Head coach Dante Harlan and senior standout Kendall Hackney have accomplished a ton during the last four years at Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame. Now the duo has some more hardware to add to their impressive collections.
There is a first time for everything.
For Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame, the Cougars became the first Division I girls basketball team to win four straight state championships in the 34-year history of the Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament.
MND is now tied with South Euclid Regina of Division III as the only programs to win four straight and its five trophies in the last six seasons ranks the Cougars No. 2 for all-time championships – just one behind Pickerington and Regina.
All told, the formula for success the past four years has been utilizing the talent in the Class of 2009, led by forward Kendall Hackney, under the direction of head coach Dante Harlan.
“I don’t think it is going to sink in until right before next season starts,” Harlan said. “I still can’t get over the fact that it has been four years with this group of young ladies. I think I am more caught up on that than us winning the state championship.
“My relationship with them is very special and I think I am more caught up on that being the last game I am ever going to be able to coach those young ladies.
“That is what hit me more than the championship itself.”
Harlan took over as co-head coach for the 2005-06 season under the tutelage of Dr. Scott Rogers when Hackney and her class were freshmen. Coming off the first state title of the four-year run, Harlan took the reigns of the program that following season as Rogers stepped aside.
Since then, he has tallied an extraordinary 76-7 record and, of course, three more state titles.
“I owe a lot of credit to Dr. Scott Rogers,” Harlan said. “I knew the X’s and O’s of the game and a lot of people don’t understand that it is the little things that he taught me. That is the one thing that has really helped with my growth as a coach.”
Rogers imparted particular knowledge on maintaining the concept of team over the individual, expectations and communication.
“That is the secret to our success – that we truly believe in ‘team’. One kid is never going to make or break the team,” Harlan said. “The kids have bought into that and they understand that. That is how we always coached and that is how we are going to continue to coach. It’s never going to change.”
With the great success MND experienced, came greater challenges.
“There is nothing wrong with setting standards high for you kids as far as level of expectations,” said Harlan. “But you have to be willing to hold them accountable every single day. You can’t let them step away from that – not one time. And they have to be held accountable across the board – from your best player to the last player off the bench.
“It can’t change and the biggest thing coaches fail at is getting kids to that level of expectation and that each kid is different. You have to take the time to learn what gets each kid motivated and how to reach them.”
For Harlan, that learning process is honned through communication.
“That has been another huge part of success – that line of communication with our kids,” he said. “We communicate and we do it as a family. We have an understanding that it is not personal on that court. Both sides have to do their best to put this team in a position to go to Columbus and possibly play for a state championship.
“Between the lines, it is business. Off the court, we are a family and (the players) have a voice and I am willing to listen to it.”
Enter MND’s Class of 2009.
Led by Southern California recruit Hackney, the group includes Vanderbilt signee Gabby Smith on the wing and Ohio University recruit Ashley Fowler running the point. Role players include guard Evy Iacono, post Amanda Wilken, guard Maria Redwine and post Kati Driscoll.
In the past four seasons, this group posted 101-10 record.
“After we won state, it was like a whirlwind,” Hackney said. “The whole tournament really flew by. When we had our pep rally a week after and we were watching highlights of the game it seemed like it happened years ago. But it was a great feeling.
“We all knew inside we’d win state, seniors especially. After doing it, it was awesome. It is hard to describe.”
The team mentality of the MND (27-1) senior class was never more evident than in the 52-38 state title win over Toledo Start. Hackney tallied 12 points in the paint and pulled down four rebounds but was forced to the bench with four fouls with 6:13 remaining in the third quarter.
Redwine, who netted four points, and Wilken saw valuable playing time with Hackney on the bench. Smith had 13 points and Fowler added 10.
“Last year, I fouled out in the state championship game so it was only tradition,” Hackney joked. “After I went out, I was confident in my teammates and trusted my teammates. We have so much talent on this team and they all play to their strengths. We just did a great job. I trusted them completely and I am so proud of them.”
Hackney reentered the game with 4:27 left and a 41-30 lead. She remained in the game until Harlan subbed out his seniors and starters at the 1:19 mark with the game well in hand.
“That was the one point it hit me and we did it,” Hackney said. “Freshman year, I would have never thought any of this would have happen.
“We just know we can’t do it without each other, especially in the state tournament, because that is when you have to trust and rely on each other. We won four state championships because we have an amazing team full of players that are talented. I think that is the most important thing.”
Despite MND’s emphasis of the team concept, Hackney set herself apart earning the prestigious Ohio Ms. Basketball award from the Associated Press the week of the state tournament.
“I am truly honored to be chosen for (Ms. Basketball). But no one can have that record by themselves,” Hackney said. “That is complete teamwork. Any award I have ever gotten, I can thank my teammates for. They make me better and they are the ones that have helped me achieved what I have achieved and we have all helped each other. ”
Hackney, who averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season and is rated as the No. 11 forward in the country by ESPN and the No. 55 player overall, is also a member of the National Honor Society with a 4.0 GPA.
“Kendall is truly special. She comes from a great family and she is just as dynamic off the court as she is on the court,” Harlan said. “That’s what makes all of this special to even be able to coach her.
“To watch her grow from being a kid that I wasn’t sure was going to be tough enough mentally to be a part of our program and where she is at now – it has just been fun to watch.”
Harlan cites Hackney’s leadership this season as a major component of the success experienced on the floor.
“Her maturity over this last season really took flight,” he said. “What Kendall embraced this year was her play was a reflection of her teammates. She realized that everything she did was not for Kendall Hackney but for her team. That is where she matured.
“(She), Ashley and Gabby transformed the program to where they put their face on this team. They’ve accomplished something that none of us ever dreamed was going to happen and Kendall has been a huge part of that. Kendall is leaving her mark on this program. Now when they talk about Mount Notre Dame Basketball, they are going to talk about Kendall Hackney, Gabby Smith and Ashley Fowler.”
And now those players will move on to college with Hackney heading west to suit up for USC.
“I am so excited to play at that level. It is going to be amazing and it is going to be so much fun,” she said.
Harlan’s original plan was to make this season his last as MND head coach and leave with this particular group of seniors. But he will return to the Cougars program for at least one more season.
“Originally, that was my plan but I think I needed to detach myself from the moment,” he said.
“At the time, I looked at it and I wanted to be able to spend time with my (4-year-old) son. I just can’t put as much work in the off-season like I usually do. I have to make sure I balance that better. But I still have a passion for coaching and as long as I can continue to give the amount of effort I expect from (the players) on a regular basis, then I am going to coach.”
Since the title game last month, Harlan has been coaching 11-year-old girls in an AAU league. And that has further strengthened his decision to return to MND next season.
“It made me remember why I coach,” he said. “When you can get a smile on those little kids’ faces because they accomplished something simple – that is what it goes back to – your love for the game and your love for the kids.
“If you can help them achieve something, then that is special. That is what is still inside of me and as long as it is I am going to keep coaching.”