BY AARON PATTERSON firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE —Thirty years ago at the 1983 Schlarman Topper Classic, the Hilltoppers made history by knocking off Lawrenceville to win the tournament for the first time since its inception in 1967.
But keeping the title in their home gym that year meant more than adding a trophy to the case. To do so, Schlarman ended Lawrenceville’s 68-game winning streak and a run of three consecutive Topper Classic titles.
The Hilltoppers have not won the tournament since, but there is once again a sense of hope in the air at Paul C. Shebby Gymnasium. The atmosphere, however, has a newness to it that has not yet been broken in.
Not only does this year’s Schlarman Academy squad have only two seniors (Chris Kuchefski and Ben Watson), and two returning starters (Kuchefski and sophomore Michael Simmons), it has a new coach gracing the sideline in Jason Henton.
Henton and the Hilltoppers had a rough season opener on Monday in the former Danville High standout’s debut losing 53-46 to Judah Christian. But, they are optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Right now we’re just trying to figure out where everyone is and where everyone is going to work,” Kuchefski said. “At the beginning, there will be a little bit of a learning (curve), but then we’ll get our wins.”
It appeared as though Schlarman Academy was going to have little trouble with the Tribe, jumping out to a 16-2 lead with the help of back-to-back threes from Watson. Judah Christian didn’t do itself any favors shooting a horrific 1-of-19 in the first quarter. But in the second quarter, the Tribe outscored the Hilltoppers 21-8, and 20 seconds into the second half had its first lead of the game at 25-24.
The Hilltoppers didn’t hesitate to shoot from outside in the first quarter making four of their seven attempts. Their downfall, however, came in that they continued to shoot from the outside despite making only two of 16 attempts in the final three quarters.
“We’ve got guys that, right now, are living by the three, dying by the three,” Henton said. “In the first quarter we were 4-for-7 from the three. Then after that, we were 0-for-6 on the next six shots.
“It’s one of those things where we have definitely got to get our focus more on hitting a couple of threes and then getting to the basket, switching it up.”
The Tribe had no problem getting the ball inside as 6-7 senior Ethan Chitty scored 17 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. He also had nine rebounds. The move to the inside worked for Judah Christian, and Schlarman Academy realized too late that it, too, needed to take advantage of size down low.
“We just need to realize that if we’re not shooting it as well from the outside, we just need to start feeding our big men,” said Watson, who finished with a team-high 18 points. “Gannon (Hughes) is 6-4, Chris (Kuchefski) is 6-6. We just need to start pounding it in there, and we need to step up on charges on help defense because we were lacking there, too.”
Hughes finished the game with 10 points and nine boards, and Kuchefski had only five points but grabbed seven rebounds and had four blocks. His presence was felt under the basket, but he ultimately fouled out late in the fourth.
Watson also fouled out, and Simmons (10 points) and Hughes also each had four fouls.
Schlarman Academy took a lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter at 37-36, but the advantage was brief as Judah Christian earned its final lead of the contest with three minutes, 36 seconds to go.
“Once they gained momentum, we sort of lost faith and it was hard to get back into the game,” Kuchefski said. “Then they pulled away.”
Judah Christian’s Logan Chitty scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds. As a team, the Tribe out-rebounded the Hilltoppers 42-32.
“We’ve got to get tough,” Henton said. “That’s been a knock on our school for a while that we just don’t have guys that are tough, that we have guys that don’t want to screen or guys that don’t want to play hard D. We’re trying to change all of that this year.”
Schlarman Academy will be back on the court tonight at 7:30 p.m. taking on Paris while Judah Christian faces St. Thomas More at 6 p.m.
St. Thomas More defeated Shiloh 52-47 in the tournament’s opener and is playing for its third consecutive championship.
“I felt good,” Henton said of his coaching debut. “I definitely saw things, myself, that I need to work on as well as things that our team needs to work on. We’ll come back tomorrow with a better outcome than we had today.”