No.3-ranked Hawks reap rewards of an 8-year relationship between coach, players

Junior class has been all about winning since they began playing in 3rd grade

South Hamilton head coach Nathan Hill (center) and juniors (left to right) Logan Peters, Sam Lewis, Conner Hill, Zeke Balderas and Cole Berg have been together for 8 years. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

JEWELL — They were just goofy, impressionable 8-year-old third graders when Nathan Hill first took them under his wing all those years ago.

And eight years later Hill is still the man they look to for guidance on the basketball court. What has changed for South Hamilton’s crop of juniors, who have really only known one coach since they first put on a Hawks’ jersey? Not a whole heck of a lot.

“I couldn’t really say there is much different,” Conner Hill, Nathan’s youngest son and South Hamilton’s starting shooting guard said. “Maybe a little bit of the intensity, on defense especially, but we were all about winning back then as we are now. Our first year in third grade, I think we only lost three games throughout our whole summer.”

Conner Hill, Logan Peters, Cole Berg, Zeke Balderas and Sam Lewis make up South Hamilton’s crop of juniors, a class that has provided some of the heavy lifting for the third-ranked Hawks who will take a school-record 24-game winning streak into the Class 2A state tournament next week.

Conner Hill is the natural. The coach’s son with the silky-smooth jumper and the defensive intelligence to be able to dog even the quickest of opposing guards. And he has a motor that never quits.

South Hamilton junior Cole Berg (5) pressures Clarion-Goldfield-Dows’ Rhett Darland (15) in the backcourt during a Class 2A district final earlier this month in Webster City. Berg is one of three junior starters, all of whom average in double figures on the offensive end of the floor. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Peters is, well, he’s a natural, too. The 6-foot-2 guard/forward combo player is comfortable inside and out. He can stroke the 3 or drive the lane and challenge amongst the bigs.

Berg is the blue-collar kid who has blossomed into a bona fide threat at both ends of the court. Give him an opening and he’ll put the ball in the bucket.

Balderas and Lewis are the workers. Whatever they’re asked to do, they’ll do it until the whistle blows.

What this class isn’t is big. There are no 6-5 trees that can dominate in the paint. But what works in its favor is that’s always been the case, and so the players have been forced to adapt to Nathan Hill’s free-wheeling style that relies on quickness and doggedness more than it does brute strength.

“This class has never passed the eye test with size, so they learned from an early age that we had to play fast and we had to play feistier than other teams. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike. You learn a certain way to play basketball and they don’t know any different.”

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Nathan Hill can’t remember exactly when it happened, perhaps when they were in the fourth grade, but he points to a youth tournament in which the group reached the championship game against Bondurant as the moment this class learned to never back down. They didn’t win that day, but what they took home helped shape them into the successful bunch they are today.

“I remember them thinking (Bondurant) is a much bigger school, but I wanted to go to tournaments where you’re not going to win every game,” Nathan Hill said. “In that particular game, we got down maybe 12 or 15 points, but we battled back and maybe that was the turning point. This group of kids has never been afraid of an opponent since.”

Conner Hill and Peters have both been varsity contributors since their freshman season. Hill is well on his way to scoring 1,000 career points — he enters the state tournament with 793 — and he will likely reach 200 career 3-point baskets as well. Peters just surpassed 300 career rebounds. They average 13.2 and 12.2 points, respectively, this season.

Berg averages in double figures as well at 11.2 points a night. The first-year starter has emerged into one of the Hawks’ go-to guys, a role he wouldn’t have been comfortable in even a season ago.

“I have a ton more confidence than I had last year,” Berg said. “(Having Nathan Hill as the coach) makes a ton of difference. We’ve been with him and we know what to expect.”

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

But with that familiarity also comes rising expectations. The coach isn’t easy on the group he’s molded since toddlers and they’re OK with that. They know he only has their best interests at heart and the fourth-year head coach has pushed all of the right buttons.

“He’s told us over and over again what to do, so if we mess up in practice I’d say he’s a little bit harder on us,” Peters said. “But he’s hard on everybody just because he knows what we’re capable of.”

South Hamilton has reaped the benefits of both the players and coach in recent years. The Hawks have won two straight Heart of Iowa Conference championships and will play in back-to-back state tournaments for the first time in school history. They’re 46-3 over the past two seasons and 60-13 since the juniors entered high school.

For his part, Nathan Hill ranks fourth among South Hamilton’s head coaches all-time with 66 victories. His .695 winning percentage is also fourth-best in program history.

It’s been the perfect pairing. And the biggest winner of all has been South Hamilton.

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Monday’s State Tournament Game

What: Class 2A State Quarterfinal

Who: No. 3 South Hamilton (24-0) vs. No. 5 Aplington-Parkersburg (23-1)

Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines

Time: 6:30 p.m.

Note: The Hawks and Falcons met in a preseason jamboree back in November. South Hamilton prevailed in the 16-minute exhibition, 33-29.