The most surprising thing from substate rout: It wasn’t a surprise at all to the Hawks’ players, coaches

A year after the Collin Hill era and SH is better. How is that possible?

South Hamilton’s starters share a group hug as they come off the floor for the final time against East Marshall on Saturday. The third-ranked Hawks belted the seventh-ranked Mustangs, 52-32. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

I won’t lie, I didn’t see this coming. In 100 mental simulations of how the Class 2A Substate 7 championship game would play out, this outcome would have fallen near the back of the pack.

Third-ranked and unbeaten South Hamilton 52, seventh-ranked and previously unbeaten East Marshall 32. A 20-point rout. A game that wasn’t even close over the final 18 minutes. So lopsided, in fact, that the celebration was fairly muted by the time the final horn sounded.

What was most surprising? That it wasn’t a surprise at all to the South Hamilton players and coaches.

“No, I’m not surprised at all, actually,” South Hamilton junior forward Logan Peters said after he splashed in 16 points and yanked down 10 rebounds Saturday night inside a rocking Nevada High School gymnasium. “This is what we expected.”

Marco Balderas, the Hawks’ oh-so smooth senior point guard, answered much the same way.

Cole Berg (center) puts up a shot against East Marshall on Saturday. He’s increased his scoring by 6.5 points per game this season and is one of four Hawks to average in double figures. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

“We felt like we were the better team, so it wasn’t a surprise,” he said. “The coaches scouted great for us and we were ready.”

And now South Hamilton is headed back to state for the second straight year — the first time that’s happened in the illustrious history of the program — and third time in the last five seasons. They should be a top-3 seed when the bracket is finally unveiled and on the short list of teams with a legitimate shot to win a state championship.

That’s right, Hawk fans, I said it. This team really can win a state title. It’s not a fairy tale or just wishful thinking. If this team — and it’s one of the best examples of a true TEAM that I’ve ever covered — has proven anything this season it’s that it can compete with anyone. It can beat anyone, too. I really believe that.

But how did this happen? That’s the question I want to try to answer. Because, when you think about it, this isn’t normal.

South Hamilton’s state team a season ago had Collin Hill, the best player I’ve ever watched in a Hawk uniform. He scored 1,473 career points, the third-most in school history, and hauled down 415 rebounds during his three-year tenure. And at times he hoisted the team on his shoulders and did the heavy lifting, most notably in the Hawks’ 53-51 substate win over East Marshall in 2017, a game in which he poured in 32 points.

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

And yet there wasn’t a moment this season where head coach Nathan Hill and his current players believed they’d be anything but better than they were a season ago. And they were right.

Game by game, blowout by blowout, the Hawks proved it. And this isn’t a knock on Collin Hill because he was as team-oriented as a two-time first-team all-state player could be. But without him to lean on, South Hamilton’s players grew up.

“It’s maturity and other kids taking that next step and wanting to step up,” Nathan Hill surmised. “Last year, we had kids that didn’t quite have the experience and took a backseat a little bit to Collin. But now they have that experience and that has really equalled a complete team.”

The truth is in the numbers.

South Hamilton’s seven players in the rotation average a combined 23.8 points per game more than a season ago and they shoot, on average, seven percent better as well. Collin Hill averaged 21.9 points per game as a senior.

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Those types of improvements were expected from Balderas and Conner Hill, a pair of multiple-year starters and the backbone of the crew when the season got underway. Logan Peters and Cole Berg, now there are a couple of former role players that have become stars.

Peters has upped his scoring from 5.8 to 12.2 points per game and is shooting 56 percent, a 13-percent improvement. Berg went from 4.7 to 11.2 points and is shooting an absurd 61 percent for a guard.

The elevation is evident in a player like sophomore reserve Cade Balvanz as well. He went from averaging 2.1 points to 6.1 and is currently connecting on 54 percent of his shots.

But the growth of the Hawks is about more than numbers. It’s about confidence. It’s about determination. And maybe most of all, it’s about belief.

So when Nathan Hill is asked if he saw this coming and, without a moment’s hesitation he says yes, you know why.

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

“Honestly? Yes, I really did (see this coming),” Nathan Hill said. “I could just see it, especially in the offseason when we were playing summer ball. You could see that all of these kids were ready to step up and take that role. Where is the scoring going to come from? You could tell that every kid thought I want to be that guy.”

The team some people never saw coming? It may just be the best South Hamilton has had to offer in a generation.