DES MOINES — Flashback to nearly a month ago on Jan. 27 as Clear Lake was hosting Humboldt in a key conference game. Star senior guard Emily Snelling went down with a knee injury in the 45-40 loss, and a night later the Lions dropped a 75-51 contest to a ranked Crestwood team.
After winning 13 games in a row suddenly the Lions had lost two straight and were going to be without Snelling for the remainder of the season, plus a pivotal game at North Central Conference rival Algona was next on the schedule.
As it turns out, that night was a turning point for the Lions, who found new ways to win games. Clear Lake rolled to eight straight wins and back into the Class 3A state tournament where it meets defending state champion Pocahontas Area today at 5 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“If we didn’t go over there and beat Algona, I think we have a different mindset,” Clear Lake coach Bart Smith said. “Going over to their place, defending and getting the win, I think that was the turning point. If we lose that one now everyone is looking around like ‘What do we do now?’
“Since then, everybody has really bought in to what we’re doing.”
The Lions (21-3) had to retool their lineup a bit in order to do it, and in the process, they’ve found a couple gems.
Freshman Sara Faber, who is averaging 12.3 points per game this season, is a rising star. Her sister, Jessica Faber, has proven to be a scorer who can be counted on every night. Chloe Muller and Gretchen Jones have provided big shots down the stretch, and Jordyn Barragy has been Clear Lake’s rock and steadiest player throughout the season.
“We were capable of doing what we’re doing now early in the season. It was just they thought this was Emily’s team and we were going to let her do her thing,” Smith said. “It forced the girls to come out of their shell a bit. It’s been really neat watching the girls mature quicker than I expected.”
Clear Lake has done it with an increased emphasis on defense, too.
In their run to the state tournament, the Lions held opponents to an average of 36.75 points per game. They’ve also added 75 steals in those eight games.
“I think they just trust each other, trust the coaches and trust the process and what we’re doing,” Smith said. “They trust what we’re giving them and we trust them to execute it.”
They’ll need all that and maybe a little more today against Pocahontas Area (24-1), a team they lost to two years ago in their last appearance at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Indians won the 3A title last season and boast one of the best offenses in the state this season behind senior guard Elle Ruffridge.
Ruffridge has 142 3-pointers this season and averages 30.4 points per game. Both totals are best in the state, regardless of class. Oh, and she’s the state’s all-time leading scorer in five-player girls basketball with 2,870 career points.
Figuring out how to defend Ruffridge and her teammates, who are all equally capable of knocking down shots, was the puzzle Smith and the Lions tried to piece together heading into today’s game.
“It’s not something you can take one thing away,” Smith said of defending Ruffridge. “Half of her shots are 2s and half of her shots are 3s so you can’t force her to do one thing because every aspect of the game she does really well. It’s going to take a team effort.”