Hiland Hawks preparing for their biggest challenge yet

By MIKE PLANT / Sports Editor
By The-Daily-Record.com

One of the best rivalries in girls high school basketball will be renewed Thursday like it always is — in a big-game setting — as Hiland and Columbus Africentric tip off the OHSAA state tournament at 1 p.m. in a Division III semifinal at Ohio State's Schottenstein Center.

The two teams have squared off eight times, with each winning four. They're 1-1 in state title games — Hiland winning 44-37 in 2008, Africentric repaying the Hawks in 2009, 55-46 — and last season, the Nubians' 61-60 overtime victory in a regional final propelled them to the title.

And, while the Hawks' state appearance will be a record 16th, including five titles and five runner-up finishes, Africentric has won a half-dozen championships, all since 2007 and three in the past five seasons.

Undefeated, ranked first in the final Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the country by USA Today, the Nubians come into Thursday as the favorite — and with a strong appreciation for the rivalry.

"I really appreciate it and I think it's really great for girls high school basketball," Africentric head coach William McKinney said. "We've had some really epic battles with one another.

"The great thing about playing Hiland, you can throw all of the rankings and all that stuff out the window. They'll be up for whatever it is we try to present to them," he added. "It's one of those situations, you've got to value your possessions. You can't go in there all willy-nilly and all high and mighty or you'll get caught in situations.

"But the beautiful thing is because of our history and the way all of our alumni speak of Hiland, the girls who are here truly understand who they are and who we're facing. It should be a really good game."

Among the 10 starters Thursday will be just one senior, but Africentric guard Jordan Horston is one of Ohio's best players. Horston, signed to play her college basketball at Tennessee, averages 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists for her team, which has won its 26 games by an average score of 75-30.

At 6-foot-1, Horston is one of four Nubian starters 6-foot or taller, including 6-4 junior Sakima Walker, who averages 10 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. Maliyah Johnson and Arianna Smith are 6-0 forwards both averaging 8 points and around 6 rebounds, while guard Alexia Smith, a 5-8 junior, scores 16 ppg and also grabs 6 boards a game.

"It's an unbelievable group of athletes that's on the other side of that court," Hiland's 28-year coach Dave Schlabach said of the Nubians. "We think they're probably the best team in Ohio in any division, and obviously a lot of people think they're a top-three team in the country. They just always bring such a mismatch for us or anyone who plays them to the game.

"We enjoy and appreciate great challenges, and this is probably the greatest challenge of the times we've played them," Schlabach added. "They have go-to kids at every position, athletes, skill. It's quite a group of players who sit over there. So yeah, we're excited for the game, obviously. I think the rivalry is in place, it's been there for 15 years now, and it seems like every time we play them, there's a lot on the line. Our young kids, I'm not sure they know what's in store for them, but that might be a good thing."

The Hawks' 6-3 senior returnee Tiffany Weaver has missed the season with a back injury. But a lineup of regulars featuring only several juniors and the rest sophomores and freshmen — including center Zoe Miller, a sophomore leading the 26-2 Hawks with 16.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game — has outscored foes by an average of 31 points.

"It's been a little bit of an unusual year," said Schlabach, who lost six of his top eight players from a year ago due to graduation, Weaver's injury and several other veterans who chose not to come out this year. "So we threw a bunch of young kids out there, not real sure what to expect. They're a hard-working group, but obviously with that kind of youth, you wonder where things are going to end up.

"So we're excited — it's been a great year, we've challenged them with an unbelievable non-league schedule, and that's helped us a little bit."

Sophomore Brynn Muillet is Hiland's other double-digit scorer (10.6 ppg), while sophomore point guard Morgan Yoder averages 9.7 ppg to go with 5.7 assists a game. Yoder also averages 3.4 steals and the Hawks average 17.3 steals a game as a team.

Junior Kendra Shetler averages 7.1 rebounds a game, while juniors Krista Troyer and Shelby Miller, sophomores Kylie Horn and Kelsey Swihart and freshman Aila Miller have all played 300 minutes or more.

"Our program philosophy hasn't changed in 28 years," Schlabach said. "We're not going to change a thing — we'll play a lot of kids, and it just seems that a lot of our kids have sunk in to their particular role. Everyone wants to score and everyone wants to play, but eventually you have to figure out everyone's role and ask them to do that.

"I think that's what we're doing now — rebounders are rebounding, defenders are defending, and scorers are scoring. That's why I think we're playing better right now than maybe we were early on."