The formula for the Hillsboro girls to find their way back to the Class 3A state tournament this season is pretty simple: Keep playing stone-cold defense and warm up just a couple of degrees on offense.
?Our defense is still the priority?that?s the challenge for these girls,? said third-year coach Nathan Hiebert, who is 23-22 after two seasons. ?I let the underclassmen know that if you want a position on varsity, the first priority is you have to play defense. If you can?t do that, I can?t trust putting you on the floor.?
Underclassmen will get some opportunities this season with the loss of five seniors from last season?s 14-10 team. But with arguably his top three players returning in Dakota Kaufman, Candace Weinbrenner and Ali Faul, Hiebert has a solid core to build around.
?It?s been fun this year because my three returning seniors understand that (defense is key), and they have high expectations for the girls around them,? Hiebert said. ?We?ve had some real intense practices so far, which is really good.?
Last season, Hillsboro allowed a paltry 35.6 points a game while holding opponents to 35 percent shooting. Meanwhile, the Trojans were only slightly more productive at 36.4 points, but shot nearly 41 percent from the floor.
?Offensively, I did a lot of studying in the off-season in how to improve it,? Hiebert said. ?We run the motion offense, and the motion offense has a lot of benefits to it if it?s run well?and it?s hard to run well.
?Some of the (new drills) are helping so far, but it?s a slow process. It just takes time.?
Solid at the core
Hiebert freely admits the key player in his offensive scheme is Dakota Kaufman, a 6-foot-1 senior post who averaged nearly 14 points and just over eight rebounds per contest on her way to unanimous all-league honors.
?She?s very athletic and very talented,? Hiebert said. ?Last year we played her some at (forward), but this year we?re going to keep her in the paint. She can do so much down there and we can?t lose that.?
Hiebert knows defenses will be keying on Kaufman, but that?s nothing new.
?Defense have been keying on her for the past two years,? he said. ?Our players know that, but it?s one of those things where we?re not going to go away from it. I think there are some teams that simply can?t defend her. She?s getting better at making a quick move and not waiting for defenses to get to her.?
The focus on stopping Kaufman should give other players more chances to score. Hiebert is looking to Candace Weinbrenner, his 5-4 senior point guard, to be one of those players. A second-team all-league pick, Weinbrenner averaged only 2.5 points, but put up only 62 shots.
?She loves to get that ball to other people so they can knock down a shot,? Hiebert said. ?I love that, and I don?t want to lose that. But we?re also looking to her to take a few more shots.?
Even so, Weinbrenner?s primary contributions will be as floor leader on both ends of the court.
?Defensively, she starts our pressure?she does an amazing job of frustrating ball handlers,? Hiebert said. ?She is just a very disciplined, smart and experienced player.
?Offensively, she takes care of that ball. She also helps the other players around her. I?ve noticed her taking a lot more ownership (this season), helping those with less experience get to the level they need to be.?
The Trojans? third weapon is Allie Faul (5-6), who came on strong late in the season. She averaged nearly six points a game relying mostly on 3-point shooting (27-101, 27 percent).
?She can shoot the ball,? Hiebert said of the junior guard, who received all-league honorable mention in her first season as a starter. ?We just need to keep her encouraged that she can because sometimes she can get discouraged. I?d like her to attack the basket a bit more this season. Last year gave her a lot of experience at getting used to the different pace at the varsity level.?
Beyond that core of three, sophomore Franny Gottsch (5-8), leads the list of potential contributors for the new season.
?She?s just a hard-nosed worker,? Hiebert said. ?She?s not flashy, but she gets the job done. Last year she earned some playing time because she rebounded so well. She has a knack at getting the ball in the hole and doing the little things that are hard to teach but that we want to have on the court.?
Sarah Unruh (5-5, senior) saw limited action a year ago but Hiebert said she could be a role contributor in her final season. ?She?s a hard worker and very unselfish?she wants to play her role,? he said. ?She has improved every single year and I?m excited to see what happens with her.?
A handful of juniors?guards Becky Faber (5-4) and Callie Serene (5-2), forward Krista Reimer (5-8) and a set of 6-0 twins, Elise and Emma Heyen?will contribute as called upon.
?It?s a matter of who can play defense,? Hiebert said. ?If they can, we?re going to try to find a spot for them to do that.?
One newcomer could make an impact as freshman. Tena Loewen (5-10) showed her athleticism as a starter on the volleyball team this fall.
?She handles the ball well, she has a great attitude and she works hard,? Hiebert said. ?Defensively, she understands some concepts fairly well. Now, it?s just a matter of getting used to a new system.?
To take some pressure off his team?s strength on defense, Hiebert is looking for more aggressive play on offense.
?Our goal this year is to get to the (free-throw) line, to out-rebound teams,? he said. ?When those things happen, we?re going to score more and still keep other teams from scoring.
?We?ve been talking about getting to the basket more?not just getting it inside, but attacking off the dribble and getting up the court better. We need to get some easy shots. When you can do that, it takes some of the pressure off your possessions and gives you more confidence.?
Hiebert said the key benefit of making it to state last year is that his team will believe in itself from the very start of the season.
?I really do think that after the Remington (sub-state) game last year, they finally believed we had a good team,? Hiebert said. ?We had leads last year against a lot of good teams, but it was hard for us to have confidence in who we were.
?I think these girls believe they can (get back to state)?they expect to get back,? he added. ?That?s a fun attitude, it?s not a cocky one. They understand the work ethic that it takes to get there, but you want some of that confidence and belief that they can do it.?
The Trojans open the season Friday with a stiff challenge: playing at Wichita Collegiate. The Spartans return almost the entire squad that finished as the Class 3A runner-up a year ago.
HHS will compete in the Moundridge pre-season tournament the following week, then round out the pre-Christmas schedule with a game at Nickerson before finally playing a home game Dec. 18 against Sterling.
Assisting Hiebert this year are coaches Dennis Boldt and Sherri Weinbrenner.