DES MOINES | The final buzzer sounded, and half of Wells Fargo Arena screamed out their lungs with joy, their team victorious, and the parents proud. The other half stood silently. The players stood together, wiping tears away, their efforts falling just short. Head coach Paul Sonius gathered his players as Newell-Fonda celebrated just feet away, and looked for the right words.
After a 25-2 season, the Eagles had come up short in the state championship game, losing to Newell-Fonda 76-52.
“I was proud of our team,” Sonius said. “They fought hard at the end. I’m going to get after them during the game, but they gave me everything they had at the end. They worked hard all year.”
Newell-Fonda got off to a fast start. A 3-pointer from Emma Stewart and a quick layup from Olivia Larsen gave the Mustangs a quick 9-2 lead in the first quarter. The Mustangs attacked with a fast-paced offense and swarming press defense, giving the Eagles fits throughout the first half. At halftime, the Mustangs had a 44-31 lead.
“They came out and got us right away in that first quarter,” Sonius said. “That basically made the game. We never had a chance after that first quarter of getting ourselves back into it.”
In the second half, the Eagles offense sputtered. The Mustangs went on a 6-0 run to open the third quarter, and West Hancock scored only six points in the frame. By the start of the fourth, West Hancock was down by 20 points.
“They came out ready to play, and we did not come out ready to play,” Leerar said. “That was the biggest difference in this game. We were not mentally prepared at all. I don’t know what we expected. I don’t know if we were nervous or scared, but we just didn’t come out the way we play.”
In the end, the Mustangs offense was just too much. Newell-Fonda outscored West Hancock 32-21 in the second half to win the championship. One of the most telling stats was in the turnover column. West Hancock finished with 26 turnovers, while Newell-Fonda had 20. The Mustangs scored 31 points off of turnovers.
Rachel Leerar finished the day with a team-high 22 points for the Eagles, on 8-of-14 shooting. Amanda Chizek finished with 14 rebounds and 14 points scored.
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On the Mustangs’ side, a trio of players did the majority of the damage. Megan Morenz scored 19 points, while Olivia Larsen was close behind, with 17. Macy Sievers went 5-of-8 from the field for 13 points.
After the quick start for Newell-Fonda put the Eagles on their heels in the early part of the game, the Mustangs took control. For Sonius, the team’s contrasting on court demeanors made all the difference.
“They played not on edge,” Sonius said. “They came out and just played. They’ve been in this situation ... they just react and they just go. We’re still trying to work on that part. When we do get to that part, we’re going to be the next ones. We’re the next group of girls that people are going to be thinking about. We’re just on the cusp of where we want to be.”
After clinching a state berth for the first time since 2012, and then winning the first two games at the tournament, the Eagles sideline was all joy. But after a loss on the biggest stage, it seemed like all they could was think about what they could’ve done differently.
“It was the dream for the first two games,” Leerar said. “It was amazing letting to play in that third one. Once you get there, you don’t want to just be satisfied. I thought I’d be happy with just getting to state, and now I wanted to win it. It hurts a lot, not getting there.”
Photos: West Hancock falls to Newell-Fonda in state championship game