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Published: Friday, 3/19/2004

Hillesland quietly keeps Titans humming

So, who's your favorite St. John's Jesuit Titan?

Fans of most teams don't have so many choices.

There's B.J. Raymond, the silky-smooth forward who can make it look so easy at both ends of the floor and whose range seemingly has no limits.

Or Brian Roberts, the do-it-all guard with the zero-to-60 acceleration of a Porsche and the ooh-and-ah moves.

Maybe it's Ted Heintschel, the coach's son, never an easy role, who shows a flair for the dramatic from 3-point range. Or Duke Keller, who does the grunt work and makes big shots when you least expect them.

Try Andrew Taylor or Mike Floyd or Mickey Cassidy, who come off the bench and bring no drop-off in effort with them.

Yeah, plenty of choices.

And we haven't even gotten around to Zach Hillesland.

His teammates are good, awfully good. But only Hillesland is undefeated.

The Titans were 3-0 before he went in for surgery to repair a minor meniscus tear in his right knee on the day before Christmas.

St. John's was 6-4 in the 10 games he missed while recovering and rehabilitating.

And, with last night's 60-47 win over Cleveland Rhodes in the Division I regional semifinals at Savage Hall, the Titans are 12-0 since his return.

Coincidence? We think not.

“When he came back, everything picked up,” coach Ed Heintschel said.

Well, yeah, said Hillesland. But it could have been anybody.

“If any one of our main players goes down, it makes it harder to win,” the 6-7 junior post player said. “The game plan involves everyone. So it could have been me, B.J., Brian, or anybody and the same thing might have happened.”

Hillesland is so versatile, however, that his presence seems almost mandatory. He guards post players; he guards guards. He patrols the block and paint; he comes out to handle the ball against the press. He gets rebounds; he makes steals. He is an ex-soccer player and his solid fundamentals start with fancy footwork.

He is the real deal, which is why he has already committed to play college ball at Notre Dame with yet another full high school season ahead of him.

Hillesland scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and had a couple steals last night as the Titans improved to 21-4 on a night they were very ripe to be had.

But Hillesland's two baskets and a couple big defensive rebounds to open the second half boosted the Titans into enough of a lead that they withstood some sloppy, uninspired play down the stretch.

Some experts think a loss right before tournament time can be beneficial to a good team. Sort of a face-slapping dose of motivation and determination.

Heintschel just shrugged his shoulders when asked if four or five bad minutes might pay dividends in the regional title game tomorrow against Olmstead Falls.

“We'll see,” he said. “But they're sure going to hear about it.”

The Titans got an earful afterwards in the locker room. They'll hear it all through today's practice. They'll be reminded of it before tomorrow night's game.

But they're smart enough to realize that all their tournament experience and a valuable home-court advantage means nothing without execution and focus.

“Maybe we got too comfortable,” Hillesland said. “We started messing around and it almost bit us. It looked like we were going to pull away, but we hit a big lull, which is exactly what we didn't want.

“But we got away with it. It's all on the line and maybe this was a bit of a wake-up call.”

Yes, the Titans' agile big man knows well that if you snooze, you lose. And the latter is the last thing on St. John's mind one game short of a second straight trip to the state's final four.



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