BY JOHN DUBOIS
Over each of the past three seasons, the Schlarman Academy Lady Hilltoppers have taken steps towards building a winning program.
On Saturday, the Hilltoppers took their biggest step to date by securing a share of the Vermilion Valley Conference championship with a 40-30 win over the Milford Lady Bearcats.
The Hilltoppers will share the VVC title with the Georgetown-Ridge Farm Lady Buffaloes, who wrapped up their regular season on Thursday. It is the first VVC title for Schlarman Academy (18-9 overall, 11-2 VVC) and their first conference championship since winning the Illini Central Conference title in 1997-98.
It was the 11th consecutive win for Schlarman following a 7-9 start.
During the streak, Schlarman has been able to make the transition from being a competitive team to a winning team and one of the keys has been strong fourth quarter performances. The Hilltoppers outscored the Bearcats 8-3 in the final quarter as they held Milford scoreless for nearly five minutes.
Originally scheduled for Monday, it was also the final home game for seniors Sydney Bryant, Ella Black, Hadeel Samawi, and Holly Huckstadt. Huckstadt would make five 3-pointers in the first half and led the Hilltoppers with a game-high 15 points.
“The girls will have their senior night with the boys, but since this was their last home game we started all four seniors and it was a very emotional time for everyone,” said Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples. “Our seniors have had a great season, and I am very proud of each of them.
“To come from losing nearly every game in their freshman season to winning the conference as seniors shows how hard they worked and prepared. They have believed in themselves, shown leadership, and played very hard. They have also always believed in each other and it’s great to see them be able to go out on top as VVC champs.”
Three’s from Bryant and and Huckstadt would get the Hilltoppers out to a quick 6-0 lead and they would never trail in the game, ending the first quarter with a 9-5 lead.
Huckstadt would hit her final three to give the Hilltoppers their largest lead of the game at 24-11, but the Bearcats were able to close out the second on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 24-17 heading into halftime.
The Bearcats would also close out the third on a 6-0 run, cutting the lead to 32-27 on two 3’s from Alissa Totheroh who led Milford with 12 points.
“We got hurt by the 3’s we gave up in the first half,” said Milford coach Rod Burgett. “We made some adjustments and did much better on that in the second half. We gave ourselves a chance at the end of the third quarter and Alissa had a good game.
“She is sophomore who has had to grow up on the floor this season and has done a great job for us. We struggled with free throws (8 of 20) as we have all season. They are a very good team though and we congratulate them on their success this season.”
Schlarman would open the fourth on an 8-0 run and held the Bearcats without a field goal.
“We tend to see a lot of man to man in the fourth and that’s something we have been effective against,” Peoples said. ‘Sierra Bell (eight points) has been dealing with some illness the past few days and I’m very proud of her for wanting to play and battling through. We played her sparingly today, but she did a very nice job.
“Holly didn’t play against them the first time we played in December, so her ability to hit three’s may have caught them by surprise. We have been spending a lot of time on free throws and did a much better job (8-of-14) today. We may have been a little to emotionally high at the start, but we gutted it out and got the win.”
Both teams begin regional play on Monday at Armstrong. The Bearcats (11-16, 5-8 VVC) will face the Salt Fork Lady Storm at 6 p.m., while the Hilltoppers face Buckley Christ Lutheran at 7:30 p.m.
“To end the season with 11 straight wins is great, but the regional is a new season,” Peoples said. “This was a good win going into the regional because it played a lot like a regional game. There are a lot of variables in regional games and we will have to come out and take care of business.”