Anyone wishing to get a sense of what could take place down the Div. IV tournament trail got their money’s worth on Saturday, Feb. 16 at Claymont High School when the Hiland Hawks and Strasburg Tigers knocked heads in the Inter-Valley Conference showcase grand finale between the winner’s of the IVC North and South divisions. Both teams played things close to the vest, not wanting to divulge any possible secrets for down the road, but it was still a fascinating game to watch.
It all added up to a 43-37 Hiland victory in a game that didn’t carry any weight at all, yet both teams played with great intensity.
“We’re hard to score on; they’re hard to score on. And it probably wasn’t the best game to watch,” Hiland head coach Mark Schlabach said. “Most of our games we say the first team to 50 wins. In this one it’s usually the first one to 40.”
“It was pretty much what I think most people thought it was going to be in terms of style,” Strasburg head coach Adam Hall said. “It was a grind. Both teams play really hard, and scoring is at a premium. We just had some mistakes that cost us.”
A game of no-show
What fans were witness to was a grueling defensive performance by both teams in a game that both teams played extremely hard but neither team wanted to show too much of anything because if these two talented squads keep winning they could meet in a Div. IV district final showdown in a game that truly counts for all the marbles.
“Both teams were pretty vanilla,” Schlabach said of the game. “It came down to a couple of late plays at the end. We had a chance to put them away up seven and didn’t, but we hit shots when we had to.”
Schlabach said that despite the massive amount of pride that comes in this rivalry game, because the IVC show case games mean absolutely nothing, it takes away from the immediacy and creates a false sense of urgency.
“Deep down the kids know,” Schlabach said. “They know this is after the tournament seed and means absolutely nothing in the league, so it means nothing, and that is why it was a little stale. If we are both fortunate enough to meet down the tournament trail, I think people are going to see both teams’ absolute best effort.”
“It should be really interesting if we both get to that point, but we both have to play some really good teams to get there,” Hall said. “We are both pretty familiar with each other, and if we are fortunate enough to play each other again, we know what we are going to do. We are both really strong defensively, and the bottom line is that it is going to come down to players making plays.”
Many games this season teams have fallen behind Hiland early and never caught up against the Hawks’ pressure half-court defense. So when Hiland took an early 7-0 and extended it to 12-3 on the strength of Kody Miller’s and-one and two Kendall Hochstetler triples, a veteran Tigers team didn’t panic.
“Not panicking in that moment comes with having a lot of experienced guards and leaders who can handle the ball, slow us down and get us back into rhythm, and get us through that,” Hall said. “Mike and Mitch [Neidenthal] and Jerrod [Willoughby] have been through this before, and they are great leaders.”
Mitch Neidenthal scored to end the first quarter at 12-5. Art Plaza scored on a put-back and drove the lane for two, and later after Hunter Sommers hit two free throws to give Hiland a 16-11 lead, the Tigers reeled off six straight including a Willoughby drive and Mike Neidenthal’s three-ball to take a 17-16 lead, and it was crisis averted.
The big run
Everyone in the gym felt that one of the two teams would make a big run at some time in the game, and it turned out to be Hiland. Trailing 23-20, the Hawks reeled off a 15-5 run to give themselves some breathing room.
It started with a Will Schlabach 3-pointer. Then Hochstetler hit a spinner in the lane and split two free throws. Mitch Neidenthal fed his brother Mike for two on a stunning pass, but Hiland got a Kory Hostetler offensive rebound that led to a free throw, and Andy Miller found Jared Raber for a score to end the third quarter with Hiland up 29-25. Willoughby sank a huge trey to begin the fourth quarter, but the Hawks extended the lead to its largest since the early going at 35-28 on Sam Habeger’s turnaround in the lane, Sommers’ two free throws and a Hochstetler drive.
The first word out of Hall’s mouth after he had time to talk to his team was rebounds.
For the most part Hiland got a lot of second-chance opportunities, none more important than the one Hunter Sommers yanked down late in the game. With the Hawks leading by two points after a Jerrod Willoughby triple had drawn the Tigers to within 37-35, Strasburg sent Sam Habeger to the stripe with just over one minute to play. He missed both, but on the second rebound, Sommers fought his way down the left lane and stole the rebound, setting up a Kendall Hochstetler score on a gorgeous pass from Andy Miller with 55 seconds left.
“That one hurt, a lot, but they killed us on the glass all night long with second-chance points off of offensive rebounds,” Hall said. “Rebounding is why we lost this game tonight. We got manhandled on the boards tonight, and we lost because of it.”
The money shots
With 38 ticks left Mitch Neidenthal knocked down a runner in the lane to carve the Tigers’ deficit down to two at 39-37. When Strasburg couldn’t come up with a steal, they fouled Jared Raber, a defensive specialist who hasn’t been to the line much this season.
No worries: Raber calmly stepped up and delivered two picture-perfect free throws to extend the lead back to four. Strasburg turned it over with 15 seconds to play, and Andy Miller’s two free throws capped things off for the Hiland win.
“Jared’s a good free throw shooter, but he just doesn’t get to the line a whole lot,” Schlabach said. “We were going offense/defense with him and Will [Schlabach]. Jared is a good free throw shooter, but Will is our best free throw shooter, and we wanted to try to get him to the line there for him to get the experience of the late pressure free throws, but we felt fine putting Jared at the line there.”
Meaningless but it still hurts
While the game was basically a meaningless showcase in terms of the outcome, falling in a game they felt they could have won still stung for the Tigers.
“I’m a competitor, our kids are competitors and we play to win every game,” Hall said. “It hurts. The kids are hurting, and I wouldn’t want them to feel any different. I think that we are still trying to understand that in games like this against really good teams, every possession matters. I thought we did a pretty good job defensively, and I don’t think either team scored much on set plays. It was just players making plays. We just have to shore up a few of the little things to be where we want to be, no matter who we are playing.”