Emotional goodbye

DES MOINES – They stood frozen in a state of disbelief, watching another team enjoy the celebration they were supposed to have with a championship that appeared destined for their trophy case just moments earlier.

It was a heartbreak the Newell-Fonda girls basketball team knew all too well, with a cruel twist bringing a somber ending to an era of otherwise unprecedented success.

Third-ranked Burlington Notre Dame rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to crush the championship hopes of the No. 1 Mustangs, 57-54 on Friday evening inside Wells Fargo Arena. For the second consecutive season, Newell-Fonda (24-3 overall) will leave the capital city pondering what might have been after losing in the final round by a single possession.

This time, head coach Dick Jungers must do so while saying goodbye to four senior starters – including all-tournament captain Renee Maneman and fellow Class 1A selection Claudia Larsen.

”There are a lot of tears being shed in our locker room right now,” said Jungers, who was making his seventh title-game appearance at N-F between basketball and softball