By DAVE HANNEMAN
Little Berlin Hiland High School never really showed up on anybody’s prep basketball radar until Sports Illustrated ran an article about how Perry Reese Jr., a young black Catholic coaching a rural white boys team in the heart of Holmes County Amish country, broke down all preconceived stereotypes and built a small-town state power.
These days, you can’t debate state tournament prospects without mentioning the Hawks, and that includes the girls program.
Dave Schlabach became Hiland’s girls coach before the 1991-92 season, and like Reese, quickly built a winner. He lost 22 games his first four years at the school; he’s lost only 67 — while winning four state championships and making 15 Final Four appearances — in the 22 years since.
“Tradition runs deep,” Schlabach said Monday during a teleconference for the OHSAA girls state basketball tournament.
“The majority of my kids were at basketball camps I ran when they were in kindergarten and first grade. We’re fortunate to live in a great work-ethic community with great family backgrounds and I think those things all bode well when it comes to athletics.”
Dave Kleman could not agree more.
In his 25 seasons as Ottoville’s girls coach, he’s seen players come and players go. But there was never a stranger in the bunch.
“Every one of our kids was at our camps when they were little,” said Kleman, who has now guided six teams to the state semifinals while compiling a 479-119 career record at Ottoville.
“I know the little kids in Ottoville, the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-graders, and they know me because we work with them. That’s what is so neat about this, seeing a new group of girls getting this experience (of going to state).
“We’ve all experienced it as coaches. What makes us happy is to see the joy on their faces, because we know the journey they’ve taken from off-season workouts to coming in and shooting during the summer to doing all the things they’ve done since they were little girls to get to this point.”
Kleman retired as a teacher at the school two years ago. But he never considered stepping down as a coach.
“Some guys play golf. Some guys do other things. I coach basketball. It’s my hobby,” Kleman said.
“I love being here with the kids.”
There is something almost Hoosiers-esque about small-school basketball, especially this year with Ottoville facing Berlin Hiland in one Division IV state semifinal, and Jackson Center taking on Waterford in the other. This year, Division IV is the only of Ohio’s four divisions without a private, charter or magnet school in the state semifinals.
In a time when the Ohio High School Athletic Association is trying to implement competitive balance proposals to counteract rampant movement of players for apparent athletic reasons, Kleman sees it as refreshing that four teams with almost total home-grown talent make up the final four.
“What’s sweet about Division IV this year is that we have four public schools (in the semifinals) and you’re going to see so many people down there supporting those teams,” Kleman said.
History supports Kleman’s statement. Ottoville and Berlin Hiland have met in state tournament play before, in the 2005 Division IV championship game. That game had a paid attendance of 6,420 fans, more than 2,000 more than witnessed any of the other three finals.
With just eight girls in the senior class, and just over 40 in the entire high school, Ottoville takes the term “small-school” to an extreme. But half of the seniors, and a third of the female enrollment, play basketball, and do it well enough to have made it to state.
Along the way, Ottoville has earned sectional, district and regional championships. It’s not the individual stops Kleman wants his players remembering, though, but the journey — start to finish — that got them there.
“These kids have been hanging around each other forever. They’re like sisters,” Kleman said.
“I tell the girls at the end of the season that, if you had the opportunity, would you relive the whole thing all over again. My main goal is that they have great memories to go with it.”
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State Girls Basketball: Homegrown talent on the floor in Division IV
By DAVE HANNEMAN