Cougars trying to live up to the past
ACKLEY — For the first time in nine years, the AGWSR girls basketball team is heading back down to Des Moines to compete in the Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament.
Most of the girls on the team weren’t even 9 years old back when the Cougars won it all in 2009, but many of them were in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena to watch their predecessors hold up the trophy and complete a perfect 26-0 season.
Ever since that day, senior Mandy Willems said she knew one day she wanted to reach the floor of the Well for AGWSR.
“It’s kind of a dream come true, I just remember going down and watching the girls play back in 2009 and some of those other years,” Willems said. “It was fun to go watch and something that I’ve always wanted to be a part of.”
Willems, the team’s leading scorer at 18.8 points per game, had even more of a tie to the team than just being a student at AGWSR Elementary at the time, as she said Jessica McDowell, the leading scorer on the 2009 squad, watched her while her parents were away.
“Jess McDowell was actually my babysitter, so you can imagine how much I looked up to her and that kind of helped me to get motivated to get better and just get it done for our school,” she said.
Willems has become a Cougar great in her own right, as she currently is No. 2 in Class 1A in 3-pointers made with 79, the fourth-best mark regardless of class. She is efficient behind the line as well, shooting an incredible 49.1 percent from deep. And she’s not just a sharp shooter, as Willems is 13th in 1A in assists with 91 dimes and she has 80 steals to her credit.
AGWSR head coach Laurie Gann said Willems is truly unique in her ability to shoot the ball from nearly every spot on the court.
“Mandy is kind of an unusual player, she can shoot out here four feet out from the 3-point line and it doesn’t lose form,” Gann said of the NIACC basketball signee. “A lot of girls can’t do that, that makes her a special player and if she can develop her strength who knows what level she can go to a few years from now after the junior college experience.”
One guard doesn’t make a team, however, and junior Aubrie Fisher provides the Cougars with a fantastic 1-2 punch. Fisher averages 13.4 points per game to come in second on the team, and she’s proven she can handle the scoring load when teams look to take away Willems.
Fisher is also a state-placer in track and she’s a state-qualifier in cross country, so she said having experience at state events will help going into this first trip to the state basketball tournament.
“It’s nice to have experience just being in a place with that many people when it’s really loud and competing,” Fisher said. “Like in cross country there are tons of runners there and it’s kind of overwhelming, but it’s nice to have that experience going in.”
Gann was a great guard in her days playing, as she set an NAIA record for most points in a game back in 1989 when she dropped 58 while playing for Missouri Baptist College. Gann said she has thoroughly enjoyed working with the pair of Willems and Fisher, mainly because in her previous stints coaching in Missouri she worked more with post players.
“This is fun because in Missouri I was in a German community with big, large girls,” Gann said. “I had some good guards too, but this is the best combination of guards I have ever had and it’s really fun because I was a shooter and they are shooters and I can get into their minds and know what they are feeling and what they are doing.”
Gann said what makes her appreciate Willems and Fisher most is the fact that both of them had to put in the work to get where they are, and both are seeing the benefits of that work.
“Both of them are gym rats, they have spent hours and hours and hours in here,” Gann said. “They didn’t just naturally come out here and are shooters like that, so that is the neat thing too. Kids see that they have done that and hopefully our younger kids see that if we are going to continue this program at this high of a level we have to buy into the fact that it takes offseason work and all that kind of stuff.”
Having that kind of a duo in the back court is wonderful, but the Cougars also boast a great front-court pairing of junior Taryan Barrick and sophomore Rachel Sicard. Barrick is third on the team in scoring with nearly eight points per game, while Sicard leads the team in rebounds with 140 and blocks with 28.
Gann spoke highly of both Barrick and Sicard, saying they both are going to be crucial for her team’s chances to advance in Des Moines.
“We have some athletic girls, Taryan is a high-level state-quality pitcher and she runs the floor about as well as any forward I have ever had,” Gann said. “She has a jump shot, you don’t see very many girls have jump shots. Rachel has just barely tapped what that kid can do. It is kind of nice, she has really played well here in the postseason for us, and if we are going to compete and hopefully advance through the tournament we are going to need Taryan and Rachel both giving us some big games down low.”
Many times this season Barrick is actually the first player to score for the Cougars, getting the offense going early in games, and she says she tries to remind teams that AGWSR is much more than just the combo of Willems and Fisher.
“Teams come in and think it’s always just those two, but once you know we have more people, all five us on the court can score, that relieves the pressure off a lot from Aubrie and Mandy for sure,” Barrick said. “Knowing that all of us on the score, especially when I can get those first points, it relieves a lot of pressure and creates a lot more pressure on our side.”
Sicard said she tries to relieve that pressure in her own way, by locking down the paint and pulling down important rebounds.
“My role is to kind of be a team leader and get the ball out and help them,” Sicard said. “Get the rebounds, give it to them so they can shoot it, just be a team person.”
It’s going to take a team effort for the Cougars to come away victorious in round one, as they face off against a 23-1 Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton team that has been to state each of the last four years.
Gann said specifically her post players are going to have their hands full with Sophia Peppers, who averages 18 points a game and was an all-tournament selection last year.
“They are very physical, their strength is there, our post players are going to have to really defend and not let Peppers dominate,” Gann said. “She is a nice player, and offensively we think they are one of the best teams we’ve seen. It’s going to be a tough battle, our key is hopefully we can defend and we are making shots and give ourselves a chance.”
Sicard, who will draw the guarding assignment for Peppers most of the time, said her plan is to make it a long day for the senior heading to Morningside University next year.
“She is really strong inside so what I need to do is just work hard, get in front of her and don’t let her score,” she said. “Don’t let her even get the ball in the first place, then she can’t score.”
Willems said this team is a tough matchup, but playing in the NICL West Division they face off with great teams like fellow tournament-qualifier Grundy Center, so they are used to facing hard opponents.
“I haven’t watched much tape yet but from what I’ve seen they are a pretty physical defensive team,” Willems said. “Basically we’ve seen a lot of teams like that this year, we have to take care of the ball, stay relaxed and just play our game.”
When it comes to success at state, the Cougars aren’t pulling any punches, they want to come home with another state title. Gann said that should always be the goal at state, but if they aren’t able to bring home the trophy she just wants her girls to be proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“Just as the anal person I am that’s always the goal, but I want to see us compete and I want to see us when it’s all said and done, when we walk off that floor on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday or when we walk off winning the whole thing, I want us to be proud of what we accomplished and realize that this is where we want this program consistently year-in and year-out,” Gann said.
AGWSR will face off with Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton in the first round of the 1A portion of the Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament on Wednesday, starting at 3:15 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena.
Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament
At Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Wednesday, Feb. 28
Springville (21-3) vs. Bishop Garrigan (17-7), 1:30 p.m.
Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton (23-1) vs. AGWSR (21-2), 3:15 p.m.
Newell-Fonda (24-0) vs. Kee, Lansing (22-1), 5 p.m.
Central Decatur (24-0) vs. Montezuma (20-3), 6:45 p.m.