Hiland Boys Basketball

Hawks look in the mirror and earn a 57-50 win over St. Henry to reach the state final

Sam Habeger and the Hawks fly high in downing St. Henry 57-50 to reach state finals

Photos by Landon Troyer

How do you prepare to play yourself?

That was the question facing both the Hiland Hawks and the St. Henry Redskins in their Div. IV state semifinal game in the Schottenstein Center in Columbus on Friday, March 22.

In a game of two teams who play eerily similar styles of play, two teams who have a rich history of success, it would come down to players making plays.

“They are incredibly well-coached and they play a lot like we play,” Hiland head coach Mark Schlabach said of St. Henry.

In the end the Hawks found a way, using a pair of nice runs to put away the Redskins 57-50 to advance to the state final to face a talented 27-1 Convoy Crestview team.

As one might expect when facing a team that plays exactly like its opponent, absolutely nothing came easy for either team in the game of matching wits with two teams that are very much alike in so many ways.

“They are very, very similar,” St. Henry head coach Eric Rosenbeck said of the two teams. “Watching them, it was like watching ourselves. Their players understand how to play the game. You can tell they are in the gym working at it. They are very passionate, and I think the same thing of our kids.”

Hiland won the tip and immediately produced on a Hunter Sommers drive. Big Caden Niekamp, St. Henry’s senior 6-foot, 5-inch behemoth, then scored twice inside to spot the Redskins to a lead. Then started a game of back-and-forth that saw a dozen lead changes.

Scores from Sam Habeger and Jared Raber put the Hawks back on top, but four points from Zach Niekamp provided an 11-10 lead through one quarter for St. Henry.

The second quarter saw the Redskins build their largest lead at 18-10 on Zach Neikamp’s three, a score inside by Caden Niekamp and Zach Knapke’s two free throws.

Hiland found itself in an odd position, trailing by eight, something it has only done in its loss to East Tech this past December.

“We haven’t had many games like this, and at the end of the season we haven’t had many close games. We had a couple, but we knew if we were in one of those games (where they were behind) it was going to be kind of a ‘let’s see what happens’ kind of thing. We haven’t been as battle-tested as other years.”

Despite its lack of experience in staging a comeback, Hiland’s response was quick and decisive. With Redskins Nation going wild, the Hawks went on an 11-0 run to regain the lead, and they did it in a span of 4:20.

“We got really good shots; they just didn’t go down for us,” Rosenbeck said of the run. “We had shots we want our kids to take, and as a result they had some long rebounds off of threes that gave them the ability to get some transition buckets.”

Sommers drove for two, Habeger scored on a fast break and then scored again inside, and Jared Raber canned a key triple to give Hiland a 19-18 lead. Kendall Hochstetler made two free throws, and the Hawks held a 21-18 edge and would take a 22-20 lead into the locker room.

The chess game was far from over.

Exactly 13 seconds into the second half the Redskins retook the lead on a 3-pointer from Ben Evers. The two teams would then trade leads until Habeger scored on an and-one for a 29-27 Hiland advantage.

Caden Niekamp quickly tied it, and Will Schlabach quickly untied it with a perfect trey from the corner for a 32-29 Hiland lead. Hochstetler split two free throws, but Caden Niekamp scored an and-one to make it 34-32. With under two minutes to play, Habeger’s score in the paint tied the game, and Knapke gave St. Henry its final lead at 36-34 with 1:25 left in the quarter. Sommers split two free throws, and with three seconds to play, Miller worked his way in among the trees and delivered a go-ahead bucket that gave the Hawks a 37-36 lead heading into the final frame.

Hiland, known for its defense, would use it to set up the key run in the game to begin the fourth period, an 8-0 run that gave Hiland its largest lead at 45-36. It happened lightning fast as Hochstetler finally heated up. His 3-pointer was followed by a Habeger two in the paint, and Hochstetler then drilled another triple to give a 45-36 Hiland advantage with 5:49 to play.

St. Henry called time-out, and coach Schlabach warned his team that a storm was coming.

“We got up nine, they called time-out and you knew they had one big push left in them. That’s what championship-level teams do. They are just going to keep making plays until the very end,” coach Schlabach said. “I thought we handled things really well. They hit a couple big threes, and they were contested shots. We were finally able to get a big stop there at the end and were able to put them away.”

The Hawks began trying to carve time off the clock, but the Redskins weren’t about to fade away. Knapke’s two free throws and back-to-back treys from Zach Niekamp and Caden Niekamp carved Hiland’s lead to just two at 49-47 with 1:34 to play.

After the Hawks took a time-out, Andy Miller got to the charity stripe and hit one of two. Caden Niekamp’s long contested 3-pointer fell well short of the mark in his effort to tie things, and Raber was fouled and strode to the line for a one-and-one. His first shot caromed off the back iron, bounced around like an atom trying to break out of an iron shell and somehow found the bottom of the net. His second effort was picture-perfect, and the Hawks led 52-47 with 45 seconds left.

Knapke worked his way inside, but Hochstetler, with four fouls, rose right along with him and blocked his attempt, and Sommers quickly gobbled up the rebound.

With 24 seconds left Andy Miller hit two clutch free throws. Then the littlest Hawk made the biggest play, much like he had done throughout the game, when Raber stepped in and made a key steal near mid-court that essentially capped the Hiland win.

“He has been our unsung hero all year,” coach Schlabach said of Raber. “Andy is the best defensive player we have had here, and Jared is up there. For a [5-foot, 7-inch] kid, it’s amazing what he can do defensively. He hurt his back on a charge but came back in and still gave us everything he had. Then he made two huge free throws for us. That is the kind of gutty senior play you have to have to have a tournament run. Jared was just really good today.”

It was a game of attrition, one the Hawks knew they would face. It was a battle that would test both teams’ resolve, and the Hawks found away to do the little things that in the end meant the difference.

“That was a big-boy basketball game,” coach Schlabach said afterward. “St. Henry is a heck of a basketball team. We knew we would have to be really, really tough in the paint and on the boards and we would have to make big shots. In the second half, that is what it came down to. It was a really hard-fought win.”

Hiland was led in scoring by Habeger, who had lots of success against the bigger but slower Niekamp inside. He tallied 17 points to lead the Hawks in scoring while Miller added 14, Hochstetler scored 11, Raber came off the bench to add seven, Sommers scored five and Schlabach pitched in with three. Knapke, Caden Niekamp and Zach Niekamp capped off terrific careers with 17, 13 and 12 points, respectively. The bigger Redskins team held a 27-21 edge on the glass, but the Hawks shot the ball better and committed just nine turnovers, only two in the second half, compared to St. Henry’s 14.

Hiland moved on to the state final at 28-1 while St. Henry, which has four state titles to its program’s name, bowed out at 24-4.

“I guess the biggest disappointment is that it is one less day with these guys because I love them to death,” Rosenbeck said. “One of the best things about getting to state is that you get more practice time and get to hang out with them. No matter what we do, this team won’t ever be together again in the manner that it was this season.”

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