ADAMS — When players on the South Jefferson girls basketball team walked into Saratoga’s gym last Friday evening, they felt an unfamiliar feeling: intimidation. Not many teams can intimidate the No. 3 state-ranked Spartans, who were No. 1 in the state in Class B up until this week. However, a Class AA school ranked No. 5 in the state did the trick.
Like a shot at the doctor’s office, it was a one-and-done experience. The Blue Streaks took it to the Spartans 71-33, but since they are a Class AA school, South Jefferson won’t be seeing them again this season.
Saratoga is only one of the strong non-section opponents South Jefferson and coach Michelle Whitley made sure to schedule for this season. Prior to playing Saratoga, the Spartans (8-1) hosted Binghamton Seton Catholic, the 2019 Class A state runner-up and Our Lady of Mercy, the No. 24 state-ranked Class AA team. South Jefferson also scheduled Colonie, a Class AA team ranked No. 11, but that game was canceled by the weather.
The schedule has required long bus rides throughout the state. It’s inconvenient, but in a way, that’s kind of the point.
For Whitley, it’s all about finding new ways to challenge her already talented team.
“Year to year, you look and see what personnel you have and what kind of team you have. We definitely miss Alyssa Stevenson but we are a different team, a different style with Emma Schafer stepping in there,” Whitley said. “With that being said, I felt like we didn’t go against enough of that kind of competition and you get tired of playing the same teams. With the playoffs and the Frontier League, you see Frontier League teams all the time and you travel to Syracuse, but it’s the same teams that you (have) to play to push yourself. So when you start reaching outside of that, the factor of the unknown team starts to play in their mind.”
Whitley has tried in the past to diversify her schedule with more non-Section 3 teams, but said that the process for putting together this year’s schedule began almost as soon as last season ended following the loss to Irvington in the state semifinals.
While each Class AA school and non-section game acted as a unique experience, the loss to Saratoga will prove to be particularly effective in making South Jefferson a better team, especially if the Spartans can make it back to the state tournament.
“The whole idea was can we ride the bus for over three hours, get off the bus and play a really good team?” Whitley said. “That was probably the biggest challenge I put on the board for us, the way the situation was set up. And I just wanted to see how we responded to it, because if we took anything away from there, we can know when we’re playing somebody (and) say, ‘are they as good as Saratoga?’”
Jackie Piddock finished with 23 of her team’s 33 points against Saratoga. She’s been a stud for the Spartans this year, averaging about 26 points per game.
“Going to Saratoga and getting blown out, it makes you take a step back and it humbles you a little bit,” Piddock said. “We let them put up 71 points and that’s not acceptable, we have to lock down on defense and get stops.”
Piddock got the opportunity to go up against Dolly Cairns, the Blue Streaks’ senior point guard who is committed to playing basketball at the University of Rhode Islands next fall.
“It’s a lot faster of a game,” Piddock said. “So you just need to be calm, take care of the ball, set everything up and run the point basically.”
Fourty-five percent of South Jefferson’s scoring this season has come from Piddock, she is the driving force of the offense. However, teammates such as Taylor Scoville and Emma Schafer have stepped up to help the offense flow.
Schafer, assuming many of the graduated Alyssa Stevenson’s responsibilities, has averaged six points a game and has 43 rebounds, Scoville’s numbers are similar, the junior is averaging seven points per game and has 47 rebounds.
Schafer admitted that the Spartans were intimidated by Saratoga, which ultimately led to lack of focus in the game. But after watching film, she noticed plenty of tactics that South Jefferson can implement against future Class B opponents.
“I’d say our screens, I watched a lot of that game and their screens and their communication,” Schafer said of Saratoga. “We’re not as good at communicating as they are. I think that if we worked on our communication and our screens that we can definitely be just like them. I actually think we are just like them, I think that we could have stuck by them and been within two points. I think it could have been a really good game.”