BY AARON PATTERSON
It’s all a mindset.
Life is about choices, and the decisions one makes can drastically impact the future. But getting into the right state of mind will allow for the opportunity to overcome previous setbacks.
Deep, maybe, but the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers realized just how important it was to be in the right state of mind entering this basketball season. This year’s seniors chose to not let their past dictate their future.
In their first three seasons, the Hilltoppers varsity squad accumulated a 37-53 record. They never had a .500 season, and likely just got used to losing. But that changed this year.
“I think it’s a mindset,” Schlarman Academy senior guard Austin Calhoun said. “Us three seniors got together before the season and said, ‘We’re not going to let the last three years dictate the way we play this year.’ It’s just a mindset to get win after win. We did really well this season.”
The Hilltoppers’ season of hope and history came to an end on Wednesday in a 60-58 regional semifinal loss to the Shiloh Raiders.
For the first time in 10 years, Schlarman Academy posted 20 wins in a season. They also won a regional game, and finished in the top four of the Vermilion Valley Conference — two accomplishments that might not have seemed like real possibilities during their struggles.
Though they had three seniors (Calhoun, Andrew Kelley, Maher Samawi) to lead the squad, and the help of a junior (Chris Kuchefski), two freshmen (Michael Simmons and Ganonon Hughes) saw significant playing time.
That experience will no doubt bode well for the returning roster that was able to experience the success, but also found out how heartbreaking a tough loss can be.
The Hilltoppers led the Raiders for an 18-minute, 23-second stretch that lasted until the 3:55 mark of the fourth quarter. They held an 11-point advantage 27 seconds into the second half, and it looked as though they would be making their first regional title game appearance since 2003.
But slowly, the Raiders shot their way back into the game, and used a 13-3 run in the fourth quarter to take their first lead of the game since going up 27-26 late in the first half.
Shiloh sophomore Cyrus Furgeson hit back-to-back threes at the end of the run to give his team the lead, and he went on to make a third consecutive trey before making five of six free throw attempts in the final 1:20 to seal the win. Furgeson finished with a game high 28 points including seven three-pointers.
“We just lost our composure in the fourth quarter,” Schlarman head coach Gary Tidwell said. “We came out on our possession at the beginning of the fourth and had a quick look to get a layup. We missed it, and I think they came down and scored on the next possession. I think we just got tight the rest of the fourth quarter and lost our composure.
“Usually, we can rely on our defense and getting stops,” he added. “We didn’t do that. Even late when they hit the three, we had a called defensive play that we failed to execute on and gave them an open three. We gave their best player, their best shooter on the court an open three with nobody guarding him. You can’t have that. So, it’s disappointing, especially with how well we’ve played lately and how well we executed in the first half. We just lost our composure.”
The Hilltoppers (20-11) also gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the Raiders, and were outrebounded 37-23. Shiloh’s Andrew Donithan (15 points) accounted for 13 rebounds including seven on his offensive glass.
The Raiders will now prepare to take on the seventh-ranked Salt Fork Storm in Friday’s Chrisman Regional championship, while the Hilltoppers move on and begin to focus on how they can build on the positive momentum gained from their most recent success.
“I think the older guys did a tremendous job of leading,” Tidwell said. ‘They’ve set a great example for our younger players. I couldn’t ask for three better seniors, just all the way around. I think they did everything that we asked them to do. We would have liked to have gotten a regional championship to go back home for the sectional.
“This is a tough way to lose with us not executing in the fourth quarter the way we did, it’s hard to swallow. But those guys have done a great job. I think they set the tone for future generations of Schlarman basketball.”
Calhoun scored 23 points in his final game, and had three rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Kelley added eight points, three rebounds, and four assists, Kuchefski finished with 11 points and nine boards, Hughes scored nine, and Simmons finished with seven. Samawi had three rebounds.
While Calhoun, Kelley, and Samawi leave the program, they simply hope the Hilltoppers can continue to build on what they were able to start.
“We’re trying to build a legacy here,” Calhoun said. “We’re just a team that’s building right now. To get a new coach and get a 20-win season, that’s great. That’s phenomenal.
“We just told (the younger players) that it hurts to lose. That’s how we’ve played for the last three years. Coming into this season, a lot of freshmen playing and stuff, they stepped up. They’re going to do really well the next three years.”