BACK IN THE HUNT
Savvy Mustangs return to the Class 1A hoop field
DES MOINES — Newell-Fonda’s state tournament streak ended in heartbreaking fashion last season in the regional final.
This year, the Mustangs didn’t waste any time in finding their way back to state.
“We talked about never wanting to be in that situation (losing one step away) this time around,” said junior Olivia Larsen, the program’s offensive leader. “We put in a lot of time throughout the offseason like we usually do, and I think it just gave us more determination to end up on top.
“I think that’s what makes our team so successful: our determination and willingness to do whatever it takes.”
Newell-Fonda lost in the 2017 regional final when Kingsley-Pierson heaved a contested three-point shot at the buzzer. The Mustangs were whistled for a foul, and Kingsley-Pierson hit two of three free throws to clinch the victory with no time left on the clock.
Fourth-ranked Newell-Fonda’s tournament tradition is rich. In head coach Dick Jungers’ 16 seasons, the Mustangs have reached Wells Fargo Arena seven times.
In their last four tournament appearances, the Mustangs have advanced to at least the semifinals. They captured a state title in 2015, and earned back-to-back runner-up trophies in 2013 and ’14.
“The big thing with our kids is they’re well-schooled on what they need to do and come ready to play. They keep winning and they enjoy it,” Jungers said. “They have great work ethic and a strong desire to persevere.
“They get after people and play strong defense. Offensively, their unselfishness helps create opportunities.”
Newell-Fonda has reached the title round four times under Jungers, and carries a state record of 11-7 during Jungers’ tenure. Newell-Fonda has made the championship round six times, with their only title coming in 2015.
This year’s group is relatively new to the stage. Only Larsen and junior Emma Stewart were part of the group that lost to eventual champion Springville in the semifinal two seasons ago.
“We thought we had a great chance (to get back to state this year),” Larsen said. “We had a shot just like everyone else, because it’s fair game once the tournament starts.
“We just try to cross off one goal at a time, and talk about how hard we have to work to accomplish those goals.”
Chemistry has been a strong suit for this group of Mustangs.
“This group has great leadership, starting with Jenna (Coppock, the lone senior),” Jungers said. “Everyone gets along well. This team is so much greater than what we have as individuals. They have a great mindset for practices and games.
“The question mark coming into the season was the youth. They are a very athletic group, and the biggest challenge was to mix the new kids with the veterans. This group of freshmen and sophomores have been contributing and elevating our level of play.”
Larsen is first in Class 1A in steals (5.5 per game), fifth in assists (5.1 per game) and seventh in points (19.5). She is also averaging 7.3 rebounds a contest. Larsen’s 132 steals is fourth best in the state.
She has 1,054 career points in 73 games, averaging 14.5 points per contest in her three seasons.
“She is very competitive,” Jungers said. “Being a really good player on a good team, makes everyone around them better. She has been stepping it up as a leader.”
The Mustangs set a school record with 209 three-pointers, led by Stewart’s (51). Coppock and Larsen have hit 45 and 41, respectively. Stewart is averaging 7.6 and Coppock is at 6.1.
Mixing with the three upperclassmen in the starting five are sophomore Megan Morenz and freshman Ella Larsen, who are both averaging 9.8 points per contest.
Jungers’ group has the talent and tradition, which means they also have a target on their back.
“We talk about getting everyone’s best effort,” Jungers said. “We just have to match it. We’ve had some big challenges throughout the year, but we have to make the next play and stop the next basket.
“We have to step up and make a play.”
The Mustangs, who are the No. 3 seed, will face sixth-seed Lansing Kee (22-1) in the first round on Wednesday. Tip is set for 5 p.m.
“Kee has won the last two state softball titles, so they know how to win,” Jungers said. “They play fundamental defense and find ways to make you turn the ball over. They are very well-coached and are having a great season.
“We have great fan support. That has helped propel us, and made us proud to be Mustangs.”