BERLIN — Since the dawn of Hiland Hawk basketball in 1958, fans in this small, out-of-the-way community in the middle of the Amish heartland have developed a love for the game.
They've flocked to the "Hawks Nest" in droves, packing the small, cozy, 800-seat gym nearly every game along the way, making Hiland one of the most renowned settings in the state.
For this community, high school basketball is the opiate of the masses. It's what fans long for in the spring, talk about in the summer and what they live for in the winter.
Forty-one years after opening the original Nest, more fans will actually have the opportunity to see basketball, Hawk style.
The Hiland basketball programs will usher in a new era when they bid a fond farewell to the quaint, unfriendly Nest and open the doors to their new home, a 1,700-seat, state-of-the-art fieldhouse this season.
Thanks to the hard work and foresight of several dozen people and the community over the past seven years, the Hiland boys will christen the new Nest Friday, Dec. 3 when they host Akron Hoban at 7:30 pm.
For a community that takes pride in winning basketball, and a school that delivers, the new home and the Hawks are a perfect fit.
"It's been a neat thing," Hiland girls basketball coach Dave Schlabach said. "This gym has become an icon of the community. It shows how this community came together and worked together. It's really been a unique situation."
According to Hiland boys coach Perry Reese, basketball has always had a special place in the Berlin community. Following it and seeing it, however, were two different things. Which is one reason why the new gym was long overdue.
For the past decade, the waiting list for season tickets has swelled to over 350. And, with just 400 season tickets and exactly zero walk-up sales available for most games, winning the lottery was easier than getting a seat at a Hawks' home game.
"That's the good thing," Reese said. "Some kids in the elementary schools have never seen a Hiland game. I can remember the days when our away crowd was bigger than ones at home. People would go to away games because they could get in.
"Now, more people are going to be able to see games."
And, what they see this year could be one of the most remarkable chapters ever authored in the Hiland lore.
The opening of the new facility, which, with donated time and materials, came in under its original $1.6 million budget, coincides with one of the most successful 4-year stretches for both programs.
The boys have a pair of All-Ohioans back in guards Kendall Schlabach and Matt Miller and will be looking for their third consecutive berth in the Div. IV state Final Four. On the girls side, All-Ohio forwards Erin Hostetler and Jill Yoder will lead the team as it seeks its second consecutive trip and third in the last four years to Columbus. Both teams are heavily favored to win their respective Inter-Valley Conference and advance into regional play.
"The kids are in a nice situation," Schlabach said. "But, situations don't win games, and winning comes first.
"There is a lot of tradition here, no question, and we want to continue that and take it to another level.
"We are excited about the new gym, and it'll be nice, but it can't soften us at all."
Fans have already started flocking to the new facility. Hiland has sold nearly every reserved, season ticket in the one 900-seat section and expects to sell the majority of the remaining 800 seats at the schools or on game night.
It's an exciting time in Berlin, with the preseason hype and the hoopla surrounding the new gym, but it's also a time of reservation.
Some fans have questioned whether the mystique that has surrounded the Hiland basketball teams will be lost moving to a much bigger, kinder facility where the Hawks' vaunted press will be stretched by a much larger court and fans will no longer be in the back pocket of jump shooters.
During its time, the Nest served both teams quite well. The boys had a pair of 20-plus win streaks and rattled off a school-record 48-game win streak from the 1990-91 season through the 1995-96 campaign, which helped Reese close the place with a 125-21 home record in his 15-year tenure.
The girls had a string of 23 straight from 1987-90 and will take a 22-game unbeaten streak into the new facility under Schlabach, who was a sterling 68-21 in his eight seasons at the Nest.
"There's no question we had a big advantage in the other gym, but as much as it was an advantage during the regular season, it was a disadvantage in the tournament," said Schlabach. "When we got on bigger floors in the tournament, the players in our defensive rotations weren't used to the 10 extra feet. Most of the time, once we got to the tournament, we looked for bigger floors to practice on.
"It may be tough to match the Nest's advantage with its size and atmosphere, but we hope over the long haul it gives us an advantage at tournament time," said Schlabach.
Reese isn't so much concerned with how his kids will respond to the bigger floor or the loss of any advantages as much as he is worried about losing sight of what needs to be done.
The boys have a chance to accomplish something no other boys team in the Wayne-Holmes County area has ever done — and that's three straight trips to Columbus.
"We have a great opportunity here, but the fact is, we have to go play the game," Reese said. "The gym, this whole millennium thing and the fact on paper we are supposed to be good, as a coach it's my job to keep the kids in the proper perspective.
"We are very appreciative of the new gym and what the community has done. But, sometimes people look at the gym and forget we actually have to play the game," Reese continued. "That's why these kids are here. That's why they work four and five days a week in the summer in 90-degree heat. They can't forget where they came from and what our goals are."
What makes it even tougher for Reese is that it's his team that will open the new gym. They'll be the ones who have to play through all the fanfare and have the pressure of "actually" playing a game before the biggest home crowd in school history against arguably the toughest opponent on their regular season schedule — Division II Hoban.
"I can't wait until the game is over," Reese said. "There's a lot of hoopla surrounding this team and the gym, but these guys haven't accomplished anything. They haven't won a sectional or district title and they haven't won a state title this year.
"Our goal is the same as is was every year before and what it will be every year after, and that's to win the state championship. Yes, it's a new gym, but the rims are still 10 feet high, you still play 5-on-5 and games are 32 minutes.
"It's easy when you're 17-years old to get caught up in everything."
There isn't much that is making the short trip from the old gym to the new. From the rafters to the lockers to the scoreboards and floor, everything is fresh off the shelf. The one thing, however, both coaches hope carries over is the pride the players, coaches and fans have in Hiland basketball.
"If we can play with the passion, dedication and commitment we had in the old gym, everything else will take care of itself," Reese said. "We just have to remember what got us here.
"There's an old cliche: learn from the past, live in the present and plan for the future. These kids can't forget where they came from and what they want to accomplish.
"What these kids have to realize is they have to create their own history."