BY AARON PATTERSON
The timing might be perfect for the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers to be playing some of their best basketball of the season.
After all, according to coach Keith Peoples, their season started on Monday. The previous 27 games were just preparation for what they hope will be a deep run into the Class 1A state basketball playoffs.
Their first game of the new season seemed like a breeze, defeating the Buckley Christ Lutheran Crusaders 61-19.
It was the largest margin of victory this season for the Hilltoppers, the fewest points allowed in a single game. But despite winning their 12th consecutive game, Schlarman Academy knows Tuesday’s Armstrong Regional Semifinal will be much tougher as it faces second-seeded Cissna Park.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us and we know it,” Peoples said. “Cissna Park is a very good team. I’ve been doing some research on them. They play aggressive man-to-man defense, I believe. I don’t know exactly how they’re going to play us tomorrow. But, our last few practices have been really important, and we have been preparing for regionals — not looking past the Oakwood and Milford games, but we used those two games to prepare us for this regoinal match-up against Cissna. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Hilltoppers were able to get a little more practice in during their decisive victory over the Crusaders, and build some confidence in areas that might have been holding them back. Thirteen members of Schlarman Academy’s squad saw significant playing time including freshman Shelby Mascari, who finished with six points, seven rebounds, two steals, and three blocks, and sophomore Joslyn Dietzen, who scored eight and had four rebounds.
It was senior Sydne Bryant, though, who helped the Hilltoppers get out to a commanding lead in the opening moments of the contest when she lit up the scoreboard scoring all of her game-high 14 points in the first quarter. Bryant made four three-pointers pacing Schlarman Academy to a 26-2 first-quarter lead. She finished two shy of her season high of six threes, which she made on January 10 in a 50-38 win over Bismarck-Henning.
“She’s been in somewhat of a shooter’s slump,” Peoples said. “It’s good to have games like this to get in and get some shots, work on some execution stuff, half court offense. She was able to guide the rhythm. That’s what I told them during the halftime. Don’t play the score, play the possession, play the clock; time management. Let’s try to develop some type of rhythm. Coming into tomorrow’s game, that’s going to be important.”
Janelle Marion recorded the game’s only double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Sierra Bell finished with six points, five rebounds, five assists, and two steals. Saray Daily also had five steals, and Alexis Rangel had a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Hilltoppers (19-9) hope Monday’s performance was only a prelude to what is to come. A win tonight against Cissna Park would send Schlarman Academy to a regional championship game for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.
“We’ve just got to come out with the mental state of, it’s a new game, a new day, a new team, and just play with the intensity that we normally play,” Bryant said.
“Coach has really emphasized that we (are approaching) 20 wins. Tomorrow will be our 20th win. We’ve had 12 consecutive wins. It just feels good as a senior, coming into my last year knowing that our team works hard in practice. It’s a good feeling to be able to have a good season like this.”
With another solid performance against Cissna Park, Bryant, along with seniors Holly Huckstadt, Hadeel Samai and Ella Black will be able to extend their season and perhaps continue to make history for the Schlarman Academy girls basketball program.