STORM LAKE - St. Mary's High girls basketball coach Ryan Berg admits his team has high expectations this season.
"The girls believe they can compete with anybody and that we can win the (Northwest) Conference title," Berg said Sunday night.
In the past few years, the Panthers have lost a lot of close conference games, and have never been a serious challenger to the likes of Newell-Fonda and Sac City.
This year could be different. The St. Mary's girls enter tonight's home game against Aurelia atop the conference standings with a 2-0 record.
They are also riding a four-game winning streak. After losing big in their opener to Lawton-Bronson (64-43), the Panthers reeled off four straight wins.
During the streak, they've beaten Clay Central Everly 47-31, Sioux Central 55-52, Alta 65-52 and a strong, physical Graettinger-Terril team 40-35 last Saturday night.
"We've been playing together a long time and we're starting to come closer to our potential with every game," said junior post player Janie Imming.
"After beating Alta and Sioux Central, we know we can win our conference. We just have to continue working hard on defense, and improving our offense.
"Right now, we're playing a with a lot of confidence. We're more physical than we've been in the past and more intense and scrappy on defense."
So far this season, St. Mary's has shown an ability to play both up-tempo and half-court styles.
"Being versatile like that really helps," added junior guard Abby Richardson, who's been starting since she was a freshman. "We had to run with Alta to beat them and we also matched Graettinger-Terril in rebounding last Saturday night."
There's no mystery when it comes to figuring out why the Panthers have so much versatility and potential.
Richardson might be one of the top prep guards in Iowa and is a lock most nights to score 15 points or more. And she does that playing point guard. Against Alta last week, she scored a career-high 27 points.
Inside, the Panthers can rotate three or four player at the four and five positions. Imming and senior Cassie Weaver lead the way. Forward Colleen Smith and off-guard Jess Lussman are the other returning starters.
"This is probably the best girls basketball team we've had had St. Mary's in some time, at least in the eight years I've been coaching," Berg said.
Berg added that over the summer, his team played in nine scrimmages at a basketball camp at Drake in Des Moines, going 8-1 in the two-day event.
"We saw a lot of talent at Drake, and we beat a couple of Class 2A teams," Berg said. "That gave us the confidence that we can be a strong contender in our conference."
Last season, the Panthers started the season with a six-game losing streak. Slowly, St. Mary's got better; they reeled off seven wins in row at one point last winter.
"We all know our roles now and we accept them, Richardson said. "We finished the season strong last year and we really played well at Drake this summer. We know we have good potential but we just have to keep working hard in practice and games."
Berg added that the Panthers' 'real test' will come in early January right after Christmas break. They're slated to play at Sac City Tuesday, Jan. 3 and the following Friday night, they'll host Newell-Fonda.
"The conference (title) is up for grabs this season," Richardson said, adding that the formula for winning it is simple.
"It all depends on how focused you can be throughout the season," she said. "We know we have to play hard and with intensity every game because the teams are so equal."