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DES MOINES | The West Hancock girls team is accustomed to waiting for its opportunity. The team has had to wait seven years since the Eagles last played at the state tournament. They waited a year to redeem last years’ season-ending loss in the regional finals. And after waiting eight days, the Eagles finally played North Mahaska in Wednesday’s state tournament quarterfinal.

Once they took the floor, the Eagles were done waiting. West Hancock got off to a fast start, with 22 first quarter points turning into a 41-28 halftime lead, en route to a 67-54 victory over the Warhawks. The early success was due in large part to the performance of sophomore Rachel Leerar. Leerar scored 19 points in the first half, including a a first-quarter run where she scored nine straight points for the Eagles on three steals.

In the second half, the Warhawks seemed to make a conscious effort to slow the game down, and started to play a 3-2 zone, a defense that West Hancock tends to struggle with.

“We wanted to get out and get a fast-paced game going,” coach Paul Sonius said. “...We can’t play that (slow) style, that’s not us. We’re better on the fast break, we’ll hit our 3’s better on those fast breaks, and on the short game too.”

Leerar scored only four points in the second half, mostly due to the North Mahaska’s defensive adjustments. She wound up with 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Leerar transitioned to a high-post role, with Madison Eisenmann taking over the point guard duties in the second-half. The Warhawks out-rebounded West Hancock 18-10 in the second half, and matched the Eagles in scoring, at 26-26.

West Hancock vs North Mahaska Catholic state basketball

West Hancock's Madison Eisenman, facing, and North Mahaska's Cheyenne Shaw grapple for a loose ball during West Hancock vs North Mahaska Class 1A firstl-round girls state basketball action played Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Sometimes we move too fast, and sometimes become stagnant,” Sonius said.  “We need to figure out a way to keep working at it. If this group here learns to play against the zone, they may be very untouchable.”

In addition to her 23 points, Leerar had a team-high six assists. Eisenmann was second, with 12 points, while Amanda Chizek had 11 points, and 13 rebounds. Mahayla Faust had 12 points.

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The leading scorer for North Mahaska was Emma Tyrrel, who had 16 points.

With the victory, the 24-1 Eagles advance to the 1A State Semifinals against Montezuma, just one win from the state title game.

The Eagles soaked in the two hour drive from Britt, admiring the view of the glittering gold Iowa Capital, and the looming specter of Wells Fargo Arena.

“I don’t think I could ever get tired of the drive to Des Moines” Leerar said. “Knowing that I’m going to play at Wells Fargo, that drive is not ever going to get old.”

Even considering the bigger crowds and the high stakes of the tournament, the Eagles kept a level head. Leerar, recently named the TIC West Player of the Year, and likely headed for even bigger basketball stages in the future, seemed comfortable under the lights of The Well.

“I turned to my teammate when we got done with warmups, and I said ‘It feels like home’” Leerar said. “It felt right.”

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