Sydney Hilliard lives next door to a YMCA. It’s safe to say she gets the most out of her membership.
“It’s really convenient,” the Monroe junior said this week. “It’s open pretty much 24/7, so I try to get in there as much as possible on the weekends.”
Access to that gymnasium, and the hours spent there, have built Hilliard into one of the top players in the state’s loaded Class of 2019.
Last year as a sophomore, Hilliard was a unanimous All-State selection. She averaged 19 points a game and led Monroe to a WIAA Division 2 state semifinal, where the Cheesemakers lost to eventual state champion Beaver Dam.
Her performance in the state semifinal game — she scored 16 points on 8 of 13 shooting — revealed to the rest of the state a talent that Cheesemakers coach Sam Mathiason and the crowd at the Monroe YMCA had been aware of for some time.
This year, the Cheesemakers (22-2) are ranked fourth in Division 2 by The Associated Press. Hilliard averages 21 points as Monroe heads into a sectional semifinal against Stoughton (20-4) at 7 tonight in Middleton.
“It became pretty clear in the summer before her freshman year that she was going to be able to play (varsity). But you never really know until they play in those games,” Mathiason said.
Especially in a conference as loaded as the Badger South — with future college athletes and state-qualifying teams in abundance — seeing Hilliard step in and play at such a high level was a surprise.
“Right away, you could see that she was able to handle the ball and score in ways that I haven’t seen in many high school players in my 25 years of watching high school basketball,” Mathiason said.
Hilliard wasn’t alone as a freshman on the Monroe varsity team — Emily Benzschawel also was moved up.
“It really helped to have Emily there, and we’ve gotten really close because of it,” Hilliard said.
The two have helped to reinvigorate Monroe’s program, which was a powerhouse in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Cheesemakers won championships in 2006 and 2008.
Now, with Hilliard and Benzschawel leading a strong and deep squad, the current group of Cheesemakers is focused on getting back to the state tournament.
Last year at state the girls ran into a powerful Beaver Dam program.
This year, Beaver Dam joined the Badger North Conference — and in the annual Badger Challenge game between divisional leaders, Beaver Dam rolled to a 69-40 win over the Cheesemakers on Jan. 13.
Monroe’s only other loss this season was 58-57 to Morton (Illinois) Dec. 2 at Illinois Central College.
The losses provided nothing but fuel for the fire for Monroe, which won nine straight after falling to Morton, and have won nine straight since losing to Beaver Dam. It all started with last year’s loss at state.
“We all kind of had a grudge and were upset, but we just wanted to come out firing this year and I think we did that,” Hilliard said, “We want to get back to state, but we focus on one game at a time.”
Now, looking forward to the sectionals, the Cheesemakers are more experienced than last year and playing with more “killer instinct,” as Hilliard said.
“Last year, we didn’t know how far we were going to go, but this year we just want to get back to state,” she said.
The Cheesemakers still need to win twice to book a return trip, but Hilliard and her teammates insist they are ready to take the next step.
“This year, we’ll be ready for the big lights and the big crowd,” she said. “If we do make it to state, we’ll be ready.”