FULTON — Carl Davis and the Caston Comets have been on a redemption tour so far this season, entering Friday’s home HNAC matchup with Pioneer at 9-4 and 2-1 in league play. Last week they settled a couple of long-standing scores with consecutive road victories over Rochester and Winamac, coming into Friday’s contest riding a five-game winning streak. The Comets’ 53-49 county tournament victory over Pioneer back on December 6 broke a seven-game losing streak to the Panthers, which carried an average margin of 30 points.
Pioneer has been solid as well, entering the game at 8-5 and 1-1. Austin Cowley’s squad captured key road wins at Argos December 21 and an overtime win at Manchester on January 3.
If they were going to win in Fulton Friday night, they certainly had to focus on Caston’s senior frontcourt duo of Hunter Schanlaub and Mike Rans. But the Panthers clamped down on the perimeter instead, harassing Caston’s young guards in the halfcourt set and closing out quickly to prevent good looks from deep. The Comets were held without a 3-pointer in the game, a key factor in their nine wins to this point. Schanlaub’s basket with 2:05 left in the second period gave Caston their last lead of the game. Behind senior guard Gage Cripe’s 16 points, Pioneer took control of the game from there and cruised to a 51-42 victory.
“We really worked on perimeter defense having backside help and still guarding the 3-point line. The boys executed the defensive game plan very well. Holding them to no 3s was huge,” said Pioneer coach Austin Cowley.
Despite six first-quarter turnovers, Caston only trailed 8-7 after the opening period. Pioneer pushed the tempo in the first half, getting balanced scoring from seniors Jacob Brown, Logan Nusbaum and Cripe. Caston’s guards had trouble handling Cripe, who managed to find the paint and draw contact often
“Cripe has a motor and we tell him he has to set the pace. He has worked really hard on his body and his game. He is a true blessing to have because he has played a lot. He is our engine,” said Cowley.
With their sharpshooters covered up, Caston went to work inside. Schanlaub ended the first half with 11 points, followed by Rans with six. Pioneer took a 24-21 lead to the locker room at half.
A Rans hoop to open the third cut the lead to 1 briefly, but the Panthers answered with a crucial 8-0 run over the next 90 seconds to thwart the host Comets. Cripe scored seven of his team-high 16 points in the period.
Rans went to work in the fourth period, including a 5-0 burst, which brought the Comets to within 7 with 6:23 to play. But Nusbaum connected with a dagger baseline 3 to kick the lead back up to 12 with just 3:40 to go, all but dashing the comeback.
“They are quick and don’t press as much as they have in the past, but they don’t need to with the pressure they can bring 1 on 1. They did a great job of taking options away tonight,” said Caston coach Carl Davis.
Rans and Schanlaub led the Comets with 17 points each. Brown finished with 14 for the Panthers.
“The difference was we held them to no 3s. I think they hit five 3s in the first game,” said Cowley. “I didn’t think we were in shape to start the season. We have worked hard in the weight room this season and we feel it is paying off. We are in much better shape. We really paid attention to the details on defense tonight. We played man to man all game and held them to 42. You can win games playing defense like that.
“We really challenged our guards to drive tonight. And we didn’t do a good job of that at tourney. They’re a good team so we will enjoy this win and use it as momentum.”
Both teams are in action Saturday as Pioneer (9-5, 2-1) hosts Rossville (11-4) and Caston (9-5, 2-2) travels to Northfield (4-10).