The Creston girls had a wild finish to the season last year, losing four of five before a season-ending blowout win which sparked energy into the Panthers.
From there, a resounding blowout over Clarke and an upset over Class 3A No. 13 West Marshall put the Panthers up against Red Oak for a third time that season.
A 36-point loss to the Tigers closed the books on Creston’s season. An unfortunte end to a potential storybook season now has a chance to be one-upped this year as Tony Neubauer’s Panthers look to grow from the game and continue its trend upwards as a girls basketball program.
“We talk about progression. The year before I was here, they were 8-13. We had a winning season my first year at 11-10, won a playoff game. Then last year, ... it changed a little bit,” Neubauer said. “Obviously, if we’re in 3A, we’re a top-5 team in the state, but we aren’t. We’re Class 4A. We still have a really good chance to get to state. ... It all comes down to getting better and getting in the moment.”
Neubauer made mention of last year being the first time the Panthers were put in a pressing make-or-break moment when it came to the playoffs. With the experience from last season, as well as the experience from overlapping athletes on the state-qualifying softball team, Neubauer thinks the group has matured immensely.
“In that regional final (loss to Red Oak), we hadn’t been in that situation before, Red Oak had,” said Neubauer. “... We had always played them tough. We just weren’t ready for that moment yet. It’s about attacking it and going after it, and now they know what to expect. It comes from experience.”
Personnel-wise, the Panthers will look very similar to what they sent out every night last season, minus point guard Sydney Hartsock due to graduation.
Now, there will be five players from the year before who will play a major part in the nightly rotation.
The Creston girls boast a strong forward tandem in Sam Dunphy and Kelsey Fields. Down low, the two collected 457 rebounds combined last season. On top of the two, Braelyn Baker, Rylie Driskell and Morgan Driskell bring valuable experience to a team that is having fun in practice despite COVID-19 protocols tightening things up.
“Kelsey and Sam, they’ve started every game for me since I got here,” said Neubauer. “Braelyn and Rylie have played a ton and Morgan has played enough to get in there. ... Just getting back in the gym has been fun so far. “
Fields, a Div. II commit to Northwest Missouri, will be a major focus of opponents’ game plans every game. Neubauer knows it, and feels there’s plenty of girls who can put up points other than Fields.
“We have a lot of kids than can score,” said Neubauer. “... (Dunphy) averaged double figures last year, (Baker) averaged almost eight points, Rylie almost six, Bri (Fields) almost six, Morgan Driskell can score, Doryn Paup can score.”
Last season Baker scored 175 points and assisted 116 scores. Rylie Driskell scored 133 points with 99 assists while Morgan Driskell and Paup combined for 35 points in limited time.
“Obviously, Kelsey is going to get some attention but we’ve got a lot of kids that can score in different spots. ... We’re far from being one-dimensional,” Neubauer said.
The Hawkeye 10 will again be one of the tougher conferences in Southwest Iowa.
With Glenwood having the ability to reload seamlessly, Red Oak and Lewis Central being more than capable of retaining success and Dension, Harlan and St. Albert in a battle to one-up one another, it may be a tough road for Creston to repeat a 14-win season.
“It’s a deep conference,” said Neubauer. “Glenwood is not only a team to beat in 4A, but they’re the team to beat in the conference. ... St. Albert is always tough, Red Oak and Shenandoah are rebuilding a little bit.”
The tough competition is exactly what Neubauer wants for his team, feeling "the best conference in 3A and 4A girls basketball" helped Creston get to where it was last year.
“It’ll be battle-tested, and that’s what we want. That’s what helped us beat West Marshall last year. ... I really believe the Hawkeye 10 in 3A and 4A basketball is the best for girls basketball. It pays off,” said Neubauer. “That’s what makes the Hawkeye 10 so much fun.”
UP NEXT – Creston takes on Des Moines Christian Friday at home, with tip off coming at 7:30 p.m.
With 15 games on the schedule listed as home games, Neubauer is happy for the ability to play in a familiar setting like their home gym and to avoid the travel.
“It’s still your own gym,” said Neubauer. “... It’ll help, and it’s not quite the same atmosphere, but you’re still more comfortable in your own gym. Hopefully it pays off, ... we always talk about making the home gym a tough place to play. I’m not complaining. We’re excited about it.”
To attend all home games, masks are required, according to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ proclamation Monday. The proclamation is in effect until midnight, Dec. 10.
Players for teams are allowed two guests per game. No further attendees will be allowed.