FORT MADISON — It could have gone better, but it also could have been worse.
The best thing about Monday night's season-opening 42-30 loss at Fort Madison for the Ottumwa girls varsity basketball team is that, ultimately, everything that went wrong inside Dome is easily correctable with experience being the best way to correct the mistakes that led to the season-opening loss. Despite 19 steals by the Bloodhounds, the Bulldogs chipped away throughout the night after falling behind 15-4 early in the second quarter, pulling within 21-13 at halftime and within 31-24 after three on a pair of free throws by Camdyn Crouse.
"I don't feel like there was ever a time in the game that the girls didn't think they had a chance to win," Ottumwa head girls basketball coach Joe VandenBerg said. "We got down as many as 15 points. We fought back at one point in the second half and got as close as six. We got good looks, missed some easy looks inside.
"We just have to make more free throws and stop turning the ball over. If we shoot better from the foul line and hold on to the basketball a little better, we're a whole different team and this is a whole different ballgame."
Ultimately, the inexperience of the Bulldogs likely proved to be the biggest factor in Monday's opener. Of the 10 players that took the floor throughout the night, six were members of Ottumwa's large seven-player freshman class with their only high school basketball experience entering the varsity opener coming this past Saturday in a 34-28 junior varsity season-opening loss at Davis County.
Even Addison Ransom, a two-year starting senior, had to be reminded at times that there will be a learning curve for most of her teammates early in the 2021-22 season.
"I was getting frustrated at one point in the game. Coach Ruff looked at me and told me to look out there. We had five freshmen on the court at that point," Ransom said. "If that would have been me as a freshman in that spot, I couldn't even imagine what it would have been like.
"You just have to take a step back and remember that they're learning. They'll get it. I think we will get there."
Turnovers and missed free throws ultimately prevented Ottumwa from taking down the defending Southeast Conference champions on their home floor. The Bulldogs committed 35 turnovers, 25 more than the Bloodhounds, and missed 16 of their 24 attempts from the charity stripe.
Malarie Ross, the Southeast Conference's top returning player, came within a steal of a season-opening double-double. The Fort Madison senior scored a game-high 14 points and collected a game-high nine steals, most coming against the first-year Bulldog players that were adjusting to the speed of the varsity high school game on the fly.
"As a younger player, I can remember how overwhelming it can be," Ransom said. "I think these younger girls have done a great job. Thinking back to when I was younger, that was really overwhelming. I got nervous when I got called into the game back then. I give our younger girls a lot of props. They did a great job and they'll clean up the little things."
Ransom and freshman teammate Hunter Caldwell gave Ottumwa a boost early in the second half with consecutive give-and-gos helping the Bulldogs pull within 21-17 just over two minutes into the third quarter. Ross, however, converted on a pair of free throws before finding Anna Lynk in transition to kick off a seven-point Bloodhound run, opening a 28-17 lead.
Ransom finished with nine points to lead the Bulldogs (0-1) while Caldwell had a solid opening night, scoring eight points while hauling in a team-best seven rebounds and dishing out a game-high four assists. Coree James, another senior for Fort Madison (1-0), put the game out of reach scoring six of her 10 points in the fourth quarter to help the Bloodhounds open a 39-24 lead.
Ottumwa will have an entire week to prepare for their home opener next Monday night at Evans Middle School Gymnasium. The Bulldogs welcome another Southeast Conference foe, Mount Pleasant, in a rematch of a 37-25 loss suffered by Ottumwa in the 2020-21 season opener last December.
"There were just small things that we didn't execute that, with more experience, we'll be able to clean up that can make us a much different team," VandenBerg said. "Our post players did a great job. Nellie Morgan came in and went hard after the basketball every minute she was on the court. It just comes down to more time on the court. Everything that we did is correctable.
"The one thing about this team is they won't stop. They'll continue to work and go hard every single day. It's going to take a little bit of time, but we're taking steps in the right direction."