The Hastings boys basketball team experienced a resurgence last year, as the Tigers went 14-7 and came within one win of advancing to the state tournament for the first time since 2004. HHS’ 14 wins last year were the most since that 2003-04 season, when they went 18-5, including 1-1 at state.

HHS brings back four players with starting experience from last year’s squad, and the team got a big boost when 6-foot, 9-inch Haggan Hilgendorf transferred from Adams Central to play with the Tigers.

Needless to say, expectations are high for Hastings.

“Obviously, we understand what’s there. We understand we’re probably a top five or a top 10 team for sure, but we don’t try to address it. As cliche as it sounds, we’re just trying to make sure we’re getting better on a daily basis on the things that are going to allow us to play in March,” said HHS head coach Lance Creech. “That’s our goal — you could poll every coach in Nebraska and that’s their goal. But they’re only going to take eight teams, and we would like to be one of those eight, but we’re going to have to really continue to improve and continue to develop, especially on the defensive end.”

Creech believes this is the most complete team he’s had during his seven years as the Tigers’ coach. The talent and the intelligence has allowed him to make some changes in the team’s playing style, which is something he has not done a lot of in the past.

“The intensity and the competitiveness and the things we’ve been able to do, as far as the scheme with the weapons we have, has been fun,” he said. “It’s made me redo and recalibrate some things, on the offensive end especially. Being able to tweak some things because of our length and our depth on the defensive end has been a lot of fun. It’s just something that — especially at the high school level — I’ve never really been able to do because we’ve never had this sustained depth that we currently have. We probably have seven or eight kids that can really play and really understand”

Connor Creech leads the way for those returning from last year’s team, having averaged 17 points and 3.2 assists per game. The senior has started since he was a freshman and was a first-team All-Tribland selection last year. Fellow seniors Jake Schroeder, Mike Boeve, and JT Cafferty also started games last season for the Tigers. Schroeder led HHS with 7.5 rebounds, while Boeve was a sharpshooter from beyond the arc, shooting a team-best 48 percent.

Fellow senior Jack Coil could also play a part in the team’s success as he should see an increase in his role. Creech said this senior class has put in a lot of time and effort over the years, dating back almost a decade.

“Probably 10 years ago, Jim Boeve and Jason Cafferty took this group of kids and they started them and they started them right,” Lance Creech said. “They did fundamentals, they did ball handling, they did passing, they did footwork. That’s what’s made this group very special.

“Not only having a son in the mix, but watching these grow up and develop and gel together from the time they were six or eight years old to where they are now. So, they’re a special group to me for sure, just because of all the things we’ve been through — whether it’s been basketball or baseball — watching these kids grow up has been a joy. They’re all so sound, and they’re intelligent and unselfish and competitive. It’s just been a pleasure to be able to coach these guys, especially this year as they’re all major contributors in everything we do.”

Hilgendorf transferring to Hastings High only raises the expectations for the Tigers. The senior was a part of last year’s state-qualifying Patriots team and was named Tribland Player of the Year. With his 6-9 frame, Hilgendorf can make plays around the rim while also proving to be a mismatch with his ability to play the perimeter as well.

The transition has to HHS has been so smooth for Hilgendorf on the court that Creech said if you just walked into a practice you wouldn’t even be able to tell which player wasn’t a Tiger last season.

“His attitude, his energy, his quirkiness, his sense of humor is just very on par with the rest of the guys. It’s been very refreshing,” the coach said.

With Adams Central last season, Hilgendorf averaged 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He was also third in Tribland in free-throw percentage and near the top 10 in 3-point percentage.

“Skill-wise on the floor, I knew he was good having coached against him, but when you don’t see him on a daily basis, I didn’t realize how skilled he is,” Creech said. “With his ability to shoot it, to post up, to put it on the floor, to hit the mid range shot, it’s again refreshing. The kid can really play. He has a strong desire to get better.

“I think a lot of times when you see a kid of his size and his stature playing on the perimeter, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, he’s soft.’ But if you saw him play Saturday (in our jamboree), he guarded 6-7, 260 very, very well… He’s really bought into what we’re trying to accomplish. He provides us another spark that not a lot of teams have.”

As Creech eluded to, this year also marks the last season he’ll be coaching his son Connor, who committed to play basketball at Western Nebraska Community College. The coach thought back to his son’s early playing days and all those that helped him get where he’s at today.

“For as many headlines as Connor’s gotten in the past, he wouldn’t be where he is if it wouldn’t have started 10 years ago with coach Boeve and coach Cafferty. And he especially wouldn’t be where he is without the play of the kids around him,” Lance said. “They get it. There’s not many times you have so many kids that can do so many things on a basketball floor, but this bunch is special that way. They just kind of understand how to play the way we want to play.”

Hasting opens its season on the road against Seward on Thursday before hosting Crete Friday. The Tigers have goals that place them in Lincoln for the state tournament, which is just in time. Last year, Creighton Prep earned a state tourney berth and tied Hastings for the most state appearances all time with 58. HHS has a great chance of ensuring it’s still at the top of that list for at least one more year.

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