a boost," Sardina says.
Coming into this season, the most radical difference for the Hilltoppers, compared to a year ago, was going to be where the team's scoring came from after the graduation of leading scorer Harold Dettmer.
Much like the team's overall season had bumps in the road, so did the team's quest to find a new go-to scorer -- or two.
"Any new offense is going to start our slow," says Hanifin. "But, throughout the season, we've worked hard and it's all come together."
The key, says Ray, was that the Hilltoppers' needed to accept that a true go-to scorer who could get baskets off isolation plays was not on this year's roster. Instead, he says, the team needed some scoring punch from all over its lineup.
"We made it an emphasis in practice that everyone needed to touch the ball and, if they're open, to shoot it," says Ray. "We became more of a team through that."
That balance has shown: Six players average at least 6.6 points per game for the Hilltoppers, who are led by Failing's 12.5 average.