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BERLIN -- One of the things veteran coach Tom Gibson loves about his Hiland High team this year is that there is no test these seniors haven't faced -- and passed with flying colors.
When they played as Little League Senior League all-stars two years ago, they qualified for the World Series in Maine. Not only did they qualify, they went all the way to the championship game, falling to Texas.
Only one test remains -- defending Hiland's Div. III state baseball title. The Hawks will attempt to do so, and finish an unbeaten season in the process, this week in Columbus.
Now 30-0, Hiland takes on Cincinnati Hills Academy (22-5) in a state semifinal Thursday at 1 p.m. at Huntington Park.
"This group of seniors has been together and winning since Little League," Gibson said. "They're not afraid of the big stage. They kind of relish it. There is a cookie-cutter image of kids from Hiland, and these aren't those guys. They're outgoing and not shy. This is a competitive group of seniors. They've been together for a long time."
Chris Kline (shortstop) and Tyson Gingerich (second base), the keystone combination up the middle, along with center fielder Derek Miller and catcher Bryan Yoder anchor the defense. Pitcher/outfielder Mitch Massaro and first baseman/pitcher Braden Mast are among the leaders of the Hiland pitchers, while Scott Ropp is an extra outfielder and Luke Weaver is a pitcher.
Gibson reflected on a game when this group was 13, playing in an All-Star tournament against West Holmes. They fell behind 10-0 in the first inning but came back only to lose 12-11.
"That tells you what they're made of," he said. "These guys don't quit and they keep fighting. They're strong mentally and fundamentally."
Kline, who will be continuing his education and baseball career at Mount Vernon Nazarene next season, said the brotherhood the seniors developed as teammates all these years is something he'll never forget.
"I'm so close to all of these guys. Every single one of them is my best friend," Kline said. "We hang out together outside of baseball. We treat baseball like it's not even a sport, it's like a hobby. It's fun, it's what we do, and we do what we love."
Ropp, a backup outfielder, said the baseball team is an extension of his family.
"These guys are like my second family. They're my brothers," he said. "I can always count on them."
Yoder feels the chemistry his teammates have developed is what makes baseball so much fun.
"The way we do the little things makes it all fun," Yoder said.
Miller says that it is hard to put into words what being a Hiland baseball player means to him.
"This is like family. You have to experience to know what I mean, but these guys are like one big family," Miller said.
Trying to become a rare repeat state champion, one could say their get-together in Columbus, then, is like a family reunion.