BERLIN — For the Hiland girls basketball program, it may be a brand new season, but the goal remains the same — winning a state championship.
This comes as no surprise. Last March, the Hawks made their 15th trip to the Final Four and claimed their fifth state title with a 20-point victory over Waterford to cap off a 29-1 season.
“What makes it easy for us, I think, is that we have the same goal every year. It’s not like the goals have changed because we’ve won a state championship last year,” said Hiland coach Dave Schlabach, now entering his 26th season in Berlin. “That’s the goal every year and so I don’t feel like our kids feel any additional pressure or that we’ve changed anything.
“We took the exact same approach this summer that we’ve done for 25 years. We did the exact same things this preseason that we’ve done for 25 years so I think when you keep your goals the same, you don’t run that risk of changing something just because you had a special year a year ago.”
That doesn’t mean everything will remain the same this year or that there aren’t any surprises in store this season. Schlabach said he’s fully expecting them, starting with where the Hawks’ points will be coming from.
Two of last year’s three main scorers are out of the picture. One, inevitably — Angela Troyer, now a freshman playing for Ohio Dominican, the All-Ohio Div. IV Player of Year last year, averaged 16.4 points during her senior season. But senior guard Morgan McMillen, who averaged 17 points during her junior campaign, will not be on the floor either, after suffering an ACL injury late in the summer.
“It’s an interesting year right now because we don’t know what we are yet,” said Schlabach. “Morgan got hurt the last day of the summer, so we didn’t even get the chance this summer then to play without her and develop a new emphasis or rotation, so there’s a lot of question marks.
“We’re very young. We’ve got two seniors and a junior and everybody else is a freshman and sophomore, so it’s probably the youngest team that I’ve coached.”
The veterans include senior point guard Kennedy Schlabach, who averaged 14 ppg, racked up 94 3pointers and led the team with 189 assists last year, senior Sara Keim and junior Tiffany Weaver, who shot 54 percent from the field as a sophomore.
One thing that may change, though, is how the Hawks play. Long known as a running, pressing and shooting team, Hiland shot 42-precent on 3-pointers last year, hitting 256 from that range.
But, the new players coming in are going to bring a different skill-set. Two freshmen will be in the starting five — 6-foot post Zoe Miller and Morgan Yoder, a 5-9 guard, while classmates Kelsey Swihart and Brynn Mullet will also get minutes.
“We’re going to be different and I think as a coach you’ve got to be willing to adjust to your personnel. We’re not that kind of team this year,” said Schlabach. “All of the sudden we’re a team that has a lot of size. We’re not the pressing team that we were a year ago, but we are a much bigger team. We’ll have a different offensive approach.
“We’ll still pressure and do some things, but they’re going to be different types of pressure this year. And then we’re going to have a legitimate post game, which will be new for our kids and our program so we’re spending a lot of time trying to pound the ball inside right now.”
The freshman class will be initiated quickly as Schlabach, who traditionally sets his team up to be challenged during the regular season, put together what he said is the best nonleague schedule he’s ever had for any of his teams.
Hiland, who moved up to Div. III from Div. IV this year, will face five Div. I teams from Ohio (Kettering Fairmont, North Canton Hoover, Stow-Munroe Falls, Newark and Magnificat), a nationally-ranked Colorado 5A school in Regis Jesuit at the Classic in the Country and, of course, West Holmes.
“We love challenging our kids and we want to make sure we play better people during the season than we’re ever going to play in tournament,” said Schlabach. “We’d like to try to figure out ways to win those games and if we don’t it’s going to expose what we’ve got to get better at so I’m excited about that.”
Like every high school team, Hiland suffered graduation losses. But, unlike most small schools in Ohio, the Hawks rarely have to rebuild — too many youngsters coming up through the program get themselves ready to contribute immediately.
Schlabach said every player knows she will get a fair shot, too.
“The one reason I think our kids are ready as freshmen is they know that they get a chance to win a job,” Schlabach said. “I’m the type of coach that I don’t care if you’re a freshman or senior, you compete for your job every day in practice and so our freshmen know, if they come out and win a job, they’re playing or they’re in the rotation or they’re starting.
“Nobody is given anything because they’re a certain grade level or they had it last year and it just brings an incredible level of competition to practice and an environment where kids are trying to win spots every day.”