That didn’t take long.
After missing out on state for the first time in eight years last season, the Ballard girls’ basketball team entered the 2013-14 campaign on a mission.
Despite having to replace all-state center Katie Ahrenholtz – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from 2012-13 – the Bombers possessed a lot more experience and versatility in 2013-14.
Thanks to a talented crop of returning talent mixed in with some quality newcomers, the Bombers managed to earn a share of the Raccoon River Conference championship – their seventh in nine years, but first since 2010-11. Ballard then punched its ticket to state for the eighth time in nine years, and just like the previous seven trips, the Bombers managed to reach the semifinals.
Ballard came up short against Western Dubuque in the semifinals, finishing 21-5 overall. The Bombers shared the RRC crown with Carlisle – another state semifinalist – after finishing 11-3 in the conference.
"This season was unbelievable," Ballard head coach Kelly Anderson said. "It’s always hard to lose that last game, but this season will be a great memory for all of us."
The season began with a 48-27 home victory over Gilbert, and four days later Ballard traveled to Ankeny to take on the new Ankeny Centennial program. The Bombers came up short versus a Jaguar team that finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in 5A, 57-38, but they quickly put that behind them by winning their next six games.
Ballard picked up quality road victories over Norwalk (49-38) and Boone (48-23) before destroying Iowa Falls-Alden at home, 67-24. The Bombers then scored another big road win over Pella, 54-46 on Dec. 10 and followed that up with a huge 60-48 home victory over a Perry team rated No. 2 in 4A.
The final win of the streak was the most dramatic. Ballard took down top-10 power and eventual state qualifier Dallas Center-Grimes – a former conference rival – by a 52-50 score in a big comeback home win on Dec. 17.
Ballard was poised to roll its winning streak into Christmas break, but the Bombers were upset by Adel-Desoto-Minburn, 41-39, at Adel in their final game before the holidays.
After the break gave them some time to stew over the loss, the Bombers entered January with even more focus and determination. In its first three games back from break, Ballard whipped Newton (57-41) and Carroll (73-18) on the road and then trounced eventual 3A state qualifier Bondurant-Farrar by a 55-40 score.
The Bombers added a 47-40 road win over Winterset on Jan. 14, and three days later they partook in one of the greatest games in program history versus Carlisle.
After a slow start to the season, Carlisle had emerged as a team to be reckoned with – entering the game on a six-game winning streak. The Wildcats appeared to be headed for a seventh consecutive win after getting Ballard down 15 early in the fourth quarter of their Jan. 17 matchup in Huxley.
But thanks to clutch baskets from Kenzie Ihle and Emily Knittel, Ballard mounted a stunning rally to tie the game and force overtime. In the extra session Gabie Doud took over to give the Bombers a thrilling and stunning 68-65 comeback triumph that will be talked about for a long time.
"Two games come to mind," Anderson said of his team’s biggest highlights of the regular season. "One against DCG when we were down nine points in the fourth quarter and came back to win. The other was against Carlisle when we were down 15 and came back to win in overtime. This told us as coaches we had a mentally tough team."
Ballard followed up the Carlisle win with a 48-37 non-conference rivalry win over top-10 3A power Nevada in Huxley. The game gave the Bombers some revenge after Nevada had picked up its first-ever 5-on-5 win over Ballard last season in Nevada.
The Bombers closed out January by defeating Boone at home, 37-23, winning at Perry in a 49-39 battle between two ranked 4A squads and then avenging their loss to ADM with a 52-39 home win over the Tigers.
Bondurant-Farrar snapped Ballard’s nine-game winning streak with a 59-51 win over the Bombers on Feb. 7 in Bondurant. The Bombers came back to whip Winterset on senior night in Huxley, 47-24, but they fell at Carlisle on Feb. 14, 47-42.
A makeup game with Carroll still gave Ballard a shot to tie Carlisle for the conference crown, and the Bombers easily achieved their goal with a 54-11 home victory.
One week later Ballard opened 4A regional play against a familiar foe in Pella. The 12th-rated Little Dutch gave the No. 7 Bombers a good fight, but Ballard prevailed by a 48-42 score to advance to the regional finals to face No. 15 Grinnell.
