Larry McNutt had a luxury in his first year as Creston girls basketball coach last winter that he doesn't have in 2012.
Inheriting a veteran squad.
The 2011-12 season was remarkable in many ways, including a tie with Denison-Schleswig for fourth place in the Hawkeye 10 at 7-6, one game in front of Harlan. The 9-14 season overall included a regional tournament win over Red Oak, and a narrow 51-50 home defeat to Carroll Kuemper, which finished 11-2 in league play.
"We won every game we should have won, except for Atlantic over there at the end of the season," McNutt said. "We bounced back and won a tournament game. We beat Denison. We could have beat Kuemper and Harlan. The LC game was single digits early. We played with a lot of the better teams in about every game."
That squad, however, had six seniors, including starters Madison Frain, Audrey Bolinger, Katlin Briley and Maddie Haines. They also happened to be the four leading scorers. Briley and Frain earned All-Hawkeye 10 honorable mention.
Brianna Maitlen, one of two seniors on this year's squad along with Emma Johnson, was fifth in scoring at 6 points per game, and the leading rebounder at 7.6. She and the other returning letterwinner, sophomore Natalie Mostek, form the core that McNutt is building around for the current campaign.
"It's a new year and a new start," said McNutt, assisted this year by Mendy McCreight and freshman coach Mallory Peterson. "We don't really compare from one year to the next. This group will earn its own identity. I'm sure it will play a little differently."
With two seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and 11 freshmen, it's a team that could be building experience for a bright future. But, McNutt is not assigning a specific goal for this season.
"For us, it's really about playing hard and getting better," McNutt said. "Our goal is to get better, period. I don't put out a goal for a certain number of wins. Our motto is, be the best we can be, whatever that is. As long as they listen and play hard, that will be successful."
The new Panther squad gets its first taste of game action tonight in the 8:15 finale of the SWCC Jamboree. The event includes four two-quarter games as a tuneup for next week's season openers.
SWCC coach Brett Gilcrist and McNutt organized the event, which serves as a fundraiser for the SWCC women's basketball team.
"I approached coach Gilcrist and said I'd like to do a jamboree, just to put the uniforms on and go through warmups," McNutt said. "Just so the kids know how things work before a game. Other jamborees were in places like Des Moines, Harlan and Chariton. Nothing close. This brings 80 to 100 kids to campus as a good little fundraiser for the SWCC women's basketball team, and it allows us to drive across town to play."
The official opener is Monday at the Raiderette Tip-Off Tourney in Mount Ayr. Instead of opening the season against Dallas Center-Grimes, thought to be in the top five of the state in Class 4A of the new five-class system this year, the Panthers have replaced that game and the Norwalk game with the two-day Mount Ayr event.
Creston faces Lamoni at 6 p.m., followed by Orient-Macksburg and the host Raiderettes at 8 p.m. The winners meet for the championship at 8 p.m. Tuesday, after the consolation game among Monday's losers.
Regardless, McNutt said his team has its work cut out for it.
"We're not very big," he said. "We're going to have to be good defensively and get after people. They're all good kids and they listen, so they're going to improve a lot."
In addition to leading the team in rebounding and ranking fifth in scoring, Maitlen was third in steals and second in blocked shots.
"She'll need to do a little more for us offensively than she had to last year," McNutt said. "Bri will be a better offensive player this year, I can already tell that."
Also working inside will be juniors Zaidy Frank and Olivia Nielsen, freshman Jenna Taylor and the versatile Mostek.
"Natalie will be expected to play inside and outside, so she has the tough job of learning multiple positions," McNutt said.
Out front will be Chelcee Downing and Brenna Baker as the point guards and primary ball handlers, along with Johnson, sophomore Maria Mostek and freshman Alli Thomsen.
"A lot of it depends on foul trouble and how the game is going," McNutt said. "We're still not sure how everything is going to go (player rotation). A few freshmen will get an opportunity."
The freshmen were 11-1 in each of their middle school seasons, while last year's freshmen went 9-4 as the JV went 10-11. Both of those teams showed the ability to play hard and make up for a size disadvantage.
Lewis Central and Glenwood tied for the league title last year, and LC is again expected to be loaded with talent. Glenwood was hit hard by graduation, but has some potential for a quick rebuild.
Denison-Schleswig, Harlan and Kuemper will be formidable opponents, McNutt said. Clarke has a strong senior class as a nonconference opponent, and on Nov. 26 the Panthers face a Winterset team expected to be among the Class 4A elite this season.
In fact, LC and Winterset are early challenges on the November schedule after the Raiderette Tip-Off Tourney, followed by games against Kuemper and Glenwood.
(* — Letterwinner)
Seniors — *Brianna Maitlen (5-7), Emma Johnson (5-4).
Juniors — Chelcee Downing (5-4), Zaidy Frank (5-6), Sadie Jones (5-6), Olivia Nielsen (5-9).
Sophomores — Brooke Thelen (5-7), *Natalie Mostek (5-9), Brenna Baker (5-5), Maria Mostek (5-2).
Freshmen — Taylor Briley, Becca Ross, Jessica Beatty, Shelby Palser, Caitlin McIlravy, Sydney Dunphy, Ashley Eblen, Alli Thomsen, Camryn Somers, Jenna Taylor, Gracie Russell.
Nov. 19 — at Mount Ayr Classic, vs. Lamoni, 6 p.m.
Nov. 20 — at Mount Ayr Classic, vs. O-M or Mount Ayr, 6 or 8 p.m.
Nov. 26 — vs. Winterset, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 30 — vs. Lewis Central, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 4 — at Carroll Kuemper Catholic, 6 p.m.
Dec. 7 — at Glenwood, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 10 — at Shenandoah, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 14 — vs. Harlan, 6 p.m.
Dec. 15 — vs. Atlantic, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 18 — vs. Denison-Schleswig, 6 p.m.
Dec. 21 — at Red Oak, 6 p.m.
Jan. 4 — vs. Clarinda, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 8 — at Atlantic, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11 — vs. Carroll Kuemper Catholic, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 14 — vs. Osceola Clarke, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 15 — vs. Glenwood, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 18 — vs. Shenandoah, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 22 — at Harlan, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 25 — at Denison-Schleswig, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1 — vs. Red Oak, 6 p.m.
Feb. 2 — at Lewis Central, 5 p.m.
Feb. 5 — at Clarinda, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 8 — at Harlan, 6 p.m.
Feb. 13 — Regional tournament, 7 p.m., TBA