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Hillsboro girls return starting five, while boys begin second year under head coach Mark Ganter.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Nate Smith does work on the block during a Spartans game last season. Smith will be a key contributor to Hilhi's success this year.Experience and effort — those things can go a long way.

Last year, the effort was there for the Hillsboro Spartans boys basketball team, but the experience was lacking. Second-year head coach Mark Ganter will tell you that time on the court will mean everything to this year's squad, which is anxious to improve upon last season's 6-18 overall record.

"Last year we were playing with guys who played JV the year before, and when you have the majority of your team with no varsity experience, you're going to struggle," Ganter said. "This year, I think our senior leadership is very different. They get it. They're hungry. And from the practices so far, those seniors are bringing a competitive edge that has been missing."

The Sparts return eight players from last year's team, including a pair of key contributors: 6-foot-6 senior Nate Smith and senior point guard Kane Kiaunis. Smith was a second team all-league player last season, while Kiaunis garnered honorable mention. Ganter believes their work ethic is beginning to reap benefits with the younger players.

"Both Nate and Kane are multi-sport athletes who work tirelessly, and that's starting to rub off on the other guys," said the coach.

That work ethic will be paramount due to Ganter's desire to play up-tempo. But while there should be speed on the offensive end as well, it's on the defensive end of the court that the Spartans coach always focuses his attention.

"Defense has to be our focus," Ganter said. "In order to build a basketball team or program, it has to start with defense. With this group, its going to take the right combination, but I think we have some guys who can handle it."

In addition to Smith and Kiaunis, the coach mentioned returning senior guard Lane Smith as a key contributor who's shown signs of improvement, as well as sophomore Logan Jackson as someone to watch. The 6-foot-5 forward is a threat from distance and is beginning to grasp the invaluable mental side of the game, as well as the intangibles that truly matter.

"He's beginning to understand that in order to be a complete player, he has to be mentally tough, play defense and rebound," Ganter said.

The coach believes defense to be his squad's strength, and equally believes his team has bought in to the fact that with good defense you can compete in any game.

Ganter thinks Wilsonville is the favorite in the Northwest Oregon Conference, with Parkrose nipping at their heels and the rest of the teams fighting it out in the middle. But while the odds might be stacked against them, the Sparts and their coach are optimistic that they can compete and possibly earn a playoff bid.

"Our team goal is to make the playoffs," said Ganter. "Everyone involved in the program has expressed that. I'm an optimist, and I'll keep my glass half full all season."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Rian Porter attacks the defense during a Spartans game last season. Porter is one of five returning starters for the Hilhi girls.Meanwhile, the Spartan girls return their entire starting five from a team that finished 13-12 overall, fourth in the NWOC and lost a first round state playoff game to Springfield.

"We are virtually the same team as last year, but with more experience, confidence and determination," Hilhi girls head coach Sara Harsin said.

Of those returning players, several seniors, including post Rian Porter and guards Kyle Fernstrom and McKenzie Staub — in addition to junior Dylan Kem and sophomore Margaret Shively — will play key roles in any Sparts success. Harsin said Porter has put in a ton of work in the offseason, Fernstrom is always a threat offensively and has improved immensely on the defensive end, Shively is a year more experienced after doing more than her share as a freshman, and Staub is back to her old self after playing much of last season at less than her full potential.

"It will be nice to have Kenzie back to full strength as well," Harsin said. "She was out sick most of last year and never really got into the groove."

At 6-foot, Porter and 6-foot-1 sophomore post Kaleah Webb will do the bulk of the heavy lifting inside for Hilhi, but outside is where the Sparts typically do their damage, with Fernstrom, Shively and Kem posing serious threats from beyond the arc. All did their share last season, but Kem in particular has really stepped up both on and off the court ,according to Harsin.

"Dylan is such a smart player and stepped up as a leader this year," the coach said. "Expect her to be a force this year."

Hilhi opened the season with a tough 46-44 loss to McMinnville last Friday night, Dec. 6, but despite the loss, Harsin believes that with focus and effort, this year's Sparts can do some damage in the months to come.

"Practices have been competitive and we will need every player to step up when it's their time," she said. "We want to compete and get better, and if we do that it will be a fun ride."

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