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Hillcrest's Dana Gettis drives as Bloom's Chantel Malone defends in the championship game of the Hillcrest Holiday Classic. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
It’s interesting how proper timing can take a thought and put an exclamation point on it.
Hillcrest girls basketball coach John Maniatis was in the middle of telling me at a recent practice about how much fun Dana Gettis injects into the team when the senior leader came whizzing down the left side of the court with the ball.
She was laughing and smiling, and I thought she was going to make some sort of showboat move to the basket. She slammed on the brakes just before reaching the baseline and whipped a pass across the paint to teammate Charisse Heady, who caught the ball and banked it in.
“Nice pass!” one of the other Hawks shouted. Gettis just nodded her head and kept smiling. Then the team started another layup drill.
Maniatis looked at Gettis as the session continued. He was smiling, too.
They’ve all got happy faces these days at “The Hill,” even though this, in many people’s eyes, is a down year for the program.
Oh, sure. The Hawks’ record entering Thursday’s action was 16-5 overall and 9-0 in the South Suburban Blue, very good by many standards. But it’s been far from a typical ride.
Going into the summer without eight graduated seniors, including SouthtownStar Player of the Year Shannise Heady (Charisse’s sister), All-Area point guard Samirah Ali, inside dominator Jahmia Phillips and excellent forward Karlisa Harris, they got knocked around more than a few times as Maniatis searched for combinations.
Early on they were stunned by host Rich South 58-55 in the title game of the Galaxy Tournament. That ended a seven-year reign as champs.
Just before Christmas, Hillcrest was beaten at home 65-54 by Mother McAuley. Then came a late stumble against Bloom in the title game of the Hillcrest Holiday Classic. Trinity was pretty rough on them a week later in an 85-60 blowout, and most recent Wheaton Warrenville South pulled away late for a 72-56 victory at the McDonald’s Shootout.
The Hawks also had quite a conference scare at Oak Lawn, and survived tough battles against both Richards and Tinley Park.
The times I’ve seen them, they’ve been, like most teams from the area this year, inconsistent.
At Rich South, they were burned by late threes. Getting to the perimeter defensively has been a problem at times. Developing a ballhandler/shooter the caliber of Ali remains a work in progress.
From what I heard during the summer, a lot of teams that haven’t had much fun playing Hillcrest over the past several years were lining up to give the Hawks their best shot.
Some of them got one in.
“Give credit where credit is due,” Maniatis said. “Trinity had a lights-out night, and each of the games we’re playing we’re getting everybody’s ‘A’ and ‘A-plus’ game. Maybe that hasn’t happened in the past as much where we had the intimidating factor walking into the gym and were already up in the game before the game even started.
“This year people saw, ‘They lost a lot of people. This is the year to try to knock Hillcrest off.’ Tinley Park shot 60 percent from the field and shot 70 percent from three-point land and 75 percent from the free-throw line. That was a recipe for an upset, and in their mind they might not have thought it was an upset.”
On the positive side, Hillcrest already has showed it can handle Rich South (beating the Stars by six over Christmas), has quality wins over Homewood-Flossmoor and Lincoln-Way North and still is unbeaten atop the South Suburban Blue.
The Hawks also have a leader in Gettis.
The 5-foot-9 guard didn’t have a lot of moments as a junior when she looked like she could be the next Heady. But she’s put up some impressive numbers this season, averaging 20.4 points, 4.1 steals and 5.4 assists. In back-to-back games against Rich South and Bloom, she scored 35 and 37 points, respectively.
“Three years ago I didn’t see myself as being a leader,” Gettis said. “But now I know I have to step up for the team. We’ve got a younger team, and the competition is tougher.
“It’s been kind of difficult this year and at times I get frustrated, but we’re going to get through it,” Gettis said. “I want to go downstate with this team.”
The pieces are there to do it. The Hawks have plenty of height underneath in 6-3 senior Lorielle Little, 5-11 junior Shayla Joyner and 5-10 junior Mariam Awoniyi. They just need to flex a little more muscle. Sophomore Tanzania Sherrill needs to find a middle ground between fantastic and flustered. Sophomore Aliah Acker can play the point. If she develops confidence in her shot, she could turn into the next Ali.
“Obviously, losing eight quality seniors from a team that set benchmarks for the program left some mighty big shoes for this class to fill,” Maniatis said. “But they came in this summer and maximized their effort on a daily basis working on their individual games and just building the team chemistry.
“This group was also kind of a little bit different because we didn’t have a person who was already a self-made leader of the group. Obviously, Dana Gettis has stepped into that role. She has just an unbridled love for the game. And you can see the smiles she brings to everyone’s faces out there.”