BY AARON PATTERSON
DANVILLE — Coming off a 1-29 season in which their first win came in the opening round of the Armstrong-Potomac Regional, the Schlarman Hilltoppers had only one way to go — up.
The turnaround the Hilltoppers made this season was impressive, to say the least. But as many teams suggest, the post season is the time to shine.
After improving its number of wins by nine, Schlarman (10-19 overall) ended its season a few baskets short of another regional win, falling to the Heritage Hawks 56-50 on Monday.
“We were feeling good coming into the game,” sophomore Heath Goodwin said. “We knew that we had to stop two really good players that they have. We scored really well but didn’t play very good defense and they just went out on top.”
Goodwin (16 points, six rebounds) shot a perfect 4-for-4 in the third quarter, and senior James Cook missed only one shot in the period, scoring six of his 12 points.
Cook (eight rebounds, three assists, three blocks) got one of his two steals with four minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter and raced to the other end of the court to put his team up 33-32 for its first lead since two minutes, 55 seconds into the second period.
He gave the Hilltoppers the lead again at 45-44 with 5:23 remaining in the game, but that was the last time Schlarman held the advantage as the Hawks (16-14) finished the game on a 12-5 run. Eight of the 12 points were scored at the free-throw line.
“We knew they would do a good job with things because they are pretty athletic, too,” Heritage coach Andy Place said. “Their athleticism bothered us and we should have done a little better job rebounding the ball, but I thought they played exceptionally hard and it was a tough game for us, no doubt about it.
“We just had guys make plays. It’s not like we did anything special, but our guys adjusted and made some plays on some broken plays and made some plays in transition that got us a little bit of a lead.”
Schlarman defeated the Hawks 64-63 in December, and both teams expected this meeting to have similar results. Heritage’s Adam Wakefield might have been the biggest difference on Monday scoring a team-high 14 points and grabbing 12 boards — 11 on the defensive glass.
But he also made his way to the outside, hitting two threes, one that gave the Hawks a 31-26 lead at the beginning of the second half.
“We knew those guys were talented and they had been playing a lot better here lately,” Schlarman coach Pat Kelly said. “We knew coming in it was going to be very difficult. But we thought that maybe playing at home and the fact that we’ve improved over the year that we would be prepared enough to win. Again, it was a tight battle. It was a two-point game down the stretch.”
The excitement of this season’s turnaround has the Hilltoppers ready for next year, but they know it won’t come without a bit of work over the summer.
Despite losing three seniors — Cook, Nathan Liggett (seven points, nine rebounds) and Vinnie Miller (two points, 10 rebounds) — next year’s team will return a host of talent that includes Goodwin, and current juniors Zane Dillon and Refugio Guerrero.
“I’m expecting huge things from the sophomore class coming up and from the leadership of the juniors this year,” Cook said. “I’m expecting big things from the talent that they’ve got and the leadership they’ve got. It’s going to be exciting next year to see what they can do.
“Coach Kelly has got them going in the right direction. I feel like he’s done a great job.”
Heritage advances to the regional semifinals where it will face the top-seeded Salt Fork Storm. The two teams met at the Hayden’s Classic in December with Salt Fork walking away with a decisive 69-37 win. Wednesday’s game at Schlarman is scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m.