Team's guard play crucial
The Rockwell City-Lytton High girls basketball team has had another 20-win season in 2005-2006, has won another Twin Lakes Conference title and was ranked ninth last week in the Class 1A state poll.
The Wildcats return four starters from last year's team that went 17-6, and they enter this week's tournament action with a lofty 20-2 mark.
So why is Wildcat coach Dave Birks calling his team's Region 2, District Final against 16-6 Newell-Fonda in Rockwell City Saturday night essentially a tossup?
He didn't actually say 'mystique,' but if any basketball programs in Northwest Iowa can claim such a moniker, it would be Newell-Fonda.
"When you play a Newell-Fonda team you're going up against a team that is well-coached, tournament-tested and very fundamentally sound," Birks told the Pilot Tribune Thursday night.
"You know your team is going to have to deal with kids that play pressure defense very well, and with its ability to score in transition, a lead can turn into a deficit in a a very short time."
The Wildcats were victims last year in the district finals to a Newell-Fonda team that was state-ranked. The Mustangs ousted RC-L by double-digits last year before later being upset by George Little Rock in the Region Finals.
Birks is also aware that the Newell-Fonda girls appear to be peaking at just the right time. In fact, they've been on the rise for the past five weeks, and enter Saturday night's game on a 10-game winning streak.
"We just have good chemistry right now, better than we had at the start of this season," Newell-Fonda guard Hanna Reis said Thursday.
"We don't have the size that RC-L has, but overall, we're a little quicker. We think its going to be a close game, but we'll have a good chance to win if we play like we have been. A real key for us will be to stay with them on the boards."
Added Newell-Fonda's leading scorer and junior point guard Sarah Culp: "(RC-L) is a great team, and we know it won't be easy to win in their gym. But we can win if we keep the chemistry going and all play our hearts out.
"I also think the team that hits its three-point shots will have a big advantage."
Last year, the Mustangs were led by a core group of seniors that included post players Jenn Schumann and Andrea Larsen and guard Kristen Culp. This year has been a different story, according to Reis.
"We struggled early in the season, but got it going just after Christmas," she said. "This team might not be as talented as last year's was, but I think we play a little more as a true team than last year."
In terms of the matchup, the Wildcats and Mustangs have already met once this season. In the second game of the season Dec. 1 in Newell, RC-L handed N-F a 60-55 loss.
"Both teams have improved a lot since then," N-F coach Dick Jungers said. "We are much more fundamentally sound at this point, and I'm sure the same goes for them."
Birks is wary of the vaunted Mustang press, and says his team will have to handle that full and half-court trapping defense.
Offensively, however, he likes his squad's balance.
"We've shown the ability to score from the blocks as well as from the outside," he said. "I think the balance we have offensively is a very important factor in our 20-2 record."
The four returning Wildcat starters are 6-foot senior Catrina Ellis, 5-8 shooting guard Tonya Hartwig, 5-11 junior Betsy Marsden and 5-5 junior point guard Megan Huster.
Ellis and Hartwig make a tough, inside-outside 1-2 punch. Ellis averages a team-high 17 points per game (ppg), while Hartwig averages 9.3 and Marsden 7.1
Ellis shoots at a 60 percent clip from two-point range while Hartwig has knocked down 37 three-point shots this season. Ellis also averages 8.3 rebounds per game and three blocked shots per game, with Hartwig shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
"Their offense is versatile in other ways," added Jungers. "Last year, they were more of a halfcourt team, but we've seen them on nights this season when they run the floor very well."
This year's Mustang, team, meanwhile has outstanding speed on the perimeter, and with guards Sarah Culp and Reis, it can bury a team from three-point range.
Reis has made 58 three-pointers this season in 141 attempts for a nifty 41 percent. She averages nearly 10 ppg. Culp leads all Mustangs scorers by averaging 14.4 ppg. She's knocked down 36 three-point shots.
Under the basket, N-F can go to 6-foot senior Sam Schaffer, who averages 10.7 ppg. and 7.8 rebounds per game.
The Mustangs forwards are consistent scorers. Ashley Lussman, a 5-7 senior, averages 8 ppg. and four rebounds per game. Tenaea Jeppeson, a 5-8 junior, averages just over eight ppg. along with 5.2 rebounds pg.
Off the bench, freshman guard Rachel Culp has emerged as a solid contributor and 5-9 freshman Lauren Devereraux has played solid minutes later in the season.
Jungers says his team will have to be at its best tonight.
"I think we're going to have to play phenomenal defense," he said. "Particularly in the blocks, we can't get lazy and and give them easy looks."
"Offensively, we'll have to take what their defense gives us," Jungers added. "And when we get open looks, whether its inside or from beyond the arc, we'll have to shoot a very good percentage."
Tonight's game in Rockwell City starts at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to a Region 2 semifinal game next Tuesday in Manilla.
NOTES: - Newell-Fonda won a share of its third consecutive Northwest Conference this season. The Mustangs and Sac City tied for first with 11-3 conference marks. Newell-Fonda beat Sac City Jan. 20 in Newell, 50-38.