SPARTA — The Highland High School boys basketball team is off to one of its best starts in recent years. The 8-0 Scots have been burning up the nets this season, thanks in part to two of its senior guards — Justin Howard and Zach Hilborn. The tandem is averaging 29.5 points a game this season — 15.0 and 14.5, respectively — and both are shooting above 75 percent from the free-throw line.
Playing together has been one of the Scots’ strong points this season, and has helped account for the great start.
“This has been fun. We’ve been playing together since we were in first grade,” said Howard.
“This is exciting. It is where we want to be right now, but we aren’t satisfied by any means,” added Hilborn. “We are always looking to grow every day in practice, just get better for our next game.”
The foundation for this year’s success actually began last season. The team was 4-8 at the halfway point when coach Mike Hoyng challenged his players to step up. These then-juniors did along with several other members of the team, and the Scots ended up winning seven of their last eight games. The season ended in the Division III Central District Final.
“Last year’s tournament run taught us how to win,” said Hilborn. “We built on that this summer, and we know how to finish now. It takes all five guys playing together instead of five individuals. We are a team.”
“We learned how hard we have to play to win,” Howard said. “We have to play all four quarters and play together. ... I feel like we are more relaxed. We don’t have to rush anything; we can play our game.”
From that point on, the pair began working toward this season, something else that Hoyng attributes this season’s success to.
“They both worked extremely hard in the offseason, and put themselves in position to have good years,” said Hoyng. “I’ve always felt a big key is what a player does in the offseason to improve his game and his talents, so that they can help their team during the course of the season. Both of these kids did a great job this summer of playing and working on their games, and developing a lot of confidence. All of the players that are with them have confidence in them. Our guys know these guys are going to play with confidence and play well, which in turn gives the other kids confidence.
“Anytime you talk about young men who have leadership capabilities, a lot of it boils down to ‘Can and do you make the other guys on the team better by how you play, what you do and how you act?’ I think these two kids do. They play together very well and they also help their teammates play well together.”
The Scots, who were ranked seventh statewide in Division III in the latest Associated Press boys basketball poll, feature nine seniors on this year’s squad, including six that saw significant playing time a year ago. That experience has only helped to take the guards’ games to the next level.
“My teammates help a lot,” said Howard. “They get me open so I can get the look I need. I also have the option to pass to someone else, so it takes the pressure off.”
“We build off of each others success,” Hilborn said. “If one guy gets going, we feel good for him so we want to do something. It just builds. ... (Playing with Justin) helps my game. Not only Justin, but everyone else. We have played with each other so much the last couple of years. We know what each other is going to do, and we’re comfortable with each other.”
This pair of players have demonstrated an ability to be all-around players. In addition to his scoring, Howard is averaging 4.5 rebounds a game, 2.4 steals and 2.4 assists, Hilborn also is more than one dimensional, averaging 1.9 steals and 2.9 assists per game.
Despite their abilities, however, these two know they don’t have to do it alone. There are several capable players on the Scots’ roster.
“Other players do look to us, and we do our part, but we’re not the only ones,” said Hilborn. “If we do what we are supposed to, it will make everyone play better. ... I know if I’m not doing my job, someone else is going to. It makes me play harder just knowing that someone else will. It is good to have 12 guys that can play and perform on any given night.”
Despite their talents, Hoyng wants his two guards to remember that fact, night in and night out.
“I think the strong point of this team is that we truly have a lot of players who can step in and play. That gives all of them a chance to play hard and do their thing,” said Hoyng. “If they get in foul trouble or it is just not their night, they have great confidence in the other guys around them. There is not any great pressure on them to have good games. They know they can play their game, let it come to them and if that’s not working, we are going to have other kids to step in.”
Only eight games into the regular season, the Scots have a long way to go. Even still, this year is shaping up to be something special. The Scots know, however, it is not about how they started. They will be remembered with how they finish.
“We are not any different than we were the first game of the season,” Hoyng said. “We are still not very big. We’ve got to really work and scramble. The moment we think we don’t have to do that stuff is the moment we become pretty average, and we won’t be very good in that situation. We have to keep focused and play our game the way we are supposed to.”
Highland faces a crucial test, playing five games in nine days against some tough competition. It all starts with tonight’s game at home against Marion Pleasant and ends with their Jan. 31 contest at home against Centerburg.
“I feel like we’re ready because we have 12 players that can step in and keep the same momentum. That definitely helps,” said Howard.
“Even though we are going to have some three-game weeks, we are going to take it one game at a time. Once we get passed that game, we will worry about the next one,” Hilborn added.