New kids on the block: Schlarman collects first-ever state title

New kids on the block: Schlarman collects first-ever state title

NORMAL — It was in the bag, really. Schlarman was winning its first-ever girls' basketball state title, no matter what happened in the waning moments of Saturday's Class 1A title game against Stockton.

The players hugged and celebrated up and down the sideline. The blue-and-gold-clad Hilltopper supporters roared behind them, threatening to tear the roof off Illinois State's Redbird Arena.

Nothing could make this moment better after the previous two seasons concluded in heartbreak.

Well, maybe one thing.

Freshman Tannah Ceader tossed a cross-court pass to fellow freshman Suzet Sermersheim as their teammates were ready to burst off the bench. Sermersheim stopped and popped from just inside the three-point arc, right in front of the other Hilltoppers.

The shot fell for Sermersheim's ninth and 10th points of the season. Nirvana had been reached.

"That's like a one shining moment," Schlarman coach Keith Peoples said.

"It was like the highlight of the game," junior Sydney Gouard added.

The final highlight, it turns out. Seventeen seconds later, the Hilltoppers were champions.

Junior Janiah Newell weaved to 17 points, sophomore Capria Brown potted another 15 and Schlarman thoroughly dominated the Blackhawks en route to a 53-31 victory and a long-awaited piece of postseason hardware.

"It's exciting. More importantly, I'm so excited for our community," said Peoples, whose lucky seventh season helming the Hilltoppers (33-1) produced the 99-student institution's first state crown of any kind since 1981. "Our community needed this. We deserve this. Our girls deserve this."

Junior Anaya Peoples added 11 points and eight rebounds, but Schlarman didn't need its leading scorer to do anything herculean. At one moment in the fourth quarter, Peoples had the fourth-most points among the Hilltoppers — and they led by 22.

Newell's offensive effort — which led to chants of "M-V-P" once the contest ended — and Schlarman's stout defense made life extremely difficult for the Blackhawks (32-3), who turned the ball over 22 times and had just 19 points entering the last period.

"I knew that we had the advantage based on the athleticism and that we pride ourselves on defense," Keith Peoples said. "As long as that's constant, and it has been this entire season, I knew we would be OK."

The 5-foot-6 Newell thrashed Stockton inside after opening her afternoon with a three-point shot. She finished 7 of 10 from the field, including a layup in which she went over 6-2 senior foe Emily Offenheiser.

"I cannot tell her enough how proud I am of her," Anaya Peoples said. "I never had any doubt on her. She has it in her. She's small, but she has a big heart."

Brown started the Blackhawks' turnover surge with a strip steal in the game's first possession, and it was all downhill from there for Stockton. Offenheiser's 12 points paced her club, but seven of those came in the last eight minutes.

"There was one time, I don't know who said it, (but) they said Bismarck has a better defense than us," said Brown, who netted three steals. "And that really made us so mad. We took a whole day in practice just to do defense. It really paid off (Saturday)."

All of the Hilltoppers' hard work did. Games against Class 3A and 4A opponents, a 19-point win over 2A champion Chicago Marshall and aggressive pre- and in-season workouts lifted Schlarman to prep basketball's promised land.

It shouldn't come as any surprise, however, that the Hilltoppers aren't resting on their laurels. While the girls waited to accept their medals and championship trophy, a rooter started a "re-peat" chant. Keith Peoples was among those to take it up.

With no seniors on its roster, Schlarman isn't going away anytime soon.

"It's not too early (to talk about next year)," Keith Peoples said. "Now, we know what it takes. We're going to go back and try to strengthen our schedule even tougher now to help us prepare to win another state championship."