By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- Joe Ray got the Fort Plain High School boys basketball team off to a perfect start in the team's season opener Wednesday night, slashing to the basket on the Hilltoppers' first possession for an easy layup.
It took another 12 minutes for the Hilltoppers' opponents, the Galway Golden Eagles, to make their presence known -- and by that point, it was already too late.
Fort Plain held Galway scoreless for the games first 12 minutes and eight seconds, and Hilltoppers senior forward Chris Hanifin powered his way to a game-high 18 points in an emphatic, 63-23 opening night win at the Harry Hoag School.
"Joe Ray sparked us off quick with two drives right to the basket," Hanifin said. "That got us going. We were comfortable out there. It just might've seemed like it took us a while."
The Hilltoppers (1-0, 1-0 WAC North) didn't get off to the fastest of starts after a pair of early baskets from Ray, but with the way their defense was playing, it barely mattered. Fort Plain deployed a variety of zone and pressure defenses to flummox Galway early on. It resulted in a 13-0 lead after the first quarter, and as time wore on in the second quarter, Fort Plain's goal became singular.
"Our goal was to get (the shutout) to halftime," Hanifin said.
It didn't quite make it that far -- Dylan Gregory finally got Galway on the board via a short jumper with 3:52 left in the second quarter -- but by the time the Golden Eagles finally scored, Fort Plain had opened up an 18-point lead that never got closer than 13 the rest of the night.
Hilltoppers head coach Casey Russom gave much of the credit for the team's defensive performance to his group of quick, aggressive guards -- Ray, Jacob Sardina, Zack Sweet, Trenton Douglas and Tim Wolfe -- who rotated throughout the night and generally made life miserable for Galway's ballhandlers.
"[Galway's] a younger team, so you want to put pressure on their guards," Russom said. "Jake, Joe, Zach, Trent and Timmy all did that."
Conversely, Hanifin said Fort Plain's defensive success was largely a product of a well-designed gameplan from Russom and his staff.
"Our coach put together a great gameplan," he said. "A lot of different presses throughout the game. The gameplan worked out and we got the 'W.'"
After locking down defensively for three quarters and opening up a 39-18 lead, Fort Plain's offense finally surged in the final eight minutes, chalking up 24 points down the stretch to turn a convincing performance into a complete rout.
"That's gonna be key for us. We've got to be able to make the open shot," Russom said. "If we make open shots, we're a pretty good basketball team."
It made for an emphatic start -- exactly what Hanifin and his teammates were hoping to get out of their opener.
"We had to show what we've got and get started on a good note," the senior forward said.
Though Russom is certainly hoping to see some improvements down the road -- including his team's first-half offensive execution and a rough 7-of-18 performance at the free throw line -- he was both thrilled and relieved to see the Hilltoppers get through their opener as smoothly and efficiently as they did Wednesday night.
"Geoff Snyder, our JV coach, I was talking about it with him that you always worry about the first one," he said. "You haven't been able to scout them, and our kids are anxious to play. You just hope they come out not too anxious, but anxious enough to succeed."