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Hiland headed to state

Daily Record Sports Writer

MASSILLON -- It was time for Jena Stutzman to be the star.

The Hiland girls basketball team had watched its 10-point, fourth-quarter lead over Bedford Chanel cut quickly in half and momentum was getting away. Three possessions and 69 seconds later, the best player on the floor had made her statement and the Hawks were off to the ninth Final Four in school history.

Stutzman hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, turned a 37-32 lead into a 46-34 advantage and the air went out of Chanel a possession later when Layla Miller caused a turnover and scored as Hiland iced its 57-45 victory.

"Being a senior, I felt like I had to lead," said Stutzman, who drew within five points of Lindsay Stuckey's school scoring record with 13 Saturday. "I didn't shoot well at the beginning of the game. Before that would have bothered me. But, as a senior, I know I have to lead."

The game was a definition of what has made Hiland (25-1) a success this season.

Hiland didn't have its best player for the final 9:16 of the first half after Stutzman picked up her second foul with Hiland leading just 6-4. Instead of curling into a ball, the Hawks went after the Firebirds. Kristi Yoder's 3-point play gave Hiland a 9-4 lead after a quarter and the Hawks went to work in the second quarter.

Sophomore Hilary Weaver's nine points, including 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, were the spark. Gabby Fowler's banked-in 3-pointer from the head of the key at the halftime buzzer was the exclamation point to the Hawks' 15-10 second quarter that saw Stutzman watch for the entirety and forward Katelyn Stuckey miss a large portion to foul trouble.

"Our kids all know that when they're out there, we have the confidence in them to make plays," Hiland coach Dave Schlabach said. "They go out with a lot of confidence. They know that if they have the confidence to take a shot, we have the confidence in them to make it. Jena did it in a big moment tonight. All our kids believe they can do it."

Once Stutzman's barrage was over and Miller put the cap on it with her basket, the life went out of the gym.

"We got a little tired there in the fourth quarter and let No. 24 (Stutzman) go off," said Chanel coach Hugh McMahon.

Hiland's side knew the trip to the Final Four was in hand and the realization hit the Chanel bench that the state tournament wasn't going to happen. A minute earlier, the place was rocking with every basket. After the Hawks took the life out of the place, the celebration could have started.

It was even noticeable on the floor. Hiland's players had the sense all would be well.

"That was very relieving," Miller said. "We knew that was it. We figured we'd be able to pull it out after that."

Hiland hasn't been the type of team to back away from a challenge. The Hawks aren't afraid to mix it up, either.

Chanel had more size and played much more physically than many of Hiland's opponents and tried to mix it up as much as possible.

"We wore down at the end," said McMahon. "Partly because of Hiland's rotation, the fact that they run so many kids at you, but more because of their physical style of play. It took us awhile to adapt, and I think it took a toll on us."

For the Hawks, the key was returning the favor instead of backing away. That meant more fouls, but it set the tone Hiland wanted.

"They were strong and physical," Stutzman said. "In the third quarter, we let it get to us. But, we played just as physical as they did. We wanted to match them."

After 11 games and the first loss of the season, Schlabach handed starting assignments and ownership of the season to his five-member senior class. Hiland's been perfect since, handing losses to Div. II regional finalist Hathaway Brown, Div. I school Brookhaven and now is headed to the state tournament.

"He told us this was our year and we'd decide how far we would go," Miller said. "We just have so much fun together on and off the floor. This has just been the best year."

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