By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
POLAND -- For two quarters, the youthful Salem High boys basketball team stood toe-to-toe with a perennial challenger for the Metro Athletic Conference championship.
But, at the start of the third quarter, Chad Fender and Dan McGarry started Poland with nine unanswered points as the Bulldogs outscored Salem 20-4 and went on to a 64-49 victory Wednesday night.
"We've improved so much, so we're happy where we are," said Fender, who scored 21 points. "It's great to be 7-0 in the [MAC], to be right there again for the title, but we're still trying to improve."
The victory kept Poland (10-2, 7-0) a game in front of Canfield in the MAC standings. They'll most likely will settle the race when they play at Canfield Feb. 10.
"We knew it would be a real dogfight for the crown, with Canfield strong and Salem up from past years," Fender said. "We expected them to come out strong and they gave us a pretty good effort, throwing us some curveballs and mixup stuff."
The Quakers trailed 16-13 early in the second quarter when sophomore Tom Jesko hit two 3-pointers in a 10-2 run that gave Salem its biggest lead, 23-18.
Fender responded with the next six points on a basket, a free throw and a 3-pointer to put Poland ahead.
"That's his job," Poland coach Ken Grisdale said of Fender. "We didn't play him as a freshman and sophomore to be a role player. He's the guy that makes our engine run."
Grisdale credited a defensive adjustment by assistant coach Brian Nord for the third quarter turnaround.
"Defensively, they did a nice job," said Grisdale of Salem's first half. "We missed a couple of layups and free throws and let them hang around but they were handling our pressure real well.
"In the second half, we put on a little more pressure because our goal is to get their heart rate up," Grisdale said. "In the first half, we didn't and they hung right in there."
The comfort zone was gone by the time Salem's Tyler Pierce snapped Poland's scoring run with a reverse lay-up to make it 37-27.
The Bulldogs then scored nine more unanswered points to put the game away.
"Our turnovers  were good for the night, with only five in the first half," Salem (5-8, 4-3) coach Jeff Brink said. "But they came in bunches in the third quarter and against a perennial league power, you can't afford to go through a run like that."
Brink wasn't surprised with Fender's success.
"Chad Fender is one the best -- he's tough to defend and we made a few mistakes [that gave him] a couple of open looks," Brink said. "We figured he's going to get his 20 -- we wanted to not give up the easy baskets that we did."
McGarry finished with 13 points while Cameron Marchese came off the bench to score 10.
Jesko's 13 points led the Quakers while Ryan Benchwick scored 11.
"For three quarters, we played good, solid basketball but against a quality team you can't go and hide for eight minutes," Brink said. "We made some crucial errors, but you have to give Poland credit because they cranked up the defense."