Sports isn’t life and death.
I get that.
But for every exciting game-winning basket, or late reversal for a state title — as demonstrated by Creston/O-M’s Keaton Hulett — we cover just as many heartbreaking outcomes.
That’s athletics. There’s a winner and loser every time.
I have two such examples this week from Nodaway Valley at state, and SWCC’s overtime regional tournament game here Wednesday.
I’ll start with Nodaway Valley.
The Wolverines got a hard life and death lesson in the middle of their season, when assistant coach Dick Kohler suddenly lost his wife, Cindy.
This senior-laden group already had ample motivation to finish strong at the state tournament, but now they had extra incentive.
In fact, a plan had been cooked up by the players. If they achieved their goal of winning the school’s second state title in seven years, they were going to start to move forward to receive the championship trophy.
Then, they were going to pause, and motion to coach Kohler to go up and receive it first. It was their way of honoring Cindy, and their beloved coach.
All-state center Alex Welsch was particularly close to Kohler, and took Tuesday’s loss to Carroll Kuemper hard. He was visibly torn up immediately afterward.
Despite some early foul troubles that took away some of his intimidating shot-blocking presence, the 6-7 senior played his heart out with 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks in the 61-54 loss.
“The participation trophy is not what these guys wanted,” head coach Darrell Burmeister said 15 minutes after the final buzzer. “They wanted to do it for coach Kohler today. All the events that have happened in his life. It’s a very sad locker room right now.
“It’s going to take awhile for our seniors,” Burmeister continued, “but they can look back and see it was a good era of Nodaway Valley basketball and they kept the tradition alive. Back-to-back Pride of Iowa Conference titles at 16-0. Our community support was terrific. It just would have been fun to have played two more games up here.”
The game didn’t go as planned after the Wolverines got off to an eight-point lead late in the first quarter.
Dean Frank was 3-of-4 on 3-pointers and Dan Ehrsam was 1-3 from behind the arc, and he’s one of the best long-range shooters in the state. Their shot attempts were limited, but part of that could have been the attention paid to them by the tall Kuemper defense.
“Hands up all the time was really stressed,” said 6-6 junior guard Cole Neary, also an all-state quarterback for the Knights’ semifinal playoff team. “We had to close out on them and contest shots. They have great shooters.”
Kuemper owned a 37-27 advantage on the boards, which took away some of Nodaway Valley’s running game. You have to make stops and get defensive boards to get an outlet pass.
Sheldon’s Dallas Ennema, a 6-7 D-I recruit (Albany), and 6-8 James Gradert negated Kuemper’s size in Thursday’s 49-42 semifinal victory over the Knights. (Sam Brincks and Neary, with 16-point averages, are among three returning starters next year.)
Meanwhile, T.J. Bower and reserves Zach Plymesser and Jackson Lamb will lead next year’s Nodaway Valley team. News flash, there are some good shooters coming up at Nodaway Valley.
Burmeister will look back fondly at this group of nine seniors, including four starters — Welsch, Ehrsam, Frank and Brad Baudler — and top post reserve Tim Hansen.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Burmeister said. “When they were eighth-graders, if I needed someone to go to some of the team camps, I could always count on them. I never had any problem filling out teams these last four years. They weren’t backing down from varsity competition.
“It was all supposed to build up for these last two years. They didn’t quite get what they wanted, but how many teams go to state back-to-back years?”
It’s not always easy doing interviews after teams have had their dream yanked from under their feet. NV’s Welsch, Baudler and Bower could not have been more polite in the media room, and gracious with any reporters who approached them.
Something tells me those guys are going to be successful adults.
I’ve seen my share of disappointments at last-second shots bouncing off the target. Heck, our own family has felt that pain.
I had that same feeling for SWCC standout sophomore guard Marquealis Edwards Wednesday night. He’s one of the best all-around talents we’ve seen in a Spartan uniform in a number of years, and many times I’ve seen him step up to the free throw line and drain two shots.
He does everything right. A set routine, with slow, deliberate dribbles, bend the knees as he eyes the target, then a nice follow-through on the release with a perfectly-arched shot.
So, when SWCC got the ball back with :06 left in overtime, trailing Iowa Central 61-60 in the regional opener, I thought something good would happen when I saw the ball go to “Q” for a drive to the basket. I figured he’d either score for the lead, or get fouled and, at worst, settle for one make and the tie.
With only :00.9 showing on the clock, Edwards went to the line after being fouled.
The first one was right on line, but just an inch or so short of climbing over the front of the rim. Then, with the gym as quiet as I’ve ever experienced during a game, he took a deep breath before attempting the second.
That fateful shot rattled around the rim for an agonizing moment, before falling away as the buzzer sounded. Stunned fans filed out in silence, as if leaving a funeral visitation.
Coach Mike Holmes noted the team had chances earlier to salt away the game in regulation, which would have sent the Spartans to Iowa Lakes in today’s semifinals.
But that does little to console “Q,” who collapsed in anguish on the bench. Teammates surrounded the all-region guard and tried to comfort him, and remind him they all had a hand in the outcome.
I’m sure those free throws will stick with Edwards for a long time. But nobody wants that to be the memory of one of the greats to wear a Spartan uniform. For two years I watched this sophomore-heavy squad perform with hustle and dignity, usually competing on even terms against better athletic talent.
Edwards, Delby Halcomb, Marcus Littleton, Devin Kastrup, Patrick Wright, Trevor Kayser, Patrick Negri and local products Chase Blazek (Creston) and Brett England (Diagonal) were in uniform for the final time Wednesday.
Only three freshmen return, so it will be a new-look Spartan team in 2013-14.
Harlan, 1-5 this season against Atlantic, Creston and Kuemper Catholic until beating Atlantic in the substate, is playing for a 3A state championship Saturday night.
“It gets you ready for this,” coach Mitch Osborn said after Thursday’s 45-42 win over MOC-Floyd Valley. “In a lot of our losses, we were right there, a bucket or two away. We just needed to be tougher, physically and mentally.”
Nate Kloewer (6-2) fronted MOC 6-6 star Justin Van Kalsbeek, and 6-6 Trey Lansmen stayed in the lane for backside help. Van Kalsbeek had five points. He averages 16.4.
And 6-3 Harlan starter Gabe Ferry sat out the second half with the flu. They just seem to find a way.
The Hawkeye 10 stands proud, with two semifinalists and its top two finishers (Atlantic and Creston) not even here.
Harlan has four junior starters and Kuemper has three, including its two best players, so I guess we know there’s work to be done to keep up with them.
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