The Newell-Fonda and Alta High boys basketball teams will meet just one more time this season, and both teams' coaches just may be glad about that.
"We have a great rivalry, and it would be nice if both of us could get down to Des Moines in March," said long-time Newell-Fonda coach Paul Loos.
While the Mustangs will remain in Class 1A this season, Alta will move to Class 2A for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the two teams renewed their rivalry last Friday night and area fans got just what they wanted.
"It was what we expected, which was a very close game with players from both teams making clutch plays at key times," Loos said. "And it was an intense game with a tournament-type atmosphere."
Despite hitting just 17 of 33 free throws, and missing numerous free throw chances in the late going, the Mustangs came up with an 80-74 win to improve to 2-0 on the season in the Northwest Conference.
According to Loos, the Alta-Newell-Fonda matchup featured a second-half comeback by the Mustangs. Alta led 16-9 after the first quarter and 38-35 at the half.
But earlier in the game, Alta's 6-9 post player Luke Letzring has two fouls within the first 30 seconds and starting senior point guard Eric Holton had three fouls by halftime.
But, Loos said, the Mustangs went on a big run in the third quarter and had a 12-point lead with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
That's when Alta made a bid for a comeback win, courtesy of some clutch plays by the Cyclones, who were 26 of 31 for the game at the line.
"Give credit to Alta, they made a nice run at us at the end," said Loos. "That's the kind of team they have; they don't give up."
Loos said during Alta's run, his team shot free throws poorly and had five turnovers during a five minute stretching spanning the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth.
"The turnovers were uncharacteristic of our team, and we've got to improve our percentage at the line," Loos said.
He added that Alta took a 74-73 lead with 1 minute, 44 seconds on two free throws by post player Heath Stille, who led the Cyclones with 28 points.
But Newell-Fonda finished strong. On the next trip downcourt, Loos said, the Mustangs pushed the ball upcourt and Matt Stauter made a layup, was fouled and this time, made the free throw for a 76-74 N-F lead.
Loos said the game remained close until the closing seconds. With just under 30 seconds left and Newell-Fonda nursing a one-point advantage, N-F's Aaron Kaufman blocked a Stille shot and the Mustangs came away with the ball.
"I thought that was one of the key plays of the game," Loos said. "Stille was on the left blocks and in close and it looked like a sure two points that would have given them the lead."
Instead, N-F's Tim Seagran made one of two free throw at the other end, then the Mustangs forced a turnover on the other end and turned it into two points. Game over.
"We were up 68-56 with six minutes left in the third quarter and they started fouling," said Loos. It turned out to be an effective strategy given that the Mustangs were having a tough night at the line.
Meanwhile, Holton had fouled out with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter and Letzring also fouled out a few seconds later.
"But we also had some post players in foul trouble," said Loos. "Even though their outstanding point guard was on the bench, Alta made a strong run at us."
"We feel we can match up with Newell-Fonda any time we play them but we just fell short," Alta coach Larry McNutt said after the game Friday. "We look forward to playing them at their place later in the season."
If there was a key to the game, it might have been Stauter, who scored a game-high 35 points.
Stauter has already had quite a senior year. He quarterbacked the Newell-Fonda football team to a state-ranking in Class A and deep into the state playoffs. Now, Loos said, he's one of the main reasons the Mustang boys cagers were ranked No. 1 in Class 1A recently in a Des Moines Register state poll.
"Matt has just worked hard on his game and there's no substitute for that," Loos said. "He can hurt you in a lot of ways; he can slash to the hoop, post up or hit the outside shot."
Meanwhile, looking ahead, the Mustangs will be heavily favored Tuesday night when they travel to Aurelia to meet the Bulldogs. Alta has it's second consecutive Northwest Conference test when it plays host to perimeter-oriented Pomeroy-Palmer, also ranked in the top ten in the Register's state poll.
"I expect that one to be a real war," added Loos. "As far as our team goes, we'll be up against some strong athletes in Aurelia Tuesday night and when that happens, anything can happen."
But don't bet against Newell-Fonda. As a headline in the Pilot-Tribune recently said, this might be "The Year of the Mustang."