For Sydney Hilliard, the hard part is over.
The 6-foot senior forward has led Monroe to two WIAA Division 2 state basketball tournaments. And she has earned two Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association All-State awards — with a likely third selection yet to come.
And this year, she is having the time of her life in her final season, leading an overachieving group of younger Cheesemakers to a 16-6 record and a runner-up finish in the talent-packed Badger South Conference.
Hillard also has finished charting her future course. She accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin, choosing the Badgers over an equally tempting offer from nationally ranked Marquette.
So now, all Hilliard has to worry about is seeing how far she and the Cheesemakers can go in the state tournament series. Oh, and wondering how far and how fast her little dog, Mack — a pint-sized schnoodle — will drag her on their frequent walks.
“He always acts like he’s bigger and tougher than he is,” she said with a laugh.
In reality, though, it’s Hillard herself who has grown bigger and tougher over her successful Monroe career. She uses a widely varied array of shots to average 20 points a game, despite the fact that she has become the primary focus of opposing defenses after the Cheesemakers graduated many top players from last year’s state semifinalist team.
Coach Sam Mathiason has been impressed with Hillard’s evolution as she closes in on 1,500 career points.
“Sydney’s not a volume scorer,” he said. “She shoots a high percentage (better than 50 percent), and she can do it in a lot of different ways,” Mathiason said. “Her hand-eye coordination is great, and that has really helped her mid-range jumper. She’s also added a 3-point shot, too.
“She’s just a kid who wants to play basketball. She’s a great kid with very little ego, but she is also someone who competes as hard as you’ll ever see. She’s also happy for her teammates’ success, too. For someone with as much talent as she has, she’s an even better person.”
That assessment rings true when listening to Hilliard talk about this year’s team.
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“This season has been a lot of fun,” Hilliard said. “We lost a lot of seniors last year, but we’ve really come around, especially in the second half of the season. We’re playing better defensively, and the younger kids are starting to hit some shots.”
The team’s only other senior, guard Emily Benzschawel (11.4 points per game), has been a major factor — as has sophomore forward Megan Benzschawel (10.8 ppg).
Hilliard, a three-year Monroe co-captain has stepped up her leadership skills this season on a team with only two seniors.
“I’ve always been pretty comfortable with that,” Hilliard said. “I’ve never thought that leadership was an age thing. You see a role that needs to be filled you just step in and do it.”
She adopted that same pragmatic approach in her college choice. It came down to Wisconsin and Marquette, but she’d also gotten serious DI looks from Green Bay, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
“Wisconsin was the nicest fit,” Hilliard said. “It was the closest to home and that would make it easier for my family to see games.”
She hasn’t decided on a major yet, but said it would most likely be in the area of mathematics or science.
It’s been a long road since this self-described “people person” started playing hoops in kindergarten, as part of a program called “The Dribbling Dinosaurs.”
“It was always about hanging out with my friends and having fun,” she said. “Things didn’t really start happening for me until I was in eighth grade. I was only about 5-foot-5 then, and then I just grew. I don’t know where it came from, but I ‘ll take it.
“I’m just thankful for everything I’ve received. Two trips to state is a blessing that not many players get to have, so I’m really looking forward to what’s next.”