Momentum on Titans’ side

DES MOINES – Despite advancing to the girls state basketball tournament for the first time as a joined program, South Central Calhoun is still not completely satisfied.

Winners of six straight and 11 of their past 12 games, the 12th-ranked Titans (21-3 overall) will look to advance past No. 5 North Linn (23-1) in a Class 2A quarterfinal here Monday night at 8:30 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena.

“Our expectations have been high from the very beginning after we went to the regional final last year with only one senior (starter) on that squad (Andee Hammen),” said SCC head coach Dave Birks, who sports a career mark of 461-208 in 29 seasons. “A conference championship and state tournament were the goals.

“We ended up getting second by ourselves in the (Twin Lakes Conference), but we were still able to make it to Des Moines.”

Junior all-stater Haley Birks (14.8) and classmates Kori Assman (9.3) and Michaela Graffunder (8.0) form a reliable 1-2-3 offensive punch for the Titans, who went 8-1 this winter in the TLC. Comprising the rest of the starting lineup are junior Hannah Corey (7.6) and senior Ashley Henkenius (5.0).

“We’ve had five different leading scorers this season, so I would say balance would be our biggest strength,” Birks said. “There’s no way anyone can defend us by just stopping one player.

“I think our size has been a factor, too, in creating tough matchups. Haley is a 6-foot-0 guard that can take (the ball) to the basket, and Kori has hit threes in about four or five straight games.”

Haley Birks – Dave’s daughter – has also notched team-highs in total points (356), made field goals (132), made free throws (60), made 3-pointers (32), rebounds (168) and blocks (34). Graffunder leads South Central Calhoun in assists (100) and steals (90).

“Starts of games are always critical, but they’re even more important in an atmposphere like (Wells Fargo Arena),” said Birks. “A lot of variables make state more difficult, especially for our kids since they’ve never been down (to Des Moines) before.”

In regional play, the Titans prevailed over Audubon (52-41), IKM-Manning (63-60) and 10th-ranked Panorama (50-43). South Central Calhoun, which has held eight opponents to 28 points or less, has collected 16 of its victories by double digits.

The Titans suffered their setbacks to league rivals East Sac County, Manson Northwest Webster and Newell-Fonda.

Making only their second-ever state trip – and first since 1997 – the Lynx lean heavily on 5-foot-9 junior all-state guard Nicole Miller, who ranks first in 2A and fourth in the state in scoring (25.6). Miller anchors North Linn in nearly every statistical category, including total points (615), made field goals (226), made 3-pointers (37), made free throws (126), rebounds (146), assists (115), steals (101) and blocks (25). She has accounted for 42.7 percent of the combined scoring output by the Lynx.

“They obviously have the all-stater (Miller) from last year, but they have a couple of other girls (in Morgan Boer and Libby Falconer) that are about 6-foot-1, too,” Birks said. “We’ve really got to stay focused on (Miller) defensively.”

Since dropping a 47-32 decision at then-No. 15 Maquoketa Valley back on Feb. 4, Tri-Rivers West Division co-conference champion North Linn has rebounded with four consecutive triumphs, including tournament wins over Jesup (73-37), Maquoketa Valley (47-45) and Iowa Valley (67-34).

Defensively, the Lynx have limited 13 foes to 30 points or below, with no team scoring more than 47.

Birks previously guided Rockwell City-Lytton to three state tournament appearances, including a 1A title in 2004 and a runner-up effort in 2003. This is the fourth year as a combined program for South Central Calhoun.

“I’m not sure if our defense is as good as (’03 and ’04), but our balance and size in both eras is the same,” said Birks. “Just like those other teams, we have extremely unselfish players, with nobody held up on getting their own points.”

Having the opportunity to coach his daughters, Haley and freshman Allison, has been a truly rewarding experience for Birks.

“With two daughters playing, I just have a different place in my heart for this team,” Birks said. “I’ve started looking at things as a father as opposed to just a coach. I know the first hug I got after the regional final was from Haley, which makes things much more meaningful and pretty special.”

Monday’s winner advances to meet either top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Western Christian (24-1) or Des Moines Christian (20-4) in a 2A semifinal here Thursday at 1:30 p.m.