The clock was running out on the Hillman boys basketball season on Wednesday. Cedarville held a 63-57 lead in the regional final game and there were eight seconds left on the clock. The ball was under Hillman's basket and the Trojans were about to inbound.
The Tigers had waged an all out battle against the No. 6 Trojans, similar to last year's regional final. No. 8 Hillman had held a 27-21 lead at the half.
This halftime lead had narrowed and disappeared in the third and fourth quarter under the devastating height and scoring prowess of 6-3 Brad Causley and 6-5 Dan Stenback.
The Trojans had withered down other teams the same way all season, but the Tigers had no intention of letting this stand.
It fought back hard during the fouth quarter and came within five points of taking the lead. It pulled out the full-court press. It threw down double-team half-court traps, got the steals and drove to the hoop. It took long range perimeter shots that found the mark.
It did all that it could to stop the Trojans over the last three minutes of the fourth quarter and the game momentum was firmly within its control in the last 10 seconds of the game.
But, it was down by too much. It had come so far, come so close, but there were still seven points between it and its first regional title when the Trojans inbounded the ball with eight seconds left on the clock.
Hillman freshman Gunnar Libby went in, ready to fight defensively until the buzzer sounded, but was waived off by junior Ty Jones.
"No, no," he said, "don't," Jones said. Libby stopped.
No one could accuse Jones of being a quitter in this situation: he had hit six three-pointers and scored 28 of Hillman's 57 points. He had done all he could to get his team the win, but he knew that it was time to move on and accept defeat.
The buzzer sounded and the Cedarville audience broke out into cheers. The Trojans roared in triumphant, having held off the Tigers' attack two years in a row.
The Hillman boys slowly gathered around coaches Eric Muszynski, Harold Smith and Ryan Edgar at the sidelines. Some put their arms around teammates: others fought back bitter tears as the Trojans were awarded the individual medals and regional trophy that had been within their grasp.
The Hillman audience gradually worked its way down the stands and gathered near Hillman's locker room. Melancholy hung in the air as the fans formed a tunnel for the players and cheered as loudly as they could.
"Way to go boys! Great game! You did great!" Hands were extended and shook: Backs were patted by teary eyed strangers and the Hillman flag, which was to be run across the court if they won, sat unused in the corner.
Some devastated players sought the comfort of their mother or father, weeping against their chest. Others kicked the locker room door in frustration, where it banged heavily against the cement wall and echoed through the gym.
Those echoes signaled the heart-rending end to a season that shouldn't feel tainted by melancholia. It was a big season for the Tigers, a special season and one that its players and its fans won't soon forget.
No other team in Hillman history has won as many games. 21-2. That's a big record for a small school and the kind of record that isn't swept away by a regional final loss.
No other team in Hillman history has won back-to-back district titles. This may not seem like such a big deal when compared to the Posen girls basketball team's five straight titles, but it signifies the kind of potential for greatness that could come from this Hillman boys program.
The Tigers relied mostly on junior, sophomore and freshmen players this year. Only two of its players were seniors: Brenden Zimmer and Mike Klein. Zimmer's height will be missed as will Klein's perimeter shot and skills under the net.
The rest of Hillman's players will be back next year, hungry for that third shot at the regional title.
Jones is perhaps Hillman's most consistent three-point shooter. He has hit eight in a single half and averages around three to five per game.
Mason VanPamel is the kind of tall, fast and athletic player that is so hard to stop on the court. He has a good perimeter shot, but he knows how to dribble around opponents, work through double-teams and pick up difficult shots.
Dylan Ross is a demon rebounder that understands that a lack of height in rebounding can be overcome by understanding ball deflection, body positioning, boxing out and knowing when to jump. Ross is also a capable scorer and tight defensive player.
And these are just Hillman's best returning junior players. It will also have the solid ball handling and rebounding skills of David Julka to rely on as well as the fast paced scoring attack of Travis Powers.
It also has sophomore Dylan Steinke, who is quick, reliable and not afraid of taller players. Same with freshman Gunnar Libby, who is a deadly accurate three-point shooter. Libby played heavy minutes in the regional final and is likely to be one of the standout leaders for Hillman over the next three years.
In fact, the Tigers had a solid range of players who might not have seen a lot of minutes in the regional final, but who could turn into important players over the next few years.
Freshman Seth Knaggs didn't see time against Cedarville, but he played well against Alanson in the first regional game and could shape into another solid guard for Hillman. Sophomore Kyle McLaren could shape into the kind of tall forward that Hillman will need after the loss of Zimmer.
Even players like juniors Kyle Henigan and Gideon Mulka and sophomore Jake Kangas played well against Alanson. In fact, every player on Hillman's varsity squad picked up minutes in either district or regional play this year.
Putting in these players during the playoffs is a smart move by Muszynski: it helps prepare them for a higher level of competition and gives them a taste of the playoff game.
It also helps give these players a feeling of importance. They are contributing, even if in small ways. Mulka hit at least one basket in every game he played in during the playoffs.
That may be only six points, but its six points that he can say he scored for his team in a district final game or in a regional playoff game. The heavy lifting was done by others, but he can look at the score and say "I was part of that. Two of those points are mine."
Letting these players play in big game situations and letting them contribute creates a drive to play better and a winning atmosphere that is crucial to the success of any team. Without the belief that you can win, a team will fritter away easy games and never compete at its true level.
Though Hillman may lost again against Cedarville, its "never say die" and play-till-the-buzzer attitude shows that it has that vital winning attitutde. As coach Muszynski put it after the game, "We've been here twice and the third time is the charm."
Eric Benac can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.