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WOOSTER -- After yelling out instructions during Monday's back-and-forth battle with Hiland, Wooster girls basketball coach Mike Baus was nearly hoarse by the end of the contest.
By that point, though, the Generals had already made their statement loud and clear.
Wooster (6-0) stayed unbeaten with its biggest win of the year, knocking off Hiland, the 2011-12 Div. IV state runner-up, 65-59. The victory marks Wooster's second win over the perennial area power in as many years.
Despite having to replace six letterwinners from last year's squad that was the Ohio Cardinal Conference runner-up and reached the Div. I district semifinals, the Generals are off to a perfect start thanks to breakout performances from a pair of returners in Claire Ballard and Sarah Cairnie and the duo again came up big Monday. Ballard nearly registered a triple-double with 27 points, nine steals and eight rebounds, while Cairnie notched 14 points, 12 boards and keyed Wooster's decisive 35-14 advantage on the glass.
"We made it a goal to outrebound them," said Ballard.
Since 2000, Hiland (5-2) has won four state titles and finished as the state runner-up three times thanks to aggressive defense and a relentless effort on the boards. On Monday, Wooster outplayed Hiland in both facets. In addition to controlling the rebounding margin, the Generals also shot 65 percent from the floor.
"Unfortunately, we're not tough enough physically to rebound and beat anybody good," said Hiland coach Dave Schlabach.
The Hawks went into the half trailing by a four-point margin and early in the third quarter consecutive jumpers by Regina Hochstetler, who finished with a game-high 28 points, and Kendra Schlabach cut the Generals' advantage to 29-26. From there, though, the Hawks missed six straight field goals and in that span Ballard came up with four field goals and a free throw to stretch the Generals' lead to 41-29. Many of Ballard's buckets came as she was able to outrun the pressure down the floor and convert easy layups. Most of Ballard's receptions came from Gabrielle Cicolani, who finished with a game-high nine assists.
"We know teams are going to press us so we spend a lot of time doing baseball throws -- going long and running under it," said Baus. "We have to beat the press to get into our half-court offense."
"They just beat us down the floor," said Schlabach. "We thought we could beat them with the press but they dictated tempo all night long."
Late in the third quarter, Wooster led by as many as 15, but Hiland, which was
6-for-10 from beyond the arc, closed the gap to single digits (47-38) at the end of the quarter thanks to three consecutive 3-pointers from Kendra Schlabach, who finished with 15 points. The Hawks' blitz from the perimeter continued in the final frame when Hochstetler knocked down a trio of treys and scored 14 of their next 15 to close the gap to 56-53. The Generals, however, sealed the game by forcing defensive stops on the next three possessions and getting a pair of free throws each from Syd Logee, Cicolani and Cairnie.
Baus said the key to withstanding Hiland's late offensive charge was his team's ability to win the battle inside -- 58 of Wooster's 65 points came in the paint. When Wooster went to the post, it either came up with layups or went to the line.
"We didn't locate and challenge Hiland's shooters, but give them credit -- they shot the lights out," said Baus. "The girls felt if we could get it past the 3-point line, we can score."
Baus, in his third year, has raised the level of the program with a record of 33-11 over the past two seasons. This year his team had to replace a strong core of seniors, including All-Daily Record first-teamers Lauren Walker and Halle Gallo-Malta, and Baus has relied on plenty of new contributors en route to his squad's 6-0 start. It is for that reason that Monday's win was arguably even more impressive than last year's victory in Berlin.
"The girls looked at it as a game to show that they can play," said Baus. "They wanted to make a statement that this group can carry on the tradition over the last couple years."
After the game, Baus' message was relatively quiet, but his team's certainly was not.