When you are the basketball team with all of the tradition of success, you’ve been a regular at the regional level of play on nearly an annual basis and you are expected to come into a regional tilt and take care of business, the one thing you want to do is to come into the game, walk up to your opponent and smash them in the mouth to see how they respond.
In the Logan Div. III regional semifinal tilt between Hiland and Alexander on Wednesday, March 6, the Lady Hawks came in as the team steeped in tradition while Alexander was the newbie, the up-and-comer looking to make some noise and make a name for itself.
The Lady Hawks took a couple of mighty swings early on in their showdown to advance to the regional final, and the Spartans found out exactly why this Hiland program is so revered throughout the state.
An early rush helped pave the way for a lopsided 59-30 victory in which Hiland dominated in every way.
“We only had three kids who played any minutes during last year’s run, and most of our kids hadn’t played in a regional game before, but the tradition side of it is big,” Hiland head coach Dave Schlabach said. “I think our kids see it as just another game because it isn’t just about being there; it’s about preparing to go beyond that game. I assume that they were prepared, but I felt like from our standpoint we were prepared and ready to play because this program has been here before.”
In terms of preparing his team, Schlabach said he and his coaching staff probably spent more than 100 hours of watching game footage in preparing to face Alexander, so by game time his kids knew the tactic of the Spartans inside and out. He said that helped in creating the big early cushion.
“I hope people don’t look at this score and think that it was just another easy 30-point win over a push-over team,” Schlabach said. “This Alexander team is talented. They can play, and I felt like our kids just went out and took it away from them.”
In the beginning Hiland set the tone by utilizing its major height advantage and inside play, setting up Inter-Valley Conference South Player of the Year Zoe Miller on the block. Defensively Hiland’s bigs of Zoe Miller, Kendra Shetler and Aila Miller established complete control of the paint, leading to a 46-25 margin on the glass.
That helped Hiland establish a 14-2 lead through one quarter, and the Lady Hawks had staggered the Spartans. The knockout punch was about to be delivered, and it would come courtesy of the long-ball from Brynn Mullet and Kyli Horn.
Both players knocked down a pair of triples in the second period, leading to an 18-point outburst, and by halftime when Morgan Yoder canned a driving jumper to beat the buzzer, Hiland held a monumental 32-9 lead.
“I thought Zoe’s play early really set a tone, and Kyli came in and really ignited us,” Schlabach said. “She has continued to grow into more of an integral part of this team as the year has gone on.”
Hiland was truly impressive in this one, but it wasn’t numbers that told the story of this game as much as it was simply Schlabach’s team following in the footsteps of all of the other great Hiland teams that have enjoyed a successful run to the regional finals and into the state tournament. The Lady Hawks program has made more state tournament appearances than any other school in state history, and having that kind of tradition, the kind of success that pushed a team into regionals in 14 of the past 16 years, can be very intimidating for a team new to that level of play that is trying to make its mark.
How exemplary was this Hiland defense in its efforts to completely shut down Alexander? Guard Rachel Richardson is the Spartans’ star player. She will now turn her attention to preparing to play next year at Kentucky Wesleyan. Hiland held the high-scoring star to five points on 1-of-12 shooting on the night. Guard McKena Rice came in as a highly touted player who is creative and averaging more than 15 points per game. Hiland held Rice scoreless on seven shot attempts.
“Our physicality wore them down,” Schlabach said. “They just weren’t used to it, and even though you can see that and watch the pressure on tape, it isn’t the same as actually experiencing it. I was worried early on that we wouldn’t take advantage of that, but fortunately we did and built a huge early lead.”
With that early lead having been established, Hiland simply rode out the final two periods and kept the Spartans at bay, building the lead to more than 30 points before Schlabach unloaded his bench.
“I think that tradition matters,” Schlabach said of Hiland’s prestigious track record. “I think our kids were not only very focused to get back to this spot but to move beyond. What is amazing is that we lost six of our top-eight kids from last year’s team including four starters. That to me is amazing, and I have never had a year when I’ve lost that kind of talent and turned around and had this kind of play.”
Zoe Miller paced the Lady Hawks with 15 points and nine rebounds while Mullet led all scorers with 16 points. Horn scored 12 while Yoder added eight points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals. Shetler did what she has done all year in hauling in eight rebounds while Aila Miller added five boards as Hiland roared to a 46-25 advantage on the glass.