View from the top
DES MOINES – A simultaneous sense of pride and relief swept through head coach Dick Jungers and his Newell-Fonda girls basketball program following Friday’s Class 1A championship game.
Satisfaction? Not entirely.
The Mustangs, a poster child for perseverance after years of excruciating heartache at the finish line, earned their first state title in appearance number six. Jungers navigated his way through a whirlwind of emotions in the 24 hours after the breakthrough victory. Most were positive, but not all.
Jungers couldn’t help but reminisce a little instead of staying completely in the moment and basking in the glory of a long-awaited accomplishment.
”I was absolutely elated for our current group of kids. They were hungry, they were determined. They deserved this,” said Jungers, who has now coached in eight state championship contests between basketball and softball since 2006. ”But as a coach, some of your attention naturally goes to your former players who got this far and couldn’t enjoy the celebration. In the back of my mind, I feel like they were every bit as deserving. Each one could’ve been ‘the team,’ and I say that without hesitation.
”I definitely shed some tears, but they weren’t just tears of joy. I want (the 2015 championship) to represent not just this group of kids and the Newell-Fonda community, but everyone who has worn a Mustang jersey. I wish I could’ve packed them all in the locker room with us afterward.”
Like usual, Jungers made sure his Mustangs – who lost four starters and two all-staters to graduation from a year ago – continued to be tested, even at the sacrifice of a glossy record. They were beaten twice by ranked Class 2A member Manson Northwest Webster (18-6), dropped a game to 3A finalist Pocahontas Area/Laurens-Marathon, and defeated 2A state qualifier South Central Calhoun during a rugged Twin Lakes Conference slate.
Sixteen of Newell-Fonda’s 17 regular-season victories came against non-1A opponents.
”We really thought that defensively, this was a team that could make another run,” said Jungers, who has now guided the program to 35 victories in their last 42 postseason contests. ”It was all a matter of whether or not we could get shots to fall in clutch moments, and fortunately, we had a lot of different players step up offensively and get the job done (during the late-season surge).
”Our defense was the backbone, though (the Mustangs allowed an average of 42.3 points in their six tournament games).”
Jungers searched both inward and around the area for answers – and advice – after settling for a third runner-up trophy in as many tries last March. He knew there wouldn’t necessarily be a solution or even an explanation for the pattern of painful defeats, but ”it never hurts to listen to others. You definitely gain knowledge and perspective that way.”
”I’ve had many helpful conversations with Coach K (St. Edmond’s Adolph Kochendorfer, a four-time silver medalist himself) for instance,” Jungers said. ”We’ve both lost very close (title) games; nail-biters that could have gone either way. In the self-analysis process and hand-wringing over things you might have done differently, you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it took quite a few big wins and quite a few clutch moments to even get there in the first place.
”Qualifying for state is such a tremendous accomplishment. Winning two games (in Des Moines) takes it even further. So you have to keep that in mind and remember how much it took to be in the finals, instead of dwelling on not winning it. You can’t get caught up in viewing yourself, or your players, or your program as some sort of disappointment.”
Jungers also appreciated the ”patience and loyalty” of the N-F community.
”That’s made a big difference,” Jungers said. ”They’ve stuck with us. They’ve been there for us before, during and after every game, year after year after year. Our crowds get bigger and bigger every time we come down (to state). There is no complacency or taking things for granted. That’s meant so much to myself and the team.
”I’m surrounded by tremendous people. The support system is amazing. I am incredibly thankful for my assistants. (Fort Dodge Senior High graduate) Courntey (Vaughn) and Kevin Larsen do a tremendous job. And of course, the kids deserve so much credit for buying into what we teach.”
Jungers didn’t change any core philosophies before this year’s championship game, but a subtle – and somewhat superstitious – adjustment was worth noting in retrospect.
”I’d worn a silver tie clip (in the past on championship night),” Jungers laughed. ”(On Friday), I had on a gold one.”
CAPTIVATING PERFORMANCE: The Pocahontas Area/Laurens-Marathon girls captured everything but a championship at the state tournament last week.
They captured the interest of fans who were waiting to see how they’d perform on the big stage for the first time in a decade. They captured the heart of Wells Fargo Arena with their spirited play and steadfast crowd support.
They captured the attention of media personalities who were introduced to sprightly all-state guard Elle Ruffridge and her talented teammates for the first time. And they captured the imagination of a new generation of PAC kids who hope to be mentioned in this same vein someday, the way they did 10 years ago.
Are head coach Robert Maske and his players disappointed? Absolutely. As mentioned earlier, having a dream season end one win shy of reality is especially crushing. There is no need to mince words or sugarcoat such a conclusion in the immediate aftermath.
By the same token, don’t simply take a loss to Nevada in the 3A title game at face value. There was so much more life and personality to this trip; splitting hairs over which trophy the Indians are bringing home now minimizes the overall experience significantly.
Embrace the memories and what it took to get this far. PAC’s student-athletes should be commended for their unwavering character and effort.
And remember, this is only the beginning.
SAYING GOODBYE: I lost my last two grandparents this past week. My grandmother, Alice Pratt, was 87 years old and died on Tuesday. My wife’s grandfather, Bob Yohe, passed away on Saturday at the age of 89.
Of course they both enjoyed long, full and active lives. That should, in theory, make the news easier to accept. I’m still waiting to feel that way.
After spending a lot of time thinking about what I’ll miss most about both of them, my answer is simple: the conversations. Grandma Alice and Grandpa Bob both had a way of making me feel right at home during our chats, like it was the only place in the world to be at that particular moment. It’s a gift that was relatively common among members of this country’s ”Greatest Generation,” but hard to come by in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world.
I could always slow down and get comfortable around my grandparents. Whenever life got too busy or complicated, their presence helped bring much-needed balance and perspective.
I loved both of you dearly. The void is real and will be impossible to fill. I am incredibly thankful for being able to share so many wonderful moments of my life with you, but I’d give anything for one last talk.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org