BY AARON PATTERSON
All Schlarman Academy girls basketball coach Keith Peoples wanted out of his team this season was to play with effort and a sense of pride. As a second year coach, he simply wanted to build on his first season of success.
After all, though a winning tradition once existed within the Hilltoppers’ program, nearly a decade of futility — when measured by conference and regional titles — made success at Schlarman seem like a distant memory, and at times improbable for the future.
But a change overtook the Hilltoppers this season winning that elusive conference title, and securing their first regional title in 10 years. They did it with an impressive 14-game winning streak that lasted over six weeks.
Their history-making season came to an end, though, on Monday when the Hilltoppers suffered a 55-44 loss to the Iroquois West Raiders in a Class 1A Fisher Sectional Semifinal.
“They have exceeded my expectations beyond conference champions,” Peoples said. “When I looked at the regular season conference schedule and realized that we were in a strong hunt for the number one, I got real excited. I didn’t realize how good this team actually could play.
“Again, it’s all about pride and effort because the skill level, the skill sets, they’re not quite there. But the sense of pride and effort, you can’t second guess it. You couldn’t second guess it at all. I’m very proud of them. They played extremely hard.”
The Hilltoppers (21-10) hadn’t lost a game since a 42-39 defeat at the hands of Danville High on December 28 in the Peoria Manual Holiday Tournament, and rarely trailed in a game during their impressive run. That meant being in unfamiliar territory when the Raiders (21-9) built a 34-23 halftime lead, and led by as many as 13 in the third quarter.
But the idea of playing with a sense of pride, the mindset Peoples instilled in them early in the season, took over, and Schlarman Academy went on an 11-3 run late in the fourth quarter to pull to within 47-42.
Iroquois West committed six turnovers during the stretch, and Schlarman Academy found themselves within striking distance. It appeared as though their improbable run might continue to the sectional championship — a first since 1998.
Just as quickly as the Hilltoppers made their comeback, however, the Raiders finished the game on an 8-0 run, bringing Schlarman Academy’s season to an end.
“It came down to the girls just sucking it up,” Peoples said. “I had a little speech with them during that time out that this was possibly their last game. (They had to) step out and play with pride, play with effort, and give it all you’ve got. And they responded, for the most part. But also, Iroquois West, you’ve got to tip your hat to them. We responded with intense defense, and they responded with being smart with the ball and making big plays. Hats off to the better team tonight.”
Schlarman Academy senior Holly Huckstadt kept her team within striking distance making a pair of threes late in the third quarter, and fellow senior Ella Black scored with five minutes remaining to pull Schlarman to within 46-38.
“We’re not really used to being down by that much, so we just had to push and start coming back,” Black said. “It just didn’t work out that time.”
While Monday’s game didn’t work out, simply winning a regional title was perhaps a reward for seniors Black, Huckstadt, Sydne Bryant, and Hadeel Samawi who experienced many losses during the two seasons prior to Peoples taking over as head coach.
“So much growth,” Peoples said. “We actually had discussion about that in the locker room about their wins and losses as freshmen and sophomores. I believe they told me they had three or four their freshman year and maybe six their sophomore year. It was a great feeling to be in a situation to have a second winning season — 16 wins last year and we come out this year with 21. They were surprised. They were just on the ride. They were believing in themselves, believing in their team, believing in me, and I appreciate that because a lot of the things that I teach, it’s hard to accept.
“When you tell a kid to come out and play with a sense of pride and effort, what does that look like? Could you show me what that looks like? And they did it. They figured it out. They dug deep. Those seniors, they stepped up and had a great season.”
Freshman Sierra Bell led all scorers with 19 points, five rebounds, four assists, and three steals, and junior Janelle Marion finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
With the torch being passed to next season’s returning players, they will look to build on the leadership learned from this year’s seniors.
“They’re great seniors,” Bell said. “They always come out just telling us to go out with a bang and have fun. They were great seniors. They’ll be much remembered. They were really good teammates. I enjoyed playing with them a lot. I love them. I’ll miss them.
“Hopefully we can get all the girls to come back again, and have girls working over the summer just coming back and working harder for next season to go even farther.”