Two of the teams expected to challenge for the Great Lakes League championship stood on the same floor last night to open league play.
Sandusky, the two-time defending champion, went up against Whitmer, a team banking on a wealth of experience to produce a league title.
Whitmer initiated the first move toward obtaining the league prize by pulling out a 59-57 victory over Sandusky at Whitmer Fieldhouse.
Gerald Fletcher paced the Panthers (2-1, 1-0 Great Lakes) with a team-high 15 points, including three 3-pointers.
Dave Veres and Tyler Waite each came through with 14 points as Whitmer rallied from a seven-point deficit early in the third quarter to take control of the game with steady play on offense and tough defense late in the quarter.
“To come out and beat that talented group of athletes is really, really special,” Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. “We've got some competitors in that locker room.”
The Panthers outscored the Blue Streaks 15-9 in the third quarter, which included scoring the final six points of the period to take a 42-39 advantage into the fourth quarter.
The Blue Streaks (1-1, 0-1) trailed by as many as seven points in the final quarter and never pulled any closer than two points. Fletcher, a 5-11 guard, scored eight of his points in the fourth quarter, including two of his 3-point shots to help fend off the Blue Streaks.
“Fletcher hit some big shots in the fourth quarter and I thought our guys did a good job getting the ball inside in the second half,” Smith said.
Sandusky's Issian Redding, a talented 6-6 junior forward, pumped in a game-high 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Nate Matthews added 12 off the bench.
Nonetheless, it wasn't the kind of start in league-play that Sandusky coach Ed Kurt envisioned for the reigning league champions.
“We had no execution whatsoever,” Kurt said. “It was just poor execution. Give Whitmer credit because their kids executed their game plan.”
Veres said starting league play with a win over the reigning league champions is just what the Panthers needed.
“That's a big step in our plans to win the league,” said Veres, a 6-2 guard, who is one of 10 seniors on Whitmer's roster.
Smith shares a similar thought.
“They've won the league two years in a row and the GLL is a very good league,” Smith said. “In order to compete for a league title you have to win your home games.”
A 9-0 run by the Panthers during a four-minute stretch from the end of the third quarter into the early moments of the fourth quarter turned the game in Whitmer's favor.
Veres put the Panthers ahead for good when he scored on one of their few fast-break opportunities and was fouled on the play with 1:37 left in the third quarter. He sank the free throw to give Whitmer a 40-39 lead.
The Panthers never trailed again.