There are games during any regular season that people will often go back to and say, “That was the game that turned us around. That was the one that got us going.”
When people look back at the 2015-2016 Hiland Hawks season, they might point to their Tuesday, Jan. 20 game against Sandy Valley Cardinals in Magnolia as one such game.
The Hawks got punched in the mouth repeated by the Cardinals early, as Sandy Valley streaked to an early 12-point lead, but the Hawks showed some real fortitude in fighting back in their 62-44 victory in The Nest.
Sandy Valley jumped out in front of Hiland early on, holding the hot hand, while Hiland was as ice cold as the temperatures outside.
The Sandy Valley Cardinals jumped out to an early edge 18-6, and perhaps a more accurate statement would be Bryce Offenberger got the Cardinals the early edge. Offenberger canned a whopping four 3-pointers in the first quarter to stun Hiland. Meanwhile, his teammate Danny Bartholomew was busy scoring too, notching nine points to push Hiland well behind the eight ball.
The Cardinals had swung a 2-by-4 and connected squarely to the temple of the Hawks, and in addition, the Hawks were minus big man Michael Miller, who went up to block a shot and came down awkwardly on his hip.
But with a balanced scoring attack, Hiland began chipping away at that 12-point deficit, and trailing 25-16, freshman Andy Miller sparked the Hawks by hitting a huge 3-pointer. Hiland then turned up the defensive pressure, with both Brady Schlabach and Turner Horn recording steals, and Horn hit a driving lay-up to trim the deficit to 25-21. Chad Neisel scored inside to temporarily stem the tide, but Chris Kline implemented his will on the game near the end of the half. Kline scored on a pair of free throws, and then connected on a driving lay-up after a Cardinals miss, and the Hawks were almost all the way back, trailing 27-25. Sandy Valley then tried to hold the ball for the final 45 seconds to take a last shot, but Kline performed a nifty pick-pocket, and set sail down the floor, where he found Turner Horn who dropped in the lay-up to tie the score with five seconds to play.
The Sandy Valley 12-point lead had completely disappeared, and now the game was down to a 16 minute free-for-all in a contest that Sandy Valley had to have if they wanted to hang on to the hope of catching Inter-Valley Conference league leader, undefeated Sandy Valley. The Hawks, meanwhile, were trying to stay within one game of the Pirates, who hammered East Canton.
If Kline was catching fire late in the second half, he was white hot to begin the second. Kline drove and was fouled, and hit both free throws to give Hiland its first lead at 29-27. Chad Neisel scored inside to knot up things at 29, and Nelson Mozden scored on a pair of charity tosses to give Sandy Valley a short-lived 31-29 lead. Horn quickly scored inside, but Neisel connected gain to give the Cardinals a two-point lead. Kline then launched a three-ball that found the mark, and Bartholomew hit a twisting drive to give Sandy Valley its last lead at 35-34.
That was when Bruce Troyer turned it on. After Kline made a steal and went the distance for a lay-up to give Hiland a 36-35 edge, Troyer drained a long triple to make it 39-35. Troyer then picked up a steal when Andy Miller tipped the ball away, and Troyer took off down the floor, completing the lay-up for a 41-35 lead. Moments later, Troyer eyed one up from downtown again, and as before, delivered a bulls-eye for a 44-35 lead after three quarters.
Hiland got as hot as Sandy Valley was early on, and had outscored the Cardinals 17-8 to seize control.
Mozden hit a monster three to cut the Hiland lead to 44-38 to open the fourth quarter, but after Hiland missed on their end, Horn made a steal, raced down the floor and completed a three-point play to push the Hiland lead back to nine at 47-38.
Noah Sommers then took over, getting a steal, a rebound and when Scott Troyer missed a driving lay-up, Sommers was there to gobble it up and get fouled. He connected on two free tosses to put the Hawks up 49-38 with 4:23 to play. Offenberger then turned the ball over, and Hiland took advantage, as Horn took the ball and hammered through the Cardinals defense for two to make it 51-38.
The Hawks had successfully turned a 12-point deficit into a 13-point advantage, and had played tremendously in doing so.
Offenberger gave the Cardinals some hope by hitting his fifth three, but Horn went right back down the floor, hit a scrambling drive and was fouled in the process, dropping in the free throw to push the lead back to 13 at 54-41.
Neisel trimmed it to 54-43 with 2:46 to play, before Andy Miller turned a one-and-one opportunity into one point, but Sommers leaped high top grab the miss, allowing Scott Troyer to go to the line for a pair of free throws, which he split for a 56-43 lead.
As time began winding down, the Hawks were able to play keep-away, forcing the Cardinals to foul. Hiland quickly got into the double bonus, and Kline split a pair of free throws to put Hiland up 57-43, its biggest lead of the night with two minutes to play.
Hiland would go on to put the exclamation point on a 62-44 win by making eight free throws down the stretch, four of them by Sommers.
After the huge Sandy Valley start to the contest, the Hawks ended the game by outscoring Sandy Valley 56-26, a monumental feat against a strong Cardinals club.
In a well-balanced attack, Horn led the Hawks with 14, while Kline chipped in with 13, Bruce Troyer added 10, Sommers poured in eight and Scott Troyer and Andy Miller each added four.
A huge IVC game, on the road, against a foe battling for the top spot ion the league, it was a huge effort for a Hiland team that seemed to simply kick their effort into a higher gear when it absolutely had to.
Come March, when push comes to shove, Hawks supporters may look back at this night, the night Mark Schlabach’s troops got punched in the mouth, and responded with a lot of guts, grit and determination, and drove home from Magnolia winner.