Warriors will lean on team chemistry, younger players and revamped defense

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Members of Central’s girls basketball team are (front, left to right) Raelynn Coanner, Oakley Armstrong, Grace Kuehl, Brylee Erickson, Makayla Erickson, Isabelle Schantz; (back) Katie Royer, Layla Embretson, Brooke Tieden, Ashlyn Scherf, Gracie Cummer and Brooklyn Amsden. (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The Central girls basketball team went on an amazing run last year that included winning the Upper Iowa Conference for the first time since 1976 with a record of 15-1, while going 19-3 overall.


This year, the team returns with some familiar faces and familiar expectations, though head coach Mark Wiley, humble in his approach, offered a more subdued assessment of the upcoming season. Wiley’s main expectation is for the team to simply be competitive in every game, something he will attempt to do with a smaller roster this year, with an estimated 12 athletes, slightly down from 15 last season.


Wiley looks at it as a positive. Despite losing five seniors to graduation, the team returns a core of players who have all played a lot of minutes throughout their time at Central, some as far back as third grade. They know what is expected when they take the court for a Wiley coached team.


The smaller group should assist in accomplishing Wiley’s short-term goals, including creating an identity and forming a close-knit camaraderie. In at least one of these areas, the team has already started the initiative by coming up with ideas for players to do as a group. It’s similar to relationship building activities like going sledding when the snow hits, having team game nights and even going to a college basketball game. So far, the team has 10 different activities they will do this season. 


This is something Wiley has always encouraged, but with a smaller core of players, it should be an easier goal to achieve.


”I want us to continue to grow in our relationships with each other, not just in basketball…I want us to grow in the aspects of caring for each other. More compassion for each other off the court, building a more close-knit group,” Wiley said. “You know, the person next to me, if I know a little bit more about them, I’m more willing to go to battle.”


Another positive of having a smaller roster is it allows coaches to spend more one-on-one time with players, something which will prove valuable in getting younger players prepared for the all-important post-Christmas march to the playoffs. 


It will be important because another short-term goal is implementing a new offense.


Traditionally, Wiley’s teams have centered around the three-point shot. While the Warriors will have a few players capable of filling that role, the foundation this year will be focused on getting the ball inside to seniors Ashlyn Scherf and Gracie Cummer. Games will be won and lost in the interior, and in the post play of the Warriors, as opposed to long-range jumpers and shots from behind the arc.


The offense’s ability to adapt, as well as the younger players’ ability to contribute effectively, will essentially decide the fate of Wiley’s long-term goal for the year, which has the Warriors playing their best basketball after Christmas break. 


That is coupled with playing consistently, not just from game to game, but period to period, something the Warriors struggled with last season down the stretch. 


Wiley would also like to avoid the cancellations and postponements that occurred last season, which led to a grueling late-season schedule.


Efforts to get the team ready for this season included holding open-gyms two to three times per week over the summer, as well as holding a team camp in July, where younger players could “get their feet wet,” and attending a camp at Wartburg in which the team played eight games in two days. These were used as barometers for where the team’s strengths and weaknesses are.


One strength is the returning core, which includes five seniors, Cummer, Scherf, Makayla Erickson, Grace Kuehl and Brooklyn Amsden. This provides on-the-court experience and knowledge of the game, which is “key to the team being competitive,” Wiley said.


Post play will prove pivotal for the Warriors, which rests on Scherf staying healthy, as well as the ball-handling skills of Cummer and Kuehl serving as an anchor for the offense. 


Scherf was the number two scorer on the team last season, while Kuehl was fourth. Cummer was a key piece, but will have a larger role with the loss of Delaney Scherf, Haley Frieden and Hannah Asche. 


Then there is footwork, something Wiley “preached” all summer long. It was a focus of offseason workouts and camps to aid with rebounding, where sophomore Katie Royer is expected to make an impact, helping to replace the lost rebounding totals of Scherf, Frieden, Lexi Loan and Aly Feickert.


Other members of the roster, including sophomore Layla Embretson and junior Brooke Tieden, will find time on the defensive end. Along with Royer, they should be a solid rebounding presence for the Warriors. 


In the shooting department, freshman Brylee Erickson will see some playing time and looks to be a formidable shooter from the perimeter. Freshman Raelynn Coanner will provide minutes as well. Either way, the group of younger players will “grow up quickly on the court,” Wiley said.


There are two main concerns entering this season. The first is the small team size. Though it can be a positive, it also has an impact on practices, pushing Wiley to adapt practice plans to fit a 12-person squad as opposed to 16 to 20. 


It also means some drills simply can’t be run. If someone is sick or injured, it impacts other areas of practice, most notably in implementing Wiley’s new defensive strategy. 


In previous years, the Warriors played mostly man-to-man or a 1-3-1 defense, but this year, in an effort to improve rebounding and fit the existing team, Wiley and assistant coach Ashley Funk have cooked up something different. Wiley was unwilling to delve into details, just stating it is new to the team and the program.


The last concern is the fatigue factor with a smaller roster, something Wiley hopes can be avoided and helped after Christmas, when players from junior high can join the roster. 


Should it start to impact the team, recognizing the season is longer than just one game, Wiley will make adjustments as necessary to ensure the team isn’t heading into the playoffs completely drained.


What won’t be a concern is the athletes’ buying in to what Wiley is selling, which is typically an outgrowth of winning. In this case, it’s linked with his everyday approach and the fact he is admittedly “a Warrior through and through.” 


It’s in the classroom and in conversations with students walking the hallway. It’s about being present in their lives, not just because of what they can do with a basketball, but because of what they can do in life. Wiley listens and pays attention, and builds a community among the players. It’s one reason he can name all 65 seniors who have played with him over the 17 years he’s coached girls basketball at Central.


“One of [the] biggest things is person over player, and I care more about the person than I do with the player. And when kids realized that I care more about the person than the player, they’re more willing to change the player than if I just cared about the player,” Wiley said.


The Warriors’ path to repeating as conference champs has some familiar foes, like the MFL MarMac Bulldogs, who are always a competitive match-up, as is Turkey Valley, last season’s conference runner-up. Don’t forget the rematch with Edgewood-Colesburg a week before Christmas, which Wiley said will serve as a test for where the team stands before break.


Central’s season kicks off at home on Tuesday, Nov. 21, versus MFL MarMac.

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