Embracing their role as underdogs
South Tama County girls head to state basketball tournament as only unranked squad
TAMA — It isn’t often that a team who was considered an underdog throughout the entire regional tournament makes it to state, but that’s exactly the path the South Tama County girls basketball team took to the Iowa High School State Basketball Tournament.
In the regional semifinals against Roland-Story, the Trojans weren’t expected to come out on top, yet they did. Against West Marshall in the regional finals, again STC wasn’t the favorite, yet when the final buzzer sounded it was the Trojans in blue and black that had their tickets punched to Wells Fargo Arena, not the ones in black and gold.
So the fact that South Tama is the only team that isn’t ranked out of the 40 teams across five classes competing at state this week isn’t something new, and Trojans head coach Todd Dale said it’s something that his girls have actually embraced.
“We’ve been the underdog throughout this and I think they’ve done a great job of putting that aside and looking at it saying ‘we’ve played as tough or tougher people than this,’ and go out and play the game,” Dale said. “That’s where it’s decided, it’s not decided on your ranking going into it, it’s decided on the points when you come out.”
Being the underdog isn’t something new for South Tama, which enters the tournament with a 15-9 record playing in the tough WaMaC Conference West Division. Of those nine losses, seven were to ranked teams, including a pair of losses to 4A No. 1 Marion and No. 5 Center Point-Urbana during WaMaC West play.
Dale said playing against teams like the Stormin’ Pointers and Indians, as well as state qualifiers like Grundy Center and Grinnell during the non-conference schedule, made his team better even when they didn’t come out on top.
“Any time you get a chance to play a tough schedule it helps you when you look at the second season,” Dale said. “We divide this into two seasons, the first and the second, and I told the girls from the beginning that our record in the first season doesn’t matter. We play some tremendous competition, but you use that and the girls did a great job this year of going into those games and getting beat up, but keeping their head up and coming into practice and working hard to get better.”
While people might not know much about the Trojans, they have likely heard of junior Jessica Musgrave, who has had an outstanding season so far for South Tama. Musgrave currently has 532 points this season, the most for any girl in 3A, and her 22.2 points per game is the most for any girl on a state-qualifying team. She is also third in the state in steals, regardless of class, with 137 take-aways, and she ranks in the top 20 in total rebounds with 198 boards.
Knowing all of those stats and what teams expect from her, Musgrave said there’s actually a lot pressure to perform at the Well on Tuesday, but she knows she can fall back on her team if she gets in too much of a jam.
“It’s definitely a lot of pressure, I feel like they are going to double-team me and try to stay on me but that’s OK because I know my other teammates have my back,” Musgrave said. “I know if I pass it to them they can take it in. I’m not worried, I just know that they’ve got it and I can’t really be worried about that.”
Dale said every day in practice he is amazed by the things Musgrave can do with a ball in her hand, but he said her biggest asset on the court is her ability to correct mistakes.
“She has had an awesome season, there is no question,” Dale said. “No one can deny that, she just has a nose for the ball and an understanding of the game that is well beyond most high school players. And she listens, that may be one of the greatest things you can say about her, when you tell her something she listens to you. Having someone with that kind of skill who’s coachable, that is amazing.”
While Musgrave is the focal point, she isn’t the only member of her family on the court, as her younger sister Carissa is actually the second-leading scorer, averaging around six points per game off the bench.
Carissa said having the ability to play with her sister, the only 1,000-point scorer in STC girls basketball history, is an incredible feeling.
“Just being in high school together has really brought us together and it’s so much fun playing with her on the court,” Carissa said. “We have that chemistry and it’s a special bond.”
Where Jessica is more effective attacking the paint and driving, Carissa is more effective shooting from deep, as she leads the team in 3-pointers this season. Jessica said having her sister as a reliable option on the wing is fantastic when she is driving the ball inside.
“I know if I drive I can kick it to her and that the three will go in, but I always tell her when we practice together that ‘you need to drive more, you need to step up your game,’ because that will definitely help her out,” Jessica said. “If you have the threes down, driving will impact your game, but we always play off each other and I try to get my threes going, they just don’t fall as much as hers.”
South Tama will need both the inside and outside games working well on Tuesday when they face off with undefeated and 3A No. 1 Crestwood, a team that boasts two players who average over 19 points per game in Shannon Pisney and Sharon Goodman. The Cadets have been at state four of the last five years, while this is the first trip for the Trojans since 2011.
Dale said, while Crestwood (23-0) is the only unbeaten team in the 3A field, they are far from perfect, and there are some areas the girls can take advantage of.
“They are not an explosive team. They score a lot of points, but they aren’t an explosive offensive team and we kind of feel like looking at the film that maybe we play a little better defense than some of the teams that they have faced,” Dale said. “Our goal has to be to keep this a lower-scoring game, we are not going to score 70 points probably. We believe defensively we can show them a few things they haven’t seen and get them off their game a little bit.”
Sadie Smith, the lone senior in the starting five for STC, said the Trojans need to focus on shutting down Goodman, the 6-foot-2 sophomore averaging 19.2 points per contest, but they can’t leave the other girls open as well.
“They have a really big girl and we have to definitely try to shut her down as much as we can,” Smith said. “We have to watch the backside so she’s not shooting and dishing to the backside, and we have to keep track of all the girls and not just focus on one. They are all good players and so we have to keep our eye on everyone.”
Jessica said this will be a tough challenge in the first round, but they’ve faced tough challenges already to even get out of their regional tournament, so this won’t be anything new for South Tama.
“We just really have to stay focused like we have the first three games going in,” Jessica said. “Just making it to state we had to stay absolutely so focused, there was no slack. We have to perform on pressure and fight through it and even though they have a good record we are going in with a good mindset. We are the underdogs again, we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Knowing that the girls have that “nothing to lose” mentality, Dale said he’s already satisfied with how far this team has gone, but he still wants his girls to go out and give this game their all.
“Being there is a success, what we want to do is go down there and no matter what happens we want it to be a game,” Dale said. “If we aren’t blowing them out of the water, and as good as they are that would be a miracle and there would be some help from above to do that, we just want to be there. Another Roland-Story, another West Marshall where it comes down to the end of the ball game and coming down to the end of a game I put my money on these girls about any time.”
South Tama will tip off its first game of the 3A portion of the Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament on Tuesday against Crestwood, starting at 11:45 a.m. at Wells Fargo Arena.
Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament
At Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Tuesday, Feb. 27
No. 1 Crestwood (23-0) vs. No. 8 South Tama (15-9), 11:45 a.m.
No. 4 Davenport Assumption (16-8) vs. No. 5 North Polk (21-3), 1:30 p.m.
No. 3 Clear Lake (22-2) vs. No. 6 Monticello (19-5), 3:15 p.m.
No. 2 Sioux Center (22-2) vs. No. 7 Red Oak (21-2), 5 p.m.