By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- Watching his team shoot free throws during a recent preseason basketball practice, Fort Plain Lady Hilltoppers head coach Phil Karker flashes a sheepish smile when asked if his team is missing one or two -- or five -- players that day.
"No, that's all we have," replies Karker, a laugh accompanying his words. "Seven is the lucky number."
But while the Lady Hilltoppers' literal lack of depth might make for some hairy situations this season, what the co-defending Western Athletic Conference North Division champions do not lack is talent and experience. The team's top two players from a year ago -- juniors Abby Boyer and Haley Kilmartin -- are back, surrounded by a trio of players -- seniors Jenna Berhydt and Allehah Van Loan, and freshman Kendra Trembley -- that saw meaningful minutes a campaign ago, giving the Lady Hilltoppers a strong base from which to build their season.
"We each know our jobs, our positions and our roles," Van Loan says.
Outside of the team's likely starters, the Lady Hilltoppers' two-man bench is comprised of promising 5-foot-10-inch sophomore Briannah Florian -- "She's going to be a good one," Karker says -- and senior Kayla Wilder, a first-year varsity player. The team's bench is missing Vicky Dettmer, a solid contribution from a year ago, who suffered a knee injury and will miss the season.
"We each have important roles on the team," adds Boyer. "Some of us are more likely than others to score, but, then, other girls will pick up with rebounding and boxing out. Everything is important."
The two most important things for the Lady Hilltoppers during the preseason has been implementing its offense and making sure the team's players are in good enough shape to make their seven-man team work.
Offensively, the Lady Hilltoppers are running a motion-based attack to best take advantage of Boyer's and Kilmartin's offensive games. With each player capable of scoring 20 points on any night, Karker is trying to get his two scorers into spots on the floor where they can show off their developing offensive games. The change to allow for the duo to freelance a bit more is a drastic one for Fort Plain, who ran a very structured -- but simple -- attack a year ago because of its inexperience.
"We're going one step further this year," says Karker. "We're adding a few things where they're going to be able to see things and play. I'm going to try to step back from controlling things as much as I did last year -- and they're going to step up."
But more important than whatever offense the team is running this season is the shape the Lady Hilltoppers are getting themselves into during the preseason.
"Coach is stressing everyone needs to be ready because we don't have a lot of subs," says Van Loan. "If you're tired, you're not going to be coming out -- you're still going to be playing."
To that end, the Lady Hilltoppers have been doing the expected -- running sprint after sprint -- and the unexpected, in the form of hitting the weight room, not exactly a staple for most high school basketball teams.
"The boy basketball players are always like, 'You guys really work out every day?'" says Boyer. "Because they don't even do that."
"We've been working out every day," adds Kilmartin. "We bench, we do other arm exercises, abs, legs. ... We did some of this last year, but not this much."
The thing the Lady Hilltoppers want to maintain from last year is their presence atop the WAC North standings. A year removed from being a surprise in the league, the Lady Hilltoppers now enter their season as the unquestioned favorite in the division.
"Everybody doubted us last year," says Kilmartin. "I think this year they think we're going to be better."
The Lady Hilltoppers begin their season Friday night with the first of their two games in the Section II-Section III Shootout, a tournament played at Fort Plain. The club will play again Saturday night.