Expectations around the Hiland basketball team never vary, even when the team is in transition.
Coming off a season in which the Hawks reached the state championship game after struggling through a seven-game losing skid midway through the year, veteran coach Dave Schlabach expects big things from his troops.
But when you consider Hiland graduated its leading scorer and top four rebounders, one might wonder what has the coach looking so forward to the upcoming season.
"We learned a lot last year. It reminds you that anything can happen at the end of the year," Schlabach said. "It's why you keep working. It's the first time we ever had a year like that, but it's good to know that if things don't go well early, if you stay committed and keep working, you've got a chance to do some things at the end of the year."
Hiland finished last season 19-9, falling in the state championship game.
"The way we finished last year allows me to say our schedule helped us," Schlabach said. "Had we not finished like that… Our kids were pretty much taken to the brink, confidence-wise. When you continually get beat seven games in a row, it's hard to say, 'Hey, we're doing all the right things. Keep working. It will pay off.' At least it worked last year."
Playing another brutal schedule where his troops will be tested almost every time they take the floor, the Hawks will either have to produce or be pummeled into submission.
"Last year was the best schedule we ever had," Schlabach said. "You take that schedule and figure in the fact that West Holmes is probably better than they were; Garaway has everybody back. The best teams we played last year are better, teams like Wadsworth, Div. I state champion Twinsburg, who has the longest winning streak in the state of Ohio going right now and the best point guard in the state in Purdue-bound Ashley Morrisette, then you add in Div. I Tri-Valley. It's an interesting schedule. The way we start out this year has kept us really focussed in the preseason."
The Hawks opened on the road Friday, Nov. 23, at Twinsburg, andf fell to the two-time defending state champions in 49-45 overtime.
A trio of seniors will provide leadership for the Hawks.
Jasmine Goings came on strong on the post last year while Kendra Schlabach became a player who looked for the big shot. Natalie Nickol is another senior post player who has started to play up to her potential. She recently accepted a scholarship offer to play at Ursuline College.
"I always thought Kendra was a really good player," Schlabach said. "I feel like, now she's playing that way. In the last couple of weeks she's becoming the type of player I thought she could be, a leader, looking to score.
"All three seniors had a really good summer," he added. "Then we've got kids like Emily Yoder, Regina Hochstetler, Jenica Schrock, who aren't young anymore. These kids have been playing for us for a while, that third year coming in now, there's an experience factor we struggled with last year."
Hiland will attack teams differently this season.
"We started out last year thinking McKenzie (Miller) had to get us 20 in order for us to win games," Schlabach said.
'When she struggled a little bit, we struggled. I'm not sure where all the points are going to come from, but we've got a few people who can shoot. We're definitely going to be a 'by committee' type team. We won't have any one kid get us 20."
While the coach is looking for someone to produce offensively, he will also be looking for someone to crash the boards.
"I lost my top four rebounders from last year. McKenzie led us in rebounding, and then right behind her was Megan Hall, Regan Miller and Bria Coil," Schlabach said. "Even though some of those kids didn't score a lot, they were by far our best rebounders. I think we only lost one rebounding game all season. They did what they did best, which was defend and rebound. And McKenzie led us in charges taken the last two years.
"All those kids gave us something that we're kind of missing right now," the coach continued. "This is by far the smallest team I've ever coached."
Nickol and Goings at 5-foot-10, are the big post players for the Hawks.
Defensive pressure and depth are two ways Hiland will combat its lack of size.
"The easy answer is to go out and press and play 12 kids a quarter and have them run around like a bunch of wild Indians," Schlabach said. "We want to create tempo. We want to have a scheme that gives the appearance of discipline and a coordinated effort, but we will definitely try to increase the pace of the game, even more so than the past two years."
There will be new faces on the Hiland bench as long-time assistant Rob Moser is taking a break from coaching, and Krista Beechy has moved on to join the coaching staff at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.
"My problem is, I keep hiring too good of people," Schlabach said. 'Which is good. We want quality people. But lots of times, those people also get opportunities to do other things, and we try to help them do that.
We have some new faces. Nick McMillan is my assistant, and he does a good job. He's an intense guy. People might remember him from TCC. He played there. He's also the vice-president of First Federal Bank (in Berlin).
Christa (Wells) Miller is taking over the JV team.
"She's a good basketball mind. It's nice to have a female on staff," Schlabach added. "She's been a pleasant surprise."
The coach is pleased with the direction the program is going. He is always looking ahead.
"We're at 20, which is probably the most we've had in seven, eight years," Schlabach said. "We've got a good-sized sophomore class."