By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
There’s a culture change going on in the Hilldale gym these days.
A much-needed culture change considering where the Hilldale girls basketball program has been over much of the last two decades — one area trip in 16 seasons and four coaches in the last decade.
Last season — his second at the helm — coach Scott Hensley’s team went 17-9, a record unseen since the 1991-92 team won 18 games. The showing was made more remarkable by the group of underclassmen that led the way.
Which shows, in all likelihood, that it’s got staying power rather than being a one-year wonder. The 2013-14 team has just one senior.
“To a certain extent I think we might have snuck up on some people because it has been Hilldale,” Hensley said during a Summer Pride workout Tuesday. “Before last season started I had a lot of coaches tell me ‘I think your girls are going to be much improved.’ Coaches see it and understand it but that doesn't mean the kids understand.”
The core of this group has been successful in the middle school ranks and in doing so, learned how to win. But as high schoolers, they were carrying the baggage of a forgettable history of season after season of handfuls of victories.
“My freshman year, no one came to our games,” said junior Casady Mills. “When you’re losing you start getting selfish and you get individuals with attitude. As this group grew together as a team last year we found success and more people started coming to watch us. The atmosphere changed and it helped us to take charge of things. Players from previous years didn’t step up.
“This group wants to win. Some have in the past. This group wants to work together for the good of the team and having some success certainly helped.”
That core has also had success in softball, many of them playing on the same select team since starting grade school. As Lady Hornets, they collectively made it to the state quarterfinals last season under Darren Riddle’s direction.
“For young kids, you don’t expect them to sacrifice as much as they have,” Hensley said. “Coach Riddle and I try to communicate as much as we can, scheduling team camps around each other and vice versa. One day last year they had softball going on and it rained them out. Darren and (assistant coach Mike) Mills loaded them up and brought them to Henryetta where we were having our camp.
“Obviously we want to be the best softball and basketball teams we can be but we also need to be the best we can for these girls. They’ll come in here in the morning, shoot, lift, whatever they need to do, then go eat lunch and head for the softball field. To me that’s a pretty impressive commitment.”
Mills was one who plays both.
“Softball had always been my favorite sport to play but basketball is growing on me,” she said.
Katie Kirkhart, the team’s point guard and last year’s All-Phoenix Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, is one that decided to put her focus on one sport.
“A lot of that was a motivation to change what has happened in basketball here and I thought by doing that I could help,” Kirkhart said. “I probably made my best strides the first year I didn’t play softball and I started playing AAU for the first time this summer.
“My attitude is that if you practice like you’ve been used to practicing, nothing’s going to change.”
It did for her, averaging 13 points per game with two rebounds, three assists and two steals. But Hensley says there’s plenty of things she can work on.
“Handling the basketball she needs to get her head up a little bit better. She makes pretty good passes. But the whole undersanding of what we need and when we need it, she can improve on that,” he said.
“On defense she gambles a lot. In my mind that’s because she's always been the best athlete on the floor growing up and that's allowed her to lunge and reach and you know, try to do the things that doesn't make you successful in high school. But she learns quickly. I don't want to brag on her much but she could be special.”
And this could be a special run for Hilldale if they learn quickly from their first season. Take two games against the 4A champion Fort Gibson Lady Tigers.
In the first matchup, Hilldale jumped out to an 8-2 lead, but Fort Gibson clung to a 12-10 advantage after the first quarter and 30-28 at halftime. The Lady Hornets got as close as 41-40 late in the third quarter, but went the final three minutes without scoring and lost 56-49. The second meeting was a 15-point loss on the Lady Tigers’ home court.
The newness of those situations proved costly, just as it did in a first-round district playoff loss to Inola that, on top of an ankle injury to Kirkhart, led to a regional playoff exit that was at least a week earlier than expected.
“In the past with Fort Gibson, we’d get beat by 30 or 40 points,” said Julie Plunkett, the team’s only senior. “So even though we lost, it was one of the things that gave us a level of confidence. But once we reached the playoffs, we didn’t have the focus we needed. We might’ve been a little overconfident. But it was a learning experience.”
Hensley doesn’t want to focus too much on specific measuring sticks for the program’s continued improvement.
“I never want to set the type of goals like we need to win 20 or we need to win 25 when we've won 20. I just keep telling them the bar has been raised,” he said. “The more it's raised, the more you need to put in. If we keep doing that, it's going to be good any way because their lives will be enriched a lot more.”
The team’s mindset has changed for sure.
“Nowadays we talk about how our goal is to win state. And we take that seriously,” Kirkhart said. “Before, we'd laugh about it.”