Cotter’s Olivia Gardner makes a shot on Thursday’s 1AA sectional game against St Charles. Cotter won the game but was eliminated on Monday night by Byron.
by BEN MCLEOD
The southeastern conferences are in basketball sectionals, with all the highs and lows that entails. Cotter’s lady Ramblers, near the top of the Three Rivers Conference all season, entered the tournament with confidence and experience, but they faced serious challenges.
The lady Ramblers varsity basketball team met up with the St. Charles Saints on Thursday, February 22, for their first game in the state 1AA tournament. And as of Thursday night, things looked promising.
The first half was a battle against St. Charles’ very capable long-passing offense. Cotter trailed just behind the Saints the entire period. Cotter found themselves falling into fouls, tacking Saints free-throws onto a score that seemed to stay just beyond reach. Junior Isabel Northrup and senior Josie Huelskamp kept Cotter competitive, but with 14-19 on the board, what looked like a perfect three-point shot from sophomore Mary Morgan stuck a wedgie, pausing the game until a fan offered up a crutch to unstick the ball and resume play. The Ramblers appeared to lose momentum momentarily after the disruption, but Northrup sunk two for two points in quick succession, and Morgan shot again, right on the buzzer to end the first period 20-22.
The St. Charles’ contingent were enthusiastic boosters, with plenty of cheering from team and bleachers. The Rambler girls, however, were calm and focused, unshaken by their slow first half, and that determination took the game in their favor in the second.
Once the Ramblers had a handle on the Saints’ offense, it looked like a done deal. St. Charles couldn’t keep possession, and Cotter racked up 18 points in the first five minutes, as Northrup and Huelskamp sliced up St. Charles’ defense, with Huelskamp sinking two in under 10 seconds. Mary Morgan and sophomore Jordan Rubie contributed to Cotter’s growing lead, rattling the Saints, finally ending the game 58-41 for Cotter. Head coach Pat Bowlin was understandably pleased. “We played our best second half of the year,” he said. “The key was having Josie Huelskamp guard their best player, Natalie VanderZanden. Josie’s steals created a faster pace and the entire team rode the momentum.”
Coach Bowlin and the team moved into Monday night’s second round game against Byron with confidence, and with a plan. “They have a 6’5” center named Ayoka Lee,” Bowlin said. “She has been injured for several games this year; when she plays the entire game they are 14-1.” When Cotter played against her two years previous, she scored 40 against the Ramblers. But, just like going up against the St. Charles’ weapon of choice, VanderZanden, the Ramblers’ plan was to intensively guard Byron’s Ayoka Lee and let their offense do its work. “We will do our best to slow her down,” Bowlin said. “Hopefully a combination of our full-court pressure and ability to hit the three-point shot can put us over the top.”
But Thursday’s triumph was not reflected on Monday night. “Despite being double-teamed, Lee was unstoppable,” Bowlin admitted. The Byron Bears knocked the Ramblers out of the tournament 54-76. He did point out that Lee is already set to attend Division 1 Kansas State, so it’s not as if Cotter lost to a team they were expected to dominate.
With their season over, the Lady Ramblers are thinking about the senior players who won’t be joining them on the court next year, Josie Huelskamp and Mallory Cunningham. But the team, and their fans, are also enthusiastic about their core of strong returning players. And exhibiting the calm and awareness that served the team so well this year, they are more focused now on how well they performed, not on what could have been. “Overall it was a fantastic season,” Bowlin said. “I think we surprised a lot of people by winning 19 games.” They will be a team to watch in 2018-19.