DES MOINES — Early in the fourth quarter and nursing a four-point lead, Waverly-Shell Rock appeared to shift into playing-not-to-lose mode.
Pushed far away from the basket, the Go-Hawks weren't attacking and appeared content to nurse their slim advantage. Both coaches noticed.
“I thought we lost our aggressiveness, and that's probably my fault for not explaining well enough what we were trying to do,” Waverly-Shell Rock coach Nate Steege said. “I thought they overextended, and we were moving backwards. That wasn't what we were trying to do.”
After two straight tentative Go-Hawk turnovers, I tweeted that I'd seen this before: a Harlan Community opponent looking vulnerable, and the Cyclones pouncing on that opportunity.
Said Harlan coach Mitch Osborn: “It was there for the taking.”
However, one rather significant skill prevented Harlan from flipping the game and lugging home the school's third championship trophy. It couldn't put the ball in the basket. The Cyclones resumed a nearly seven-minute stretch in which they missed eight straight shots — including seven 3s — and connected on just one of four free throws.
“If we'd just made a couple buckets and just put a little pressure on them,” an exasperated Osborn said. “We just couldn't get finished and get a bucket to go down.”
The Go-Hawks' best player, 6-foot-8 Klinton Carlson, got his team back on track. Right after the under-six-minute media timeout, he attacked the basket and converted a three-point play. Dan Stensland followed with a layup to push the lead to nine. Waverly was on its way.
“I just reminded them that we're still attacking the basket,” Steege said. “They can't overplay everybody and cover the lane. I think they were just so caught up in trying to make a great decision they forgot where the basket was.”
The ending put a sour taste in the crew from Shelby County, but what a postseason ride it was. Six trips to the capital city in a two-week stretch resulted in four memorable victories and state runner-up finishes for the Cyclone girls and boys.
“It was a fun season,” junior all-tournament performer Trey Lansman said. “Obviously we weren't expected to make it this far. I'm proud of this team. I'm proud of what we did.”
Osborn credited seniors Nate Kloewer, Jake Daeges and Brandon Bjoin for paving the way.
“Back as freshmen, there was about 17 of them,” he said. “I said, 'You guys left a great legacy.'”
I covered Harlan's fourth game on Dec. 14 at Creston, and although one game is only a snapshot to a program, I admit to coming away thoroughly unimpressed. I didn't believe there was enough team speed or passing ability to piece together a deep run.
You can't put together a deeper run than the 3-A title game. Osborn said it was about figuring out who the Cyclones were.
“Our identity was our defense,” he said. “We became a very good defensive team. We had to, because we're not a high-octane offense.”
One player who was just happy to be on the floor was junior Gabe Ferry. After missing most of Thursday's semifinal with the flu, he spent most of Friday in his hotel room, sleeping and avoiding his teammates. He shared the team scoring lead in the finals with 14 points.
“I'm just glad I got to play in the championship game,” Ferry said.
Osborn said a run to the finals is an invaluable experience for an entire school, from the varsity to the JV to the grade-schoolers who dress up for the games and then go home to mimic their idols on a lonely court.
The Harlan coach said his players should remember the thrills they provided a community more than the final score of the final game.
“These guys did everything we asked, and they've got the trophy in the case,” he said. “There's some other teams that don't.”
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