UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Hawks hope to learn from past mistakes against Rockets

The cover of The Fan, the Daily Freeman-Journal’s winter sports preview, in November laid out South Hamilton’s goal of reaching the state basketball tournament for the third consecutive season. The Hawks will get their chance against Rock Valley in a Class 2A state quarterfinal this evening at 6:30 p.m.

JEWELL — Basketball is often broken down into a numbers game, so let’s play one right now.

67-3: That’s South Hamilton’s record playing outside of Wells Fargo Arena over the last three seasons.

0-2: The Hawks’ record over that same span inside the home of the state tournament.

So now maybe you understand why third-ranked and second-seeded South Hamilton (21-1) heads to Des Moines this evening for a Class 2A quarterfinal contest against unranked and seventh-seeded Rock Valley (18-7) with something to prove. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m.

Two years ago South Hamilton entered the state field just happy to be there and was dismissed by eventual 2A champion Western Christian, 53-47. But a season ago the Hawks went with a destination in mind, but that quickly dissolved in a 54-51 setback against Aplington-Parkersburg.

Seniors (left to right) Logan Peters, Conner Hill, Sam Lewis and Cole Berg have South Hamilton in the state basketball tournament for the third consecutive season. The Hawks will attempt to win at state for the first time since 1988 this evening when they face Rock Valley in a Class 2A quarterfinal at 6:30 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Will the third time be the charm? South Hamilton’s players sure hope so. They’re ready to put a 31-year drought at the state tournament to bed for good.

“Last year I think we went into it maybe a little too confident and we played our worst game at state,” Conner Hill, the Hawks’ senior point guard, said. “So to lay an egg at state, we just can’t let that happen. This year I think we’re the best team in the state on any given night, so we just have to go down there and play our game and we’ll be fine.”

Focus. Discipline. Intensity. Aggressiveness. They’re all words the players and head coach Nathan Hill mentioned in the lead-up to the game against the Rockets. But perhaps above all, staying relaxed is a necessity.

“We’ve got to do something different because we’ve gone down there twice and lost,” Cole Berg, a senior guard, said. “Once we get on the court everyone gets kind of nervous and it happens to me too. So we’ve just got to go down there and relax.”

Working in South Hamilton’s favor will be its familiarity with the big stage. Throw in the fact that the Hawks know they belong and Nathan Hill says there’s no reason for his players to lack confidence.

South Hamilton senior point guard Conner Hill (25) pulls up for a jumper during the Hawks’ Class 2A substate win over New Hampton. Hill leads the team in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists leading into tonight’s state quarterfinal against Rock Valley in Des Moines. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re as good as any team down there,” Nathan Hill said. “It’s the same thing I said last year, I like our chances if we play how we’re capable of playing. We don’t have to do things different than we’ve done all year. If we stay true to who we are, I like our chances against anybody.”

What South Hamilton does is share the ball, play a team game and defend like its life depended on it.

Conner Hill is the team’s do-everything maestro and he leads the team in scoring (17.0 per game), rebounds (6.2), assists (4.0) and steals (2.3). But he’s not a one-man orchestra. Logan Peters (14.5), Berg (12.4) and Cade Balvanz (11.2) all score in double figures as well, and fifth starter Quinton Grove (5.5) is a capable offensive weapon as well.

All five have state-tournament experience, another feather in the Hawks’ cap.

“Hopefully with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup and kids that have all been there, you just hope they’re ready for the big moment,” Nathan Hill said. “We just have to be the most aggressive team on both ends of the floor.”

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

But South Hamilton will be facing a not-so typical No. 7 seed. The truth is, Rock Valley is capable of cutting down the nets too, and don’t be fooled by the Rockets seven losses. Most came when rotation regulars JT Van’t Hul and Trey Huyser missed an eight-game stretch.

Rock Valley knocked off Western Christian and second-ranked West Sioux in district play, and also owns a win over third-ranked (1A) George-Little Rock during its current five-game winning streak.

“They definitely have some athletes and I would compare them as a typical northwest Iowa team,” Nathan Hill said. “They play hard and they’re physical.”

Rock Valley has its own balance with three players who score in double figures, led by senior guard Brayton Van Kekerix (18.0), a 3-point threat who is capable of erupting at any time.

“He’s a good player, a kid that can shoot the 3, but he can also drive to the basket,” Nathan Hill said of Van Kekerix. “He’s definitely the guy that makes them go, so it will be interesting to see if we can contain him.”

Van’t Hul (12.1) and Jaxon Rus (10.2) are the Rockets’ other primary options, as well as Elliot Van Kekerix (9.4) and Huyser (7.0).

South Hamilton has faced a variety of zone defenses throughout the postseason, but Nathan Hill thinks Rock Valley will play a physical brand of man-to-man that focuses on help defense. In the past, Conner Hill has feasted against opponents that played him straight up and his dad hopes the Hawks’ quickness will be an advantage.

“I think they’re pretty good at what they and they’ll try to do a good job of being physical with us, but our guys have seen a lot of different looks and I think we’ll adjust well,” Nathan Hill said. “We have to make sure we’re under control and that we’re finishing off two feet around the basket, and we have to finish through contact.”

Tonight’s winner will face either third-seeded Boyden-Hull (22-2) or sixth-seeded Iowa City Regina (20-2) in Wednesday’s semifinal round. South Hamilton expects to be playing in that game.

“We’ve already held ourselves to this expectation of getting there,” Grove explained. “We’ve proved we can get there, but this time we need to do more than just get down there and play a game. So we’re definitely expecting to win, at least I am.”

Top-ranked and top-seeded North Linn (23-0) highlights the top half of the 2A bracket.

SOUTH HAMILTON HAWKS

Probable Starters

No Player Ht Gr ppg rpg

15 Quinton Grove 5-11 Jr 5.5 4.5

25 Conner Hill 6-0 Sr 17.0 6.2

14 Logan Peters 6-2 Sr 14.5 4.4

5 Cole Berg 6-1 Sr 12.4 6.1

30 Cade Balvanz 6-5 Jr 11.2 5.8

Record: 21-1 (No. 2 seed)

Offensive Average: 68.3 (3rd in field)

Defensive Average: 48.2 (5th in field)

Strength of Schedule (2A): 30th

Head Coach: Nathan Hill

Conference: Heart Of Iowa

State Tournament Trips: 0

State Titles: 0

Win Streak: 15

Trek To State: Districts — CGD, 66-26, and Garner-Hayfield/Ventura, 71-54. Substate — New Hampton, 63-31.

ROCK VALLEY ROCKETS

Probable Starters

No Player Ht Gr ppg rpg

10 Brayton Van Kekerix 6-0 Sr 18.0 5.6

30 Jaxon Rus 6-0 Jr 10.2 2.7

00 Colton Vonk 6-1 Sr 6.0 5.4

20 JT Van’t Hul 6-0 Sr 12.1 6.1

24 Elliot Van Kekerix 5-11 Sr 9.4 4.5

Record: 18-7 (No. 7 seed)

Offensive Average: 62.2 (6th in field)

Defensive Average: 58.5 (8th in field)

Strength of Schedule (2A): 6th

Head Coach: Wade Vander Maten

Conference: Siouxland

State Tournament Trips: 14

State Titles: 4

Win Streak: 5

Trek To State: Districts — Western Christian, 34-32, and West Sioux, 60-56. Substate — OA-BCIG, 61-46.

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