HOWLAND - With the football players joining the basketball team just nine days prior to Austintown Fitch's opening basketball game at Howland High School, Fitch coach Brian Beany and the Falcons expected there to be a little rust when the Falcons first stepped onto the floor.
That rust showed in the first minute of the game, as the Tigers jumped out to a four-point lead. Despite the struggle to get it going from the opening whistle, the Falcons didn't panic.
"We were calm because the shots were going to fall no matter what," senior Jessie Driver said. "We were getting good looks, so, we were confident about that."
It didn't take long for that rust to wear off, as Fitch found a rhythm and cruised to a 73-51 win over Howland in All-American Conference, American Division play.
Fitch (1-0, 1-0) finished the first quarter on a 19-4 run and took a 25-point lead into halftime, and the team could thank Driver for that.
The senior point guard struggled scoring (six points on the night), but he made up for that with his team play, breaking down Howland's zone defense and dishing out six of his game-high seven assists in the first half. The 6-foot-1 Driver also collected 11 rebounds throughout the game.
"I've been with these guys for four years now," Driver said. "I got to love them. If I don't pass the ball, I feel it. I'm an unselfish player. Scoring points to me is nothing if we don't get the win."
Many of Driver's passes set up sophomore forward Anthony Pangio, who had a good night terrorizing the Tigers (0-2, 0-1). Driver and Pangio connected three times for scores inside the paint, as the 6-4 forward went for 15 points.
"(Pangio's) got nice hands, he's big around the basket," Beany said. "He did everything that we could possibly ask out of a sophomore in that position."
Pangio also grabbed 14 rebounds in the game, including seven on the offensive boards, to give him a double-double. He also had 11 of Fitch's 15 second-chance points.
Overall, Fitch got after it on the boards, outrebounding Howland by 21 and collecting 15 offensive rebounds.
"It's really important to beat the other team on the boards," Pangio said. "We get the ball and run a lot, and that's our gameplan - get rebounds and run."
Although Fitch enjoyed a comfortable lead for most of the game, Howland did manage to make the game interesting in the third quarter.
The Tigers went on a 15-4 run over the first 7 minutes of the second half. Tommy Carnifax putback bucket with 1:38 remaining in the third pulled Howland back to within 14 points (the closest it had been since the 5:57 mark in the second quarter), but the Tigers couldn't erase the deficit any further, as the Falcons scored six points in the final minute of the third to push the lead back out to 20.
"Credit goes to Fitch for coming out and being aggressive and getting at us, and he just threw waves of kids at us," Howland coach Bill Bogan said. "We just weren't ready for that in the first half, but we got out of it at halftime and came out and played a good second half."
Depth showed for the Falcons throughout the game, as Beany substituted in a new five players multiple times throughout, and 10 guys played regular minutes. Beany said this depth should be a strength of the team this season.