When it comes to hot starts, the Clear Lake girls basketball team is a study in extremes.
On Monday night, the Lions kicked off 2021 with a bit of a cold hand, falling to Class 4A's No. 7 ranked Waverly-Shell Rock, 46-33.
The game was not what either the Clear Lake players or head coach Bart Smith were hoping for, but if you take a step back, the Lions have been one of the hottest teams in the state through the first five weeks of the season.
With a North Central Conference leading 8-1 record, and several starters scheduled to return soon from injuries, the Lions have plenty to look forward to in the coming weeks.
Senior Darby Dodd made her return to the starting lineup against the Go-Hawks, and immediately made her presence felt, with three 3-pointers, and a team-high 11 points. Dodd, who led the team with 58 3-pointers last year, missed the first seven games while recovering from knee surgery.
With her return, Dodd brings the Lions a deep threat that they have been missing, as the team shot 28.3 percent from beyond the arc in her absence.
“It’s nice to have her back and have her ready to go,” Smith said. “She had some 3’s, and that is what she can do for you. We just have to be better with ball pressure, and be a tougher team.”
Senior Kaitlyn VanderPloeg is another key player who recently returned to the lineup after missing a few weeks to a sprained ankle that she suffered in practice. Through her first four games, VanderPloeg had 30 rebounds, and a team-high eight blocks.
In spite of this early season nightmare scenario, where Smith was without Dodd, VanderPloeg, and senior Zoe Fasbender, who comprised three-fifths of his projected starting lineup, the Lions started the season 8-0, with an average margin of victory of 25 points.
With those early injuries has come some hope for the future, with freshman Xada Johnson stepping up to lead the team in rebounds in VanderPloeg’s absence, and junior Jaden Ainley leading the team in scoring with 141 points so far in her first year as a starter.
“I think it shows what each person has for skill,” VanderPloeg said. “We knew this was going to happen coming in, because we lost Sara Faber, who was our main scorer last year. Her leaving gave everybody else an opportunity to step up and show what they can do.”
On Monday, in their first game back from winter break, the Lions played poorly against the Go-Hawks. After going into halftime with a two-point lead, Clear Lake allowed Waverly-Shell Rock to score 11 unanswered points to begin the third quarter, and were outscored after halftime, 30-15. According to Smith, the Lions snagged only four defensive rebounds in the second half.
With his team trailing by 10 points, Smith pulled his starters with just over three minutes left in the game, clearly frustrated with the results he had gotten.
Go-Hawks senior Abbie Draper scored 23 points against the Lions, and now ranks second in Class 4A in scoring, but what Smith was frustrated about had more to do with a perceived lack of intensity from his squad.
“If you don’t rebound, you are not going to win,” Smith said. “I don’t know what it was, but we were not ready to do the little things to win.”
Despite the frustration as Waverly-Shell Rock handed Clear Lake its first loss for the second year in a row, there are still plenty of bright spots moving forward. Once Fasbender returns, the Lions will have yet another rebounding and scoring threat, and for a team that has been missing at least a chunk of its lineup all season, an 8-1 record doesn't look too bad.
The Lions currently rank fifth in Class 3A with 519 total points for a 57.7 points per game scoring clip.
“We definitely have a lot of talent on our team, we just have to put it all together and keep working hard,” Dodd said. “Like tonight, we can’t let those little things slip away. We have to hustle after loose balls and get defensive stops and rebounds. It’s mainly just the little things.”
To VanderPloeg, the biggest issue facing the Lions is finding consistency. With so many players in and out of the lineup, the team has yet to find its “flow,” that crucial but intangible aspect of basketball that helped boost the Lions to the state semifinals last year.
“Chemistry was really important to our team last year, and we got into a flow," VanderPloeg said. "We’re all really talented players, and we know how to play, but we just need to click together. I’m waiting for that game to happen, and I'm really excited for it."
Clear Lake will host 0-5 Webster City on Friday night.
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.