Hiland's state title makes all the pain worthwhile


DAYTON — A trip to Starbucks isn't supposed to be heartbreaking.

Maybe disappointing, at worst, if your latte arrives lukewarm or they've discontinued your favorite weird Frappuccino flavor.

But heartbreaking? Maybe you need to take it a little easier on the caffeine if that's the case.

Or maybe you were a member of the 2019-20 Hiland Hawks.

Before Saturday's triumph of a state championship, the Hawks experienced plenty of pain, with one the sharpest jolts beginning at a Columbus Starbucks almost exactly one year ago.

The day before Hiland was set to play in the Division III state semifinals last season, Morgan Yoder and some other players were checking their Twitter accounts while waiting for their drink orders at the worldwide coffee chain. That's when they saw the OHSAA had scheduled a press conference for that March 12 afternoon.

Ohio had just had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 days before and the entire country had a "break glass in case of emergency" moment with an unexpected pandemic suddenly on its doorstep.

Glass was everywhere, and high school sports quickly became one of the first things to shut down.

Over the next few hours, the Hawks saw their season slip away, as the state tournament was postponed that afternoon, and later canceled altogether. With the knowledge we have now, it seems obvious games could have been played, but future knowledge is worthless in the present.

"It was super devastating for all of us," Yoder said. "I remember exactly where we were, what we were doing when we found out the news. We got sent home that day."

It hurt. It hurt bad.

But it was that pain that helped drive this year's team to a state championship, and it was the pain that made this championship extra special.

"That was such good motivation for us, especially with the way things ended sophomore year," Yoder said. "It added fuel to the fire and it made things so much sweeter this year to win."

Yoder mentioned the sophomore season of this year's senior class for a good reason too. That was the year they lost to Africentric in the state semifinals — tasting defeat from the recent Columbus basketball power in back-to-back seasons.

A picture of Yoder and others, including this year's teammates Aila Miller, Zoe Miller, and Brynn Mullet, sitting dejected on the bench in the closing moments of that game has been a part of the Hiland locker room in the time since then, serving as constant motivation.

It's called "fuel to the fire" for a reason — fire burns.

"It's just a daily reminder of how much that hurt," Hiland head coach Dave Schlabach said. "We like to say, 'There's the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.' And we choose the pain of discipline. That's the path that we want to go down."

Seemingly, Hiland didn't have to go through quite as much pain as a normal program over the last four years. They only lost 10 games during one of the best stretches of Hiland basketball history. Pretty much every program in the state would be happy with that.

But when you only lose 10 games, every one of those feels like you've lost everything.

Throughout the playoffs, Hiland's players talked about this year's game with Napoleon. That's the regular season game they looked back to as the one they learned from the most.

The only game they lost all season — a 49-44 defeat at Napoleon's place.

"We lost that game and the feelings were terrible," Zoe Miller said. "We knew we didn't want to feel like that ever again."

Of course, Napoleon ended up winning the Division II state title just hours after Hiland celebrated its Div. III title, beating runner-up Vinton County by 32 points.

Then there's the pain of discipline, a hallmark of the well-oiled machine Schlabach conducted for 30 years in Berlin.

What those outside the program don't see is all of the things Hiland's girls do during its tough practices. The Hawks have a college-like regimen on and off the court.

Hiland has curfews and dietary restrictions (or at least strong suggestions). While their high school peers live somewhat carefree lives, being a Hiland basketball player can be a mental and physical grind, almost like a job if the love for the game isn't deeply rooted within a player's soul.

"It's a lot of sacrifice," Schlabach said. "We ask a lot. ... Any elite athlete, if you want to be great at something, there's a sacrifice involved."

Sacrifice that turned into a state championship.

Sure, there will be some pain going forward too. Outside of Kyli Horn and Kelsey Swihart, who are both signed to play college basketball at Malone next season, this super-close group of seniors won't ever play competitive basketball again together.

"It's going to be pretty hard knowing I won't have Zo to rebound my bricked shots," Horn joked after the championship win. "We've talked about it a little bit this weekend, but we try to avoid the subject right now. We're not ready to think about not putting on a Hiland uniform (again)."

And, of course, Schlabach will no longer be in charge of the Hawks for the first time in 30 years, confirming his retirement as head coach of the program he's built into a dynasty.

"I'm going to miss it," Schlabach said.

But for a little while, the Hawks can live in celebration, knowing all the pain they've gone through over the past few years was worth it all along.

"No one is sleeping tonight," Horn said of the team's Saturday night plans.

If that was truly the case, hopefully the Hawks grabbed some coffee.

And it it happened to be at Starbucks, they surely left in a much better mood than they did a year ago.