Pocahontas Area begins its title defense
Second-ranked and defending Class 3A champion Pocahontas Area begins defense of their title here on Tuesday inside Wells Fargo Arena.
First up for the Indians (24-1 overall) will be No. 8 Clear Lake (21-3) at 5 p.m. in a state quarterfinal. The winner meets either third-rated Center Point-Urbana (21-3) or No. 7 Davenport Assumption (16-7) back here on Thursday night at 6:45 p.m.
On the top side of the bracket sits No. 1 Sioux Center (24-0), which faces 11th-ranked Monroe-PCM (20-4). The winner takes on either No. 4 Crestwood (22-1) or fifth-ranked Cherokee (20-3) in the other semifinal.
The championship game is scheduled for Saturday at 4 p.m.
Of the eight qualifiers, Pocahontas Area and head coach Robert Maske have played three of them in the state tournament over the past two years. Last season, the Indians knocked Cherokee out in the highest-scoring game in tourney history, 102-91.
Back in 2015 on their way to a runner-up showing, Pocahontas Area topped both Clear Lake (63-59) and Crestwood (58-43) in the first two rounds.
Center Point-Urbana is the only other returning qualifier from a year ago, as it lost to Nevada in the semifinals. Nevada, who handed Pocahontas Area its lone regular season loss and reached the 3A finals in each of the past two seasons, is now in 4A.
“We had a close call (in the regional semifinals vs. Roland-Story),” said Maske, who has gone 97-7 over the last three-plus seasons. “But this time of year, you can’t afford to not be ready and play your best ball.
“We responded to the Roland-Story game, and had great focus in practice since.”
Elle Ruffridge became the state’s all-time leading scorer in the final regular season game, and is just a single assist from becoming the state’s leader in that category as well. The Missouri State University signee is first in the state this season in scoring, assists and made three-pointers.
Joining her are returning starters Faith and Grace Meyer, along with Payton Hjerleid. Faith Meyer averages 13 points and four rebounds a game, while also adding 105 steals and 98 assists.
Grace Meyer is at 9.2 points and a team-best 6.3 rebounds, with 127 assists, 81 steals and 17 blocks. The Meyer twins have signed to play for Morningside College.
“Ever since we lost in the finals (two years ago), Faith and Grace have taken it upon themselves to step up their game in big situations,” Maske said. “And that’s what they have done. Elle went out (in the loss to Nevada) and scored over 30 but we lost by four. Faith and Grace took that as they needed to be able to step up and take advantage of the situations that allowed them to hit open shots.”
Hjerleid, who joined the team last year, is averaging 13 points and almost four boards with 105 steals. She’ll play volleyball at Southwest Minnesota State University in the fall.
“When we added in Payton last year, it gave us a strong fourth option,” Maske said. “Coaches have told me that they felt confident in how they would guard Elle or (the Meyer) twins, but that meant Payton was open. It’s tough to try and slow down fourth great athletes.”
A fifth senior rounds out the starting rotation. Olivia Ahlers is chipping in almost five points and five boards a game.
“Olivia has stepped in and we haven’t missed a beat,” Maske said. “When she is open, she can knock down her shot (Ahlers is shooting 52.5 percent from the field).”
Clear Lake won the North Central Conference this season but is minus all-state guard Emily Snelling. The senior suffered a knee injury and was lost for the year.
In her place, freshman Sara Faber and senior Jessica Faber have picked up the offense for head coach Bart Smith. Sara Faber averages 12 points and almost five rebounds, with Jessica Faber contributing 11.8 and 4.5.
The Lions relied on their defense in regionals, allowing just 27 points per game in wins over Dike-New Hartford, Osage and North Polk.
“We know Clear Lake and coach Smith will have something in place to try and slow us down,” Maske said. “We’ve done a great job of adjusting. These girls are just so incredibly smart and understand the game of basketball.”
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