A talented group of underclassmen and strong leadership from the senior class combined to give the 2017-18 North Polk girls’ basketball team one of the best seasons in program history.
With freshman Maggie Phipps and sophomore Jaedon Murphy garnering all-state honors, and four other Comets making all-conference, North Polk shared the Heart of Iowa Conference title and made it to state for the first time in a decade. The Comets went on to reach the state semifinals in Class 3A — tying the 1994-95 team for the best finish in school history — and they also matched the 2007-08 and 2008-09 teams for the most wins in a season.
“It was a great season,” North Polk head girls’ basketball coach Clint Albertsen said. “The girls really came together as a team. We were playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
North Polk went 22-4 overall and finished 12-2 in the HOIC. The Comets turned in winning streaks of seven and 11 games, and scored five wins over teams that ended the regular season ranked.
The Comets defeated 4A schools Carlisle (53-46), Newton (53-73) and Pella (48-41) in their first three games, then suffered a 42-29 home loss to Nevada. They won at Gilbert (55-29) and South Hamilton (55-19) and whipped Saydel (62-27) and Greene County (62-23) in their next four games.
The pre-Christmas stretch of North Polk’s schedule ended with the Comets taking down two ranked teams in Roland-Story and West Marshall. They won at Roland-Story in conference play, 51-48, and edged West Marshall at home, 52-48.
After break, North Polk trounced Prairie City-Monroe, 71-50, but then ran into a buzz saw at Grinnell. The eventual 4A state runner-up overpowered North Polk by an 85-42 margin.
North Polk downed Gilbert by a 52-41 score in its next game, but a slow start against Roland-Story cost the Comets in a 59-50 loss to the Norse on Jan. 16.
The Comets didn’t lose again the rest of the regular season.
North Polk earned a big revenge win over a Nevada team missing all-state center Lexy Koudelka, 44-31, on Jan. 19. The Comets crushed Saydel (75-33), Greene County (55-19), Norwalk (61-27), PCM (68-38), Bondurant-Farrar (38-19) and South Hamilton (62-31) to close out the regular season, finishing with a No. 8 ranking in 3A and securing a share of their first conference title since 2013.
“The biggest challenge was blending young talent with experience,” Albertsen said. “It took some time for us to find our identity. We recommitted to defense and rebounding, two areas where we were struggling earlier in the season.”
The postseason began with North Polk fending off a game Creston team, 55-48. The Comets came up much sharper in the regional semifinals, whipping a solid Chariton team, 77-40.
That set up a date with Nevada in the regional finals.
The Cubs had Koudelka back in the line up and she was dominant. But North Polk’s balance and big edge at the foul line prevailed as the Comets pulled off an impressive 46-42 victory to punch their ticket to state for the first time since 2007-08.
“I enjoyed watching a team set its own goals, stay committed to those goals and work collectively to achieve those goals,” Albertsen said. “The moments after we qualified for the state tournament were really fun. The team was so excited and happy and I was so proud of them.”
North Polk wasn’t content with just making it to state.
The Comets opened against No.7 Davenport Assumption — a traditional power — in the 3A state quarterfinals at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. But it was North Polk that played like the grizzled state veterans, whipping the Knights, 64-47.
“Qualifying for state was great, but I think the biggest highlight was how the team responded in our quarterfinal game,” Albertsen said. “It would have been easy to just be happy to be there, but the girls were ready to compete and we were able to beat a very strong program in Davenport Assumption.”
In the semifinals, the Comets ran into No. 1 and unbeaten Crestwood. North Polk looked completely overmatched early, but rallied from 24 points down to get within 11 before running out of gas late in a 72-48 loss.
North Polk finished the year averaging 54.8 points and allowing 40.0 per game. The Comets shot 37.3 percent from the field, 65.5 percent from the line and 27.3 percent from 3-point range, converting 143 shots from beyond the arc.
The Comets averaged 11.5 assists against 11.2 turnovers per game. They held opposing teams to 35-percent shooting from the field and outrebounded teams by a 32.5-30.4 margin per game.
“I think this team was able to put team before self,” Albertsen said. “It’s sometimes easier said than done, but once we did that, we really played well.”
Phipps was a huge addition to help get North Polk to the next level. She was a second-team all-state pick by both the Iowa Print Sports Writers Association and Iowa Girls Coaches Association, and a first-team all-HOIC selection.
Phipps averaged a team-high 15.9 points and also put up 3.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Phipps led North Polk 54 3-pointers shooting 33.1 percent from behind the line and she shot 37.4 percent overall from the field and 71.6 percent from the line.
Murphy made huge strides from her freshman to sophomore season, being named second-team all-state in 3A by the IGCA, first-team all-HOIC and to the all-3A state tournament team.
Murphy produced 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.5 steals and 1.1 assist per game. She shot 47.9 percent from the field, 72.4 percent from the line and made 14 3-pointers.
Katie Brown and Katie Scott had great junior seasons as second-team all-conference picks.
Brown gave North Polk a third strong scoring option, averaging 9.5 points, shooting 40.1 percent from the field, 76.5 percent from the line and draining 39 3-pointers at 32-percent accuracy. Brown also put up 2.6 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 assists.
Scott delivered 4.1 points, 3.1 assists, 1.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game at point guard. She made 18 3-pointers, shooting 30-percent from downtown, and shot 34.6 percent overall from the field.
Junior forward Carolyn Steffen and freshmen guards Abi Zimmer and Hannah Foster were the top underclassmen contributors off the bench for North Polk. Steffen tallied 1.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, Zimmer averaged 2.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals and Foster totaled 12 assists, 12 rebounds, 11 points and 10 steals in 21 games.
Rebecca Ley, Danielle Bonewitz, Maddie Bruggeman, Sydney Albaugh, Callie Haupert and Ciera McCloud provided the quality senior leadership needed to make North Polk a complete team.
“Our six seniors were instrumental in our success this season — I have great respect for them as a group,” Albertsen said. “They were the definition of selfless. Several young players got more minutes than many of our seniors, but these seniors truly put team ahead of self. We could not have had the season we did without their leadership and enthusiasm.”
Ley was named all-HOIC honorable mention after averaging 3.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals as an undersized, but quick and aggressive post. Bonewitz averaged 1.3 points and 1.6 rebounds and Bruggeman 1.4 points and 1.3 rebounds.
Albaugh compiled 11 rebounds and three points, Haupert 19 rebounds and 14 points and McCloud 15 points and seven rebounds.
The returning Comet players will look to build on that selfless attitude and keep the program contending for a conference championship and another trip to state in 2018-19.
“I am optimistic about our potential for next season,” Albertsen said. “We will return a number of players. All of this is contingent upon continued focus on improvement and work ethic.”