BY AARON PATTERSON
The clock couldn’t hit zero soon enough for the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers and their girls basketball fans. With a seven-point advantage, there were rumbles from the crowd, and cheers of celebration already making their way out of their collective mouths. But, it had been so long since they were able to celebrate a championship, it was almost as though they wanted that sense of finale. It didn’t seem real until the final buzzer sounded.
And once it did, there was little question as to the Hilltoppers’ excitement of winning their first regional title in 15 years. Schlarman Academy defeated Armstrong-Potomac 45-38 on Thursday to secure its first title since the 1997-1998 season.
In contrast, across the gym was a stunned Armstrong-Potomac crowd slowly filing out after watching its Trojans lose on their home court for only the second time this season. The only other team to defeat Armstrong-Potomac in Robert L. Bezely Gymnasium this season was Iroquois West on November 20.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Schlarman Academy senior Ella Black said. “It feels awesome just to make history.
“It’s awesome just because freshman year we struggled a little bit. Then last year with a new coach, we really just picked it up. Now we won a regional.”
Not only was it the first time in 15 years the Hilltoppers hoisted a regional plaque, it was the first time in 10 years they even had an opportunity.
Realizing how far the program has come in the last decade, they didn’t want to turn their backs on the chance to make history.
There were 10 lead changes and four ties in a game that never saw more than a three-point difference until Schlarman Academy went on an 8-0 run to go up 32-26 early in the second half. Even then, the Hilltoppers didn’t take their final lead until Janelle Marion’s basket put Schlarman Academy up 38-36 with two minutes, 15 seconds remaining.
From that point, Black and freshman Sierra Bell scored the team’s final seven points.
Black turned the ball over twice in the game, but on both occasions, she picked up steals on Armstrong-Potomac’s ensuing possessions, and responded with baskets marking her only two field goals of the game. She attempted three. But she also made six of her eight free throw attempts in the fourth quarter — four in the final two minutes with the Hilltoppers leading by only two points.
“I was really nervous, but they were pretty big,” Black said. “I just focused and tried not to think about the pressure.”
That was the same message she relayed to Bell, who fought through her own adversity. Of the Hilltoppers’ 15 turnovers, Bell was responsible for 12. Though her frustration was evident at times, she kept her composure and ultimately scored 13 of her team’s final 21 points. She missed only one shot attempt in the second half when she scored 17 of her game-high 23 points.
“They always tell me to calm down and just keep my focus,” Bell said. “As a teammate, that’s what they’re supposed to do. I’m really thankful for them.
“It’s a great feeling (to be a part of the success as a freshman), but I couldn’t do it without the team. Me being a freshman doesn’t really matter. You just go out there and play your part. It’s a blessing to be a freshman and play on the varsity.”
Putting Schlarman Academy’s accomplishment into perspective, Bell, who will turn 15 on February 28, had not yet been born the last time the Hilltoppers (21-9) won a regional title.
Bell also had eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. Marion finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, and Black scored 10. Freshman Shelby Mascari was scoreless but grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and had four blocks.
The regional title offered reassurance for not only a Schlarman Academy program once again on the rise, but for second year head coach Keith Peoples. Despite realizing his team’s talent and potential, he came into the season with only one goal in mind.
“We’ve come a long way, and not so much with just wins and losses, but playing with a sense of pride,” Peoples said. “Not taking a back seat. We’ve taken a back seat for many years with girls basketball. My expectation this year was just coming out and playing with a sense of pride and effort.”
The win was the 14th consecutive for the Hilltoppers who will take that same effort and pride to the Fisher Sectional, where they will take on Iroquois West on Monday at 7:30 p.m.
Armstrong-Potomac senior Erika Sieberns led the Trojans (18-10) with 15 points and eight rebounds, Johanna Breuns scored nine, Morgan Zindars had six, and Rachel Miles and Kirsten Newnum each finished with four.
Miles and Zindars each advanced in the three-point contest as well as Cissna Park’s Alexis Knake and Madison Overbey.