Few girls basketball leagues across Iowa this season were able to match the overall quality and depth of the Twin Lakes Conference.
Members Manson Northwest Webster, South Central Calhoun and Newell-Fonda will each be represented at next week's state tournament. Pocahontas Area also fell just one step short of a trip to Des Moines.
The 15th-ranked Cougars (20-4 overall), No. 12 Titans (21-3) and 13th-ranked Indians (21-4) all held down spots in the final Class 2A IGHSAU poll of the year, while the Mustangs (22-2) have been No. 1 in 1A throughout the season. Those four schools have managed a combined 84-13 record this winter, including a 30-6 mark in the TLC.
Despite the loss of all-state guard and University of Northern Iowa signee Ellie Herzberg (elbow injury) on Jan. 3, Manson Northwest Webster still finished 13-3 down the stretch to claim its ninth state bid in school history - with five of those coming in the past eight years alone. In 2010, the Cougars settled for a runner-up showing at Wells Fargo Arena under the direction of then-head coach Wade Wubben.
"It's been really good to be able to play quality opponents night in and night out," MNW head coach Bret Larson said. "One thing I know we've talked a lot about as a team is that even on nights when we came up short, we were able to take so much out of those games.
"You always hate to get beat, but a lot of times you can learn more losing by three or four points than winning by 50. It was awesome to see the success everyone had."
Winners of six straight and 11 of its last 12 games, South Central Calhoun is headed to Wells Fargo Arena for the first time as a joined program. Head coach Dave Birks previously guided Rockwell City-Lytton to state on three occasions, including a 1A state title in 2004 and a runner-up effort in 2003.
"We had five extremely quality teams in the conference, and just about every week we faced a rated team," said Birks. "Everybody kind of forgot about was East Sac County, but they beat us the first time we played them.
"There are a lot of good defensive teams in the league. Our kids had to learn to handle the ball and get used to playing in close big and intense games."
Defending state runner-up Newell-Fonda will be making its 10th appearance in Des Moines. The Twin Lakes Conference champion Mustangs, who went a perfect 9-0 in the league this year, also placed second at state in 1997, 2000 and 2008.
Head coach Dick Jungers has directed Newell-Fonda to state seven times on the softball diamond as well since '05, including a 1A crown in '08 and runner-up showings in '06, '09 and '10.
"We've got a lot of really strong teams that give you different looks, which helps in preparation for tournaments," Jungers said. "Some teams press more, and others are more physical, but everyone in our conference is fundamentally sound and well-coached."
After going just 9-14 during the 2012-13 campaign, Pocahontas Area turned its fortunes around behind the emergence of star freshman guard Elle Ruffridge, who wrapped up the season with 612 points - a new state-best for a ninth-grader.
"Having a conference like we did this year helped prepare everybody for the challenges of the tournament," said PAC head coach Robert Maske. "We were very excited about the success (the TLC) had. What I like best about the Twin Lakes Conference is each team has a little bit different aspect of what they like to do. South Central Calhoun is a big team that works hard on the inside, Newell-Fonda is quick with its point guard play, and Manson Northwest Webster has a stingy defense. As a coach, it really helps gear you up for the postseason."