Tight-knit group keys Hilltoppers


Recorder Sports Staff

FORT PLAIN -- As the Fort Plain Hilltoppers run through drills, it is tough to figure what is getting the better workout between the players' bodies and their mouths.

Seemingly every movement at a basketball practice for the Hilltoppers is accompanied by a shout or two -- or three -- of encouragement, as the close-knit group cannot help themselves from cheering each other on.

"On your toes, on your toes," shouts senior Zach Sweet to a teammate during a defensive slide drill. "Get your butt down, butt down."

Next up, it is senior point guard Joe Ray's turn to do some shouting, his directed at Jake Sardina, a fellow senior, during the same drill.

"Ain't nobody getting by you, Jake," says Ray. "Ain't nobody getting by you."

While the Hilltoppers likely leave their practices with their ears ringing and their throats sore, Ray says the early-season enthusiasm has been the team's best weapon.

"We just kind of wanted to make [being loud] a staple around here, a priority," he says. "We wanted to be loud, be positive, and get everyone going. If we're loud like that, everyone's going to play better. ... Everyone's doing it, too; everyone's clapping and yelling, getting each other going. It just makes the team better and bonds us more. We're more of a family."

The Hilltoppers were a successful bunch last season, as head coach Casey Russom's squad advanced to the Western Athletic Conference Cup Championship and earned a No. 6 seed in the Section II Class C playoffs. But the squad faces a tall task this season in replacing the production of Harold Dettmer, this past season's Recorder Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

Fort Plain figures to miss Dettmer the most on the offensive end of the court. But Russom says this year's squad should have more balance than a year ago.

"I don't think we have anyone that will score 25 points for us," he says. "But we have a lot of guys that can score eight or 10."

"We work well together," adds Sweet. "It definitely feels more comfortable knowing most of us have been playing together for a while."

The Hilltoppers' lineup this season is built around its four returning senior starters in Chris Hanifin, Ray, Sardina and Sweet. Besides those four, though, the Hilltoppers also return several players and bring up a gaggle of players from a successful junior varsity club.

"Guys like Joe Ray can step up for us, or Jake and Zach -- our leaders -- and some of the juniors coming up (will contribute)," says Hanifin. "We've got a lot of guys who can step up."

The Hilltoppers figure to again be in the mix in the WAC North, after winning the division a year ago. Russom envisions this year's club using the same formula as last year's team to garner success.

"Our defense is going to have to feed our offense," he says. "We need turnovers to get some easy baskets. Besides that, we just need everyone to score two or three more points per game than they did last year. If a few guys do that, that's 10, 12 points real quick (to make up for Dettmer) and we'll be good."

The Hilltoppers are looking forward to their upcoming season -- which starts tonight at home against Galway -- as the squad looks to rebound from its unexpected first-round sectional loss from a year ago. Sardina says one of the motivating factors for this year's team is a collective desire to go further in the playoffs.

"What's special about this group is that we're all looking forward to something," he says. "We all want to be here."