In the quest for the Div. IV state championship, the Hiland Hawks were unable to get over one final hurdle, getting tripped up by the Fort Loramie Redskins, who took home the trophy by finishing strong as they played flawlessly down the stretch to post a 57-42 victory over the Hawks.
Hiland played like the Little Engine That Could, fighting an uphill battle from early on, getting as close as three points (43-40) midway through the fourth quarter.
But, like Hiland sharpshooter Regina Hochstetler said, the Hawks were unable to maintain the momentum.
"I felt like the momentum started, but we just couldn't keep it," Hochstetler said.
Sasha Goings was fouled inside and had a chance to cut the Redskins' lead to one, but the junior misfired on both free throws with 3:26 to play.
Darian Rose scored to extend the Redskins' lead to five at 45-40.
Hochstetler answered with a jumper to trim the lead to 45-42 with 2:22 to play, but Renae Meyer scored inside and the Hawks came up empty on their next five possessions.
Fort Loramie finished off its first state championship victory by burying 10 straight free throws down the stretch.
"We had to start fouling. Obviously it wasn't a 15-point game," Hiland coach Dave Schlabach said. "We went to our smaller lineup to try and get ourselves back in it, scoring-wise. They did a good job of getting the ball inside to their posts.
"I thought Fort Loramie's pressure really made us feel uncomfortable throughout the game," Schlabach added. "That's probably the best defensive team we've seen all year. This is the type of game that comes down to a couple plays here and there. With two teams battling that are so similar, it came down to a couple plays. Their skilled kids inside, we had Jasmine (Goings) to guard one of them. We struggled with that second post player in there."
Fort Loramie's tandem on the post, Paige Ordean and Meyer, combined to make 8-of-11 shots from the field to take advantage of their superior size and strength inside. Meyer finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Ordean added nine points.
Fort Loramie's point guard Rose added 19 points, including 8-for-8 from the free throw line, along with five rebounds and five assists.
"Finally," Fort Loramie coach Carla Siegel said, who, after six years as a player, five as an assistant coach and 14 as head coach, can finally raise the championship trophy.
"I can't say enough about how our team played today," Siegel added. "Renae with her double-double. And Darian Rose makes it happen for everybody. When the game's on the line, she rises to the next level."
Hiland fell behind early and the Hawks were never able to get over the hump.
Hochstetler would make one or two shots to pull the Hawks close, but the Redskins would answer each Hiland run with a one of their own. Hochstetler paced the Hiland offense with 23 points. Unfortunately, she didn't get much help. Emily Yoder and Kendra Schlabach were next in line with five points apiece for the Hawks, who wrap up their season with a 26-4 ledger.
"We had a tough time getting open looks for Regina and Kendra (Schlabach)," coach Schlabach said. "It's tough to play a game like that when you don't shoot a free throw in the first half."
The Redskins took a 14-9 lead after the first quarter. Four different players scored for the Hawks, including a triple from Emily Yoder, while Fort Loramie got 3-pointers from Jessica Boerger and Rose.
Fort Loramie threatened to blow the Hawks out, scoring the first four points of the second quarter to double up Hiland 18-9.
After Hiland missed three shots inside the paint, the Redskins struck again to take a 20-9 lead early in the second quarter.
Hochstetler buried a 3-pointer, made a steal and scored on a short jumper to ignite an 8-0 run by the Hawks, capped by a Kendra Schlabach 3-pointer to pull Hiland back to within three at 20-17. The teams traded baskets and the Redskins held a 22-19 edge at intermission.
Hiland cut it to 22-21 to start the second half on a Schlabach score, but the balanced attack of the Redskins built the lead back up to nine (32-23).
A Sasha Goings bucket and a free throw from Megan Beachy pulled the Hawks back to 34-28 heading into the final frame.
A bucket by Boerger and a three-point play by Ordean helped Fort Loramie build a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Hochstetler helped Hiland get within five (41-36), but again the Redskins were able to withstand the charge by the Hawks.
"I thought our girls did a good job of executing our offense and attacking the basket," Siegel said.
The Redskins finished the game shooting 20-of-42 from the floor and 15-of-17 from the foul line.
"I kept telling the kids that they were not going to quit," Siegel said. "Berlin Hiland was a seasoned team that was going to keep fighting back. Playing in the championship game against the No. 2 team in the state of Ohio, I thought we did what we needed to do."
And that was good enough to win. The Redskins finish the season 27-3 with the school's first state championship.
It was a tough loss for Hiland, because the Hawks lose three seniors, including Kendra Schlabach.
"Kendra is one of the most unselfish leaders we've ever had in the program," coach Schlabach said. "We'll miss her. She's a spiritual leader for our kids.
"This group has given it their all," the coach added. "I never doubted that these kids have given me everything they could the entire year. For that I'm real proud. For that, it would've been nice to finish with a championship. I feel really bad for them."