CINCINNATI -- Jim Hilvert did not expect the head coaching job at La Salle High School to open. Coaches usually don’t leave after state championships, especially when there’s enough talent left over to make a strong run at another title.
But Nate Moore left La Salle about a month after the the Lancers won the Division II state title. Hilvert, then coaching at Thomas More College, immediately inquired about the job.<
He was named the La Salle coach three days later.
“To be honest, I was very, very surprised it opened up,” Hilvert said. “La Salle won the state championship. Coach Moore had been on the job for two years. I was surprised he left. He has to do what’s right for him and his family.
“But I was taken aback that a GCL job opened up like that.”
Hilvert’s job at Thomas More was a good one and he had a good team coming back there. The Saints went undefeated and are in the Division III playoffs.
“It was definitely hard to leave,” Hilvert said. “The relationships I had with the players, the coaches, building one of the top 20 programs in the country in Division III ... it was very tough to leave.”
But things have worked out at La Salle. The Lancers are 10-2 and in the Division II regional finals. Top-seeded La Salle plays No. 2 seed Kings at 7 p.m. Friday at Lakota West.
“The community, the kids, staff from last year made the transition easy,” Hilvert said. “I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving and we’re playing the regional finals. It’s the 13th week. It’s gone by fast.”
The Lancers had a lot of talent coming back. Jeremy Larkin, who committed to play at the University of Cincinnati, is the star. He’s rushed 149 times for 1,531 yards and 23 touchdowns. He’s caught 22 passes for 576 yards and eight TDs.
Quarterback Nick Watson has completed 83 of 53 passes for 1,434 yards and 15 TDs and only four interceptions. He was 7-of-9 for 202 yards and four TDs in the 49-13 win over Lima last week.
The Lancers have scored 35 points or more in nine of their 12 games. Their only losses were to Division I playoff teams.
But it’s not as though Hilvert could simply put the team on autopilot. There was a transition to be made.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” he said. “We lost eight guys on defense. We lost three offensive linemen. Everybody has these high expectations: You’re loaded. You have everybody back. But it’s very difficult to stay on the top of the mountain.
“I think the kids have done a great job with their focus and intensity. I saw in the offseason and in camp that they weren’t complacent. They want to leave their mark and legacy, especially with seniors like Jeremy Larkin, Luke Doerger, Nolan Keller, Kyle Farwick, Hayden Jester. The list goes on and on. We have 24 of them. They’ve done a great job taking one game at time, having the one-more mentality.”
Larkin seconded that.
“We came in with the mentality that we were going to do what it took to keep the success we had and keep going on and on and not miss a beat,” he said.
But losing your coach is a shock
“When we first heard we were going to have a new coach, we thought it might be a struggle,” said Doerger, a first-team all-GCL offensive lineman. “But it’s gone as smooth as can be. Once we saw coach Hilbert’s repertoire, we knew were going to be OK.”
“There ain’t no doubt about it,” Hilvert said. “The games we play, the conference we’re in, nothing surprises you when you get to the playoffs. You’ve seen it all during the season from the speed of the game to guys being big to seeing different schemes on offense and defense.”
“It definitely helps when you get into close games and know how to win close games,” Larkin said. “Those GCL are really tough games.”
It was allure of the GCL that made the job attractive to Hilvert, a 1989 Elder graduate, in the first place.
“The No. 1 thing for me was my family,” Hilvert said. “There was huge interest from me to get into the GCL. I consider the GCL one of the top leagues in the country. It’s great competition week in, week out, also some of the great coaches in the GCL.
“I had a lot of respect for the GCL, the history of it.”
Now, his Lancers can add to that history.