With a trip to state on the line Ballard played a tremendous game, disposing of Grinnell by a 49-34 score at Saydel to punch their tickets to state.
In the 4A state quarter finals Ballard went up against No. 3 Davenport Assumption. The Knights were three-time defending state champions and the two teams played three times at state since 2010, with Assumption winning two and Ballard taking one.
The Bombers evened up the score with the Knights on March 5, turning in a great team effort to pull off a 55-45 victory.
"Naturally, the Davenport Assumption game was very special," Anderson said.
In the semifinals Ballard couldn’t get anything going on offense against Western Dubuque. The Bombers played great on defense, but their lack of offense ended up costing them in the end as Western Dubuque prevailed by a 30-23 score.
According to Anderson, one area of play stood out above the rest in getting Ballard back to winning conference championships and contending for state championships.
"Defense," Anderson said. "Our seniors – Abby McGee, Lannie (Alanna) Dubberke, Charcey Petersen, Sheridan Gealow and Kenzie Ihle – led the way on the defensive side of the ball. These girls came to practice the first day with an attitude that carried over to the underclassmen. Defense kept us in every game this year, even when our offense wasn’t very good. During the tournament we held several teams to their lowest point total of the year."
Ballard limited their opposition to 38 points per game, shooting just 34 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3-point range. Ballard also forced 19 turnovers per game and held a slim 25-9-25.6 per game rebounding advantage.
On offense Ballard averaged 50.4 points. The Bombers shot 43 percent overall from the field, 28 percent from 3-point range (making 107 of 381) and 64 percent from the line.
The sophomore tandem of Doud and Knittel were the go-to players for Ballard on offense. Both players were named all-state by the Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Girls Coaches Association as Doud made both publications’ first team and Knittel landed on the third team.
Doud was both Ballard’s primary ball-handler and top option in the low post. The versatile 5-10 forward averaged 17.1 points, shooting 56 percent from the field, making 10 of 30 3-pointers and canning 67 percent of her free throws.
Doud also pulled down a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game and blocked a total of 13 shots. She was second on the team in both assists and steals, averaging 1.8 and 2.7 respectively.
Knittel averaged 12.2 points, shooting 45 percent from the field and 73 percent from the line. She averaged 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.2 steals.
Sophomore forward Meredith Ossian was Ballard’s top scoring option off the bench. She averaged 6.4 points, shooting 48 percent from the field and she was the team’s top 3-point shooter, canning 36 3-pointers at a 42-percent clip.
Ossian also averaged 2.8 rebounds and she totaled 14 blocks on the season.
Ihle was Ballard’s other top outside shooter as she made 32 3-pointers and averaged 4.4 points. Ihle also paced the team in assists with an average of 2.4 per game and she chipped in 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
Freshman Jenna Moody was another player to provide a spark of the bench. The spunky guard averaged 2.5 points and made nine 3-pointers and shot 88 percent from the line.
Moody also came away with 15 assists and 13 steals on the season.
McGee and Dubberke were the defensive anchors on the perimeter and low post respectively.
McGee led Ballard in steals with an average of 3.2 per game and she also averaged 2.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists. On offense McGee averaged 1.8 points per game.
Dubberke put up 2.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. She also averaged 1.5 assists and led Ballard in blocks with 26.
Petersen, Gealow and freshman Taylor Larson were Ballard’s other top options off the bench.
Petersen averaged 1.3 points, 1.3 assists and 1.2 steals and Gealow put up 0.8 points and 0.6 rebounds per game. Larson hit 10 3-pointers and averaged 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds.
"Our girls played to their strengths," Anderson said. "When each girl understands what those are, you become a pretty good team. Our program has been very good for many years because our kids are willing to do this. It’s not what’s best for them, but what’s best for the team."
Next season Ballard must find a way to replace a valuable senior class. But with its top three offensive threats and a couple key reserves coming back, the Bombers will again strive for a RRC title and another trip to state.
"We always seem to have girls who step up and help our team every year, and we will need to find those players this summer," Anderson said. "If the girls coming back will be as tough on defense as we were this year, then things look bright."