BY AARON PATTERSON
At times, it might have seemed as though the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers would never return to their winning ways. The girls’ basketball program has fought through struggling seasons and quick exits in the postseason. But this year, they were determined to flip the trend.
Though they have plenty of goals still in mind, Schlarman Academy made history on Tuesday, advancing to Thursday’s Class 1A Armstrong Regional Championship game with a 41-38 win over top-seeded Cissna Park.
If it seems like the Hilltoppers’ last regional title game appearance is a distant memory, that’s because many of the current players likely don’t remember it happening. After all, it was a decade ago when Schlarman lost a regional championship game to St. Joseph-Ogden, 59-56.
“I’m proud to be a part of that,” Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples said. “Schlarman’s come a long way when it comes to wins and losses. It feels good. We’ve still got a long ways to go. I told the girls after the game that this is not the championship. We’ve still got games to go. But I’m very proud of their efforts. Schlarman’s come a long way, and hopefully in the future we can create more wins and make it a habit instead of a surprise.”
The win was their 13th consecutive, and also marked the 20th of the season for the Hilltoppers — also a first for the program since the 2002-2003 season.
But like their more recent history, earning the win over Cissna Park didn’t come without a fight.
Schlarman Academy led 13-4 after the first quarter, but just as Peoples had warned his team, the Timberwolves (16-11) put up a fight that resulted in a 9-0 run, and ultimately a 19-17 halftime lead. There were five ties and five lead changes in the second half, and neither team gained more than a five-point advantage until the Hilltoppers (20-9) took a seven-point lead with three minutes, 35 seconds to go in the game.
The effort and mental focus, according to junior Janelle Marion, came from being tested earlier in the season at the Peoria Manual Holiday Tournament.
“We had played a lot of tough games when we went to the Peoria tournament,” Marion said. “We had Springfield (Southeast) and (Manual), and they are some tough, tough girls. We just knew that since we could play with them, we could play with anybody. Don’t get me wrong, they are a really tough team, but we knew mentally how to take their strength and use it to our benefit.”
Schlarman Academy’s final lead came 1:37 into the fourth quarter on a basket by Marion. She had just tied the game at 31-31 and was fouled. Though she missed the free throw, freshman Shelby Mascari grabbed the rebound and dished it back to Marion for the score.
Marion finished the contest with 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds while Hilltoppers freshman Sierra Bell led all scorers with 16, in addition to three assists and four steals.
Schlarman Academy senior Ella Black finished with three steals with perhaps the biggest theft of her career coming with 13 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
The Hilltoppers held a 40-38 lead, and the Timberwolves were inbounding the ball underneath their own basket coming out of a time out. At Peoples’ direction, the Hilltoppers packed the paint to avoid allowing one of Cissna Park’s post players the opportunity for an easy game-tying shot. That left the Timberwolves with few options, and Black was able to tip the pass and secure the steal.
“I thought I had to make up for that last turnover I had,” Black said. “I just went out there and tried my best to get the ball back. I just decided to go for it and gamble.
“It’s our last year, Sydne (Bryant) and Holly (Huckstadt) and Hadeel (Samawi) and I, so we have a lot of emotions,” she continued. “We want to keep this going. We just all had to step up. I didn’t want this to be my last game.”
Huckstadt had six points on two three-pointers in the first quarter during Schlarman Academy’s first-quarter run. Black scored three, and Bryant had two.
Sophomore Alexis Knake led Cissna Park with 14 points, freshman Addison Stoller had nine and 13 rebounds, and Madison Overbey finished with 12 points and 10 boards.
Schlarman Academy will take on regional host Armstrong-Potomac on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The two teams split the season series with Armstrong-Potomac defeating Schlarman Academy 55-44 on December 11, and the Hilltoppers coming out on top 59-28 on January 21. The Hilltoppers have not won a regional title since the 1997-1998 season.
“It’s huge,” Black said. “We want to get some 13s up on our banner. We’re just working as hard as we can.”