By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
CANAJOHARIE -- During the past few days, the Canajoharie Cougars' response has been just what boys basketball head coach Phil Schoff had hoped to see.
After his team's dozen-game-long winning streak came to a close Friday night against Mekeel Christian Academy, Schoff set up his team's weekend schedule as a way for his club to be able to recharge its batteries if it needed: Sunday was a guaranteed off day, with Saturday billed an optional shoot-around for the players to attend if they felt like getting in some extra work.
To a man, they nearly all did.
"The response was great: We had almost everyone at shoot-around," says Schoff. "They all wanted to come in and work out."
Playing against one of the top teams in Section II Class B Friday night, the Cougars -- the No. 4 seed in the Section II Class C bracket -- lost by 23 points, leaving a "sour taste" in their mouths, senior Kevin Shannon says.
"Losing is always tough on us," adds junior Dillan Veeder. "We're very competitive, so losing really gets to us. We all know we need to come back stronger now."
That's been the Cougars' motto all season, though. Following each of the Cougars' first two losses, Schoff says his club always returned to the practice court with a sense of renewed determination. Memorably, he says, his team's body language immediately after its 62-55 loss on Dec. 12 to Fort Plain let him know his team was ready to make a run.
"Looking at their faces after the game, they were like: We'll do everything in our power to not let that happen again," says Schoff. "They don't want that (losing feeling). They want to go as long as possible without a loss, without having that feeling again."
After the loss to Fort Plain, the 15-3 Cougars embarked on their 12-game winning streak. Shannon says the loss to MCA stung, but left open the possibility that the loss could help to free up his club from the burdens of such a long winning streak.
"We were disappointed, but our main focus now is sectionals and winning our home sectional game," Shannon says.
That game is Wednesday, as the Cougars will play host to the No. 13 Voorheesville Blackbirds. Voorheesville won its final game of the season, a 50-38 decision against Cobleskill-Richmondville, but had lost its previous six decisions.
"But we know they're a good team," says Veeder. "We know we're going to have to play as well as we can to beat them."
That's been the case all season, though, for the Cougars. Not the most talented team by any stretch of the imagination, Canajoharie has padded its record with gumption and close victories all season. Nine of the Cougars' 15 wins have been by seven points or fewer; of those nine, four have been by three points or fewer.
"We're a lot more pressure-tested than a lot of teams in the section," says Schoff. "We're more ready than if we'd been beating teams by 20 points."
That's why Canajoharie's 23-point loss to MCA does not concern the first-year head coach all that much. Heading into the one-and-done format of sectionals, he knows his club has what it takes mentally to thrive in such an environment and has experienced losing just enough times to know its bitter taste.
"They don't want that taste in their mouths again," Schoff says.