The graduation of five senior letter-winners from a team that finished 23-3 and took third at the Class 3A state tournament a year ago might make some head coaches nervous about the season to come.
Nathan Hiebert, not so much.
Expectations may be as high as they’ve ever been for Hillsboro girls’ basketball in his sixth year at the helm. And Hiebert doesn’t back away from them.
“We’re looking forward to another great season,” he said. “I’m pleased with the core that we bring back. They bring a lot of experience and a lot of scoring and rebounding from last year.”
It starts with the Trojans’ top two scorers and rebounders in senior Tena Loewen and junior Addie Lackey.
“Returning” carries extra meaning for Loewen, a 5 foot, 10-inch forward who led the team in both categories (13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds) before going down with a knee injury in Game 14.
That Loewen recently was named the Class 3A Player of the Year in volleyball seems to indicate her rehab went well.
“Honestly, I’m glad she’s had some time to be on it,” Hiebert said of the knee. “But basketball has different demands than volleyball, so I think she’s still trying to get used to (the brace). I think it feels a little bit different, but she looks really good.”
Loewen’s physical abilities will make her a handful for every opponent, but her intangibles multiply her impact.
“The thing that sets her so far above some others in our league is that she’s just a very smart player—she knows what to do,” Hiebert said.
“The second thing is unselfishness,” he added. “She’s one of those who leads by example. I’ve seen several times when she’s working with some of the freshmen girls who are just trying to learn the system.
“The thing I really appreciate about her is that she buys into our concept,” Hiebert said. “For several years we’ve talked about being a family and caring about each other. That’s who she is.”
Meanwhile, Lackey, a 5-8 guard, averaged 10 points, 4.7 rebounds and a team-high 3.3 assists per game last season.
“She has a great feel for the game,” Hiebert said. “At the end of last season I thought she did a fantastic job. The last 10 games she may have averaged five assists. She can score, but also does a great job of drawing attention and then getting her teammates the ball with opportunities to score.
“This year she’s been very competitive and been working really hard to improve on the defensive end,” he added. “She’s put in a lot of time on her shot and her game. She just continues to improve.”
A third core contributor is Danae Bina, a 5-6 guard who was an occasional starter last year but often was a spark off the bench as the Trojans’ sixth player. She averaged 5.5 points per game and likely will run point this year.
“She was really key in our third-place game (at state) with the pressure she applied on defense,” Hiebert said.
“She’s extremely quick, she’s physical, she’s strong, she’s aggressive. That’s just her personality, and that’s why she gets opportunities to play and usually good things come from those.”
The leading candidate at shooting guard is Maci Schlehuber, a 5-7 senior who saw a lot of court time a year ago and averaged just under 4 points per game.
“She’s been able to hit the outside shot really well,” Hiebert said. “She’s another one who has grown up just loving the game, and you can see that in her enthusiasm to work to get better. Understanding our system and what we want is a big benefit for her.”
Hiebert is looking at two 5-9 seniors, Erin Winter and Christina Morris, as candidates for the center position.
“They bring some different dynamics,” Hiebert said. “Erin’s traditionally been more at the 5 spot, so she understands the role. We were able to use her a bit more toward the end of last season. She does a good job of getting her teammates into good situations, screening for them and being in the right position.
“Christina is a nice athlete,” he said. “She’s got such a long wingspan. That’s why we’re going to try her at the 5 spot because she’s aggressive and physical. Defensively, I think she can frustrate some people.”
Hiebert is looking to senior Maddie Duerksen and sophomores Allison Weber and Kennedy Lucero to add depth at guard, and sophomores Morganne Hamm, Courtney Troyer and Taylor Vogt at forward.
On the heels of her first-team all-state season in volleyball, 5-9 freshman Alex Ratzlaff is likely to make an immediate impact in basketball this winter.
“She’s very athletic, and I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen,” Hiebert said. “She’s working hard. It just takes some time to learn a different system. She’s been very coachable so far. Her athleticism will definitely be something we can utilize. She jumps well, she’s quick, she’s fast.”
Hiebert said athleticism and the fact that the girls have experienced success in numerous arenas may be his team’s greatest strengths.
“These girls understand that success does not happen just because you show up,” he said. “These girls want to win and they want to get better. There’s some extra work that goes along with that. It’s not a pain to them, they take it as a challenge. It’s neat to see multiple girls stick together and go through that together to be better as a whole.”
Hiebert hopes the team’s athleticism will overcome a lack of significant height inside.
“I can’t force the girls to grow,” Hiebert said with a smile. “So we just have to adapt and play defensively not to give up too much there.
“I think we have a lot of talent on the floor. We can shoot from the inside and outside, we can attack the hole really well. We’d like to get to the free-throw line a lot.
“Defensively, I think we can pressure teams and really frustrate them into being rushed or making mistakes.”
The Trojans are defending champions of the Central Kansas League—the school’s first league title since winning a division title in the Mid-Central Activities Association in 2002.
“I hope to be right at the top,” Hiebert said. “We got first last year and I’d love to win it again.”
He sees Hesston, Sterling and Haven as being the top challengers with Pratt and Lyons not far behind.
Hiebert said he’d like to win the school’s first Trojan Classic mid-season tournament girls’ title this season, but the field appears to be stronger than ever with the addition of Holcomb, a 3A tournament qualifier last season with all players returning.
Republic County, Goodland, Thomas More Prep, Hesston, Riley County and Wamego round out a strong field.
“It’s starting to be that even your first-round game is not a cakewalk,” he said.
The Trojans will open the season Tuesday, Dec. 4, when they take on the host team at the Moundridge Preseason Tournament.
“That will be a good test right off the bat,” Hiebert said.