All-area classic could be just the beginning
Newell-Fonda, Bishop Garrigan both embraced the spotlight
DES MOINES — If this is what we have to look forward to in the years to come, buckle up. The instant Class 1A girls basketball rivalry between Newell-Fonda and Bishop Garrigan — born on Saturday night with the Mustangs’ show-stopping comeback and last-second 65-63 championship-game victory over the Golden Bears — will continue to be must-see entertainment.
It didn’t take long for top-ranked N-F and No. 3 Garrigan to establish themselves as the two best 1A teams in the 2020 field by a mile. The Mustangs reached the finals with blowout wins of 30 and 51 points at Wells Fargo Arena. The Bears marched on with 15- and 32-point routs.
What we didn’t know is how the programs would match up with each other in the first all-Messenger area state title tilt since Eagle Grove and Emmetsburg met on the baseball diamond in 2001. Newell-Fonda was deeper and more balanced scoring-wise in prevailing for the 54th consecutive time dating back to 2018. Bishop Garrigan relied heavily on its starters and, more specifically, freshman stars Audi Crooks and Molly Joyce.
While they approach the game much differently, it quickly became obvious that the Mustangs and Golden Bears were worthy adversaries — and on a given night, anything could happen.
On Saturday, we got a little of everything.
— We witnessed the dominance of the 6-foot-3 Crooks all over again. N-F simply had no answer for the precocious daughter of 1985 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate Jimmie Crooks and former Garrigan star Michelle (Vitzthum) Cook. No one did. The state’s new freshman scoring record-holder rattled off 34 points and 17 rebounds in the finals like it was nothing. Crooks isn’t just bigger than everyone else. There is a natural finesse and seasoned intelligence to her game, as relatively raw as she still is as just a ninth-grader.
“I was ultra-impressed with Audi Crooks,” said Mustang head coach Dick Jungers, who has now guided his program to the 1A championship round in six of the last eight seasons. “Her hands and ability to catch (an entry pass), her footwork, her soft touch around the rim … it’s not just about size. There’s so much skill to her game that’s very advanced already.”
— We saw Newell-Fonda’s mettle surface for the first time in real time. The Mustangs hadn’t been tested in their first 26 contests — all victories, all by 10 points or more. With 30 seconds left in the third quarter, they found themselves trailing by 16 and on the brink of disappearing.
“I kind of had a feeling, though, that if any group could (rally) from that kind of deficit, it was this one,” said Jungers, who has accumulated an astonishing 393 wins in just 18 seasons at the helm. “They’re just never going to quit or give up on each other. They don’t panic. It was a matter of better execution, which we showed, and belief in each other and our system, which never wavered.
“We want to get after it for 32 full minutes. That’s Newell-Fonda basketball. So whether we’re up 16 or down 16, we’re going to keep coming until there’s no time left. Fortunately, we had just enough left in the tank to (finish the comeback).”
— In a showdown flooded with underclassmen, senior Megan Morenz delivered the magical moment. Morenz’s walk-off basket for a championship is what every player dreams about. She finished with 14 points and four steals in her third state finals appearance, which now includes two titles.
“I saw a picture after the game that showed Megan in a moment of extreme emotion,” Jungers said. “That’s kind of a side of her you never see. She never gets super excited, but she’s also never negative, always encouraging, a good teammate, and a silent leader who will just out-work you.
“Megan embodies what our program stands for. For her to end it like that was just phenomenal and well-deserved.”
The best is almost assuredly yet to come in this matchup; Saturday was only Round 1. The Mustangs are slated to return 88.3 percent of their scoring next year; the Bears, 79.3. Before we look forward, though, we should appreciate the seniors — Morenz and Kylie Robinson for N-F, and Katie Noonan, Madison Meister, Jenna Heinen, Emma Fogarty, Emma Hamilton and Amanda Miller for Garrigan. They may not all log heavy minutes, but there is so much more to being a contributor than scoring and shooting. Seniors are often the glue behind the scenes in practices, on bus trips, during team time. Let’s give credit where credit is due here.
— Don’t overlook the others. Crooks’ performance and Morenz’s shot garnered most of the attention in the end, but Macy Sievers had 25 points in 27 minutes and four of Newell-Fonda’s 19 steals. Ella Larsen added 12 points and six rebounds for the Mustangs, who forced 33 turnovers and had 40 points off of the miscues. Joyce (12 points) and junior Kaylyn Meyers (11) reached double figures for the Golden Bears before fouling out — a critical component in the tide turning — and Noonan pulled down seven rebounds.
Sievers, Larsen, Maggie Walker, Crooks and Joyce made the all-tournament team. Meyers should have.
“You need everyone to buy in and embrace their own roles in order to truly be successful and reach your potential,” Jungers said. “The goal is always to get as many kids as possible — and hopefully, multiple classes — on the same page. Fortunately, our kids have done for the most part that through the years. You have to try and be unselfish, because you never know when your number is going to be called.
“It’s not just about being talented. It’s working hard and working well together. I think it’s obvious both of these teams do that, and I hope it will continue (into the future).”
So do we.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports