Going out a winner: Superb senior class led Ballard girls on a state championship run in 2020-2021
There was something especially satisfying in the way the Ballard girls’ basketball team won the 2021 Class 4A state championship.
The Bombers had good talent and adequate depth. But there were no Division 1-ready players or 20-point scorers.
Ballard possessed a lot of experience with two four-year starters and three more players with three quality years of experience. But there was a lot of inexperience on the bench.
The Bombers had six players capable of hitting the 3-point shot with some regularity. But only two players made more than 20 shots from behind the arc all season.
Ballard struggled with its scoring consistency in the paint, which in turn made it difficult to maintain a high level of play for all four quarters on offense. The Bombers also weren’t an especially strong rebounding team.
What pushed Ballard through to the second state championship in school history was its defense, chemistry, comradery and uncanny mental toughness.
“It’s all the hard work the girls put in leading up to this year,” Ballard head coach Kelly Anderson said. “These girls are a very special group, and not just because of their ability to play the game. They are great kids in all aspects.”
Ballard finished the season with a 24-1 record. The Bombers won the Raccoon River Conference with a 16-1 mark.
Those lofty records were achieved in the face of a daunting schedule. Ballard went 11-1 against teams that ended the season ranked.
Ballard picked up two wins apiece against No. 3 Dallas Center-Grimes (52-23 and 32-26), No. 7 Bondurant-Farrar (45-37 and 41-37) and No. 10 Gilbert (39-33 and 50-42). The Bombers earned one apiece against No. 1 Glenwood (47-45) and No. 9 Harlan (38-27). The Bombers also swept Winterset (46-39 and 48-37) and defeated Boone (39-17) - two teams that were ranked in 4A at some point during the season.
Ballard whipped 3A state qualifier Roland-Story in its opener (60-28).
The Bombers’ only loss came against No. 13 North Polk (44-37). But they defeated the Comets twice (49-30 and 55-35).
“It’s what allowed us to win a state championship,” Anderson said. “Our conference was the toughest in the state and to come out of that with just one loss was amazing. We had to fight every game, which prepared us for Wells Fargo.”
Ballard’s other victories came against Norwalk (46-15), Adel-Desoto-Minburn (44-24 and 49-23), Carroll (40-22 and 60-28), Carlisle (62-19 and 52-22), Perry (71-7 and 67-15) and Mason City (44-30).
The win over Mason City and the second victory over North Polk came in the 4A regionals. The victory over Harlan, second win over DC-G and triumph over Glenwood came at state.
Ballard defeated Glenwood in the championship game. The Bombers trailed by as many as 10 points and were still down nine going into the fourth quarter.
Senior Josie Fleischmann hit the biggest shot in school history for the game winner against Glenwood.
It was a 25-foot bomb in the face of a defender as she fell backwards with 36 seconds left. Fleischmann’s shot came off an assist from senior teammate and best friend Molly Ihle, who forced Glenwood’s Jenna Hopp to miss a go-ahead shot then hit a free throw in the final seconds to close out the win.
Ihe and Fleischmann – the two four-year starters on the team – were both all-state selections in their final season wearing a Bomber uniform.
A first-team all-state selection and captain of the 4A all-state tournament team, Ihle was the driving force behind Ballard’s success. She anchored a defense that led 4A and was second in the entire state in fewest points allowed at 28.2 per game.
“When your best defender works as hard as she does on the defense it becomes contagious to everyone else,” Anderson said. “When everyone buys in, that’s when you have the best defense in the state.”
Ihle was an elite lockdown defender that also jumpstarted Ballard’s press and was a nightmare for opposing teams with her ability to quickly force traps and double-teams. She averaged 3.4 steals per game.
On offense Ihe was a strong point guard, leading a Ballard offense that averaged 48.5 points shooting 38 % from the field, 32 % from 3-point range and an excellent 72 % from the line. Individually she put up 9.2 points, a team-high 5.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game and made 32 3-pointers at a 36 % clip and shot 78 % from the line.
“No one works harder than she does,” Anderson said. “We always wanted the ball in her hands - whether running the offense, breaking the press or at the end of a game and getting to the free-throw line. We just never had to worry about those things.”
Fleischmann averaged 10.1 points, 1.3 steals and 1.2 rebounds as a second-team all-state pick in 4A. She made 66 3-pointers shooting 41 % from behind the arc and shot 71 % from the line.
“Her improvement on defense was huge this year,” Anderson said. “Watching tape of the state tournament, she was always in the right spot. And nobody shoots it any better than her.”
Cassidy Thompson was Ballard’s other senior starter.
The 6-2 center was a force on defense in the middle – a perfect complement to Ihle and Brooke Loewe’s fantastic perimeter defense. Thompson averaged 5.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals and shot 42 % from the field and 68 % from the line.
“Cassidy stepped it up on defense this year, which is what we needed her to do,” Anderson said. “When you have a shot blocker like that, it makes it tough for the opponent to score around the basket.”
Forwards Ashley Wuestenberg and Sydney Briggs rounded out Ballard’s senior class. They both saw extended varsity minutes at the varsity level for the first time this season and made the most of it to end their careers with a state championship.
“We have been very fortunate in the past to have girls that understood their role as a player, but these two were over the top,” Anderson said. “Without a lot of playing time, they understood their roles as leaders and great teammates. It was great to see them give valuable time at the state tournament!”
Wuestenberg averaged 1.8 rebounds and 1.1 points and shot 45 % from the field. Briggs put up 1.1 rebounds per game and had six big points off the bench in the state quarterfinal win over Harlan.
Loewe and fellow junior Meg Rietz were the other two Ballard starters.
Loewe joined Ihle as a first-team all-state pick and she also made the 4A all-tournament team. Loewe averaged a team-best 10.7 points and 3.5 steals to along with 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists and she shot 77 % from the line.
Rietz was an all-conference performer. The versatile 6-foot forward averaged 6.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals and shot 44 % from the field and 68 % from the line.
Sophomore guard Lily Hillebrand and junior guard Kylie Rigby were Ballard’s top two scorers off the bench. Hillebrand averaged 2.5 points and Rigby 2.8.
Sophomores Lily Beall and Paityn and Paige Noe also contributed for Ballard during the season.
“We had five or six girls that were leading scorer at different times in the year,” Anderson said. “Our opponents couldn’t just concentrate on one or two players for their defense.”
Ballard will have a tough time replacing its phenomenal senior class next season. After a 12-10 record their freshman year the Bomber seniors went 86-6 with three RRC titles and two state appearances over their last three seasons.
“This is a very special group,” Anderson said. “Great leaders!”
But with Loewe and Rietz back to lead the way and the sophomore class adding needed depth Ballard will still be a force in 2021-2022.
“Our outlook never changes – win the conference and play on Saturday at Wells Fargo,” Anderson said. “We only lost two games all year among our freshman, JV and varsity teams. The future looks bright!”