116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Mr. Glass Half Full will and should point out the astonishing achievements.
Five straight trips to the boys’ basketball state tournament, four straight appearances in the finals. A 155-6 overall record since the 2015-16 season, 99 consecutive non-state tournament wins.
Not losing to a Tri-Rivers Conference foe since the postseason of 2016. Not losing a Tri-Rivers regular-season game since 2014.
How’s that list?
Yet Mr. Glass Half Empty could point out the few failures. Mainly losing three of those four aforementioned state title games, including last season to Montezuma in what most people considered an upset.
“Is it disappointing? Yeah,” said North Linn Coach Mike Hilmer. “But I’m a huge believer that things happen for a reason. Sometimes the reason isn’t always going to be that North Linn deserves to win all the time. Other teams deserve to win as well. There are other kids putting in the same amount of time, working just as hard and have just as good of kids.”
Let’s just throw it out there. Barring something unforeseen, North Linn will be great again this season.
There was one senior on last season’s 26-1 team. Everyone else is back: all five starters and a key bench guy who actually started every game two years ago.
Word is the freshmen class is very good, too, with one of those kids slated to be a regular contributor. The assumption is another state tourney trip for the Lynx with another seemingly very realistic shot at the finals.
Expectations like that can be dangerous.
“We talked about at the beginning of the year that we are going to take it one game at a time, like we always do, and see where we end up,” Hilmer said. “We have high expectations, but we try not to think too far down the road.”
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“I think we feel better right now than we did a year ago at this point in the season,” said Austin Hilmer, the all-state senior guard and Mike’s youngest son. “Everyone has stepped up their game. After that championship loss last year, I think that motivated all of us to work on our games and get better. I think we all did that.”
Austin Hilmer has signed to play for Division II Upper Iowa, where he’ll join older brother, Jake, the former Iowa Mr. Basketball who helped lead North Linn past Boyden-Hull for the Class 2A championship in 2019. Austin played every game on that team as a freshman, started every game as a sophomore the following season, when Boyden-Hull avenged its 2019 title game loss.
He’ll be joined by junior forward Tate Haughenbury, a second-team all-state selection last season. Senior wing Dylan Kurt was North Linn’s third-leading scorer at 14.1 points per game and is out after knee surgery until probably the new year.
Junior guard Ben Wheatley jumped into the starting five midway through last season and ended up averaging 10.2 points per game. Senior forward Cade Haughenbury averaged 9.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, and is considered a defensive stopper.
Senior guard Gunner Vanourney has starting experience and will likely replace Kurt in the lineup until he returns. Like Kurt, Vanourney is a good 3-point shooter.
Forward Tate Collum is a seventh returning letterwinner. Mason Bechen is the talented ninth-grader scheduled for every-game duty.
“If we’re healthy, I definitely think we’re going to be a lot better team this year,” Coach Hilmer said. “In practice, I’ve noticed that several kids are performing at a higher level than at the end of last year.”
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That’s kind of scary. So, too, could be the weight of all this previous success.
Though these guys insist they don’t feel pressure to get back to state, get back to the state championship game and win it.
“When you get through a season, obviously, the last game, if you lose, that sucks,” Austin Hilmer said. “But we tried to put it into perspective right away that we had a great season. That one game might not have gone our way, but to finish the season 26-1, we’ve been there four years in a row, our class has been there three years in a row. That just doesn’t happen. It does suck that we lost both games, but the motivation factor. You have another opportunity. We’re all realizing we have another opportunity, and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
“Our kids stay pretty grounded, the same with our coaches,” Mike Hilmer said. “It’s tough because when you have that success, community members and stuff like that just start expecting things to be easy. And they’re not. But I don’t ever feel like our coaches or our kids think that way. We try to focus on getting better every day and think of little things that will make us good at the end of the year and start working on those right away. I think our kids do a pretty good job of realizing that at any time you can be beaten by anybody.”
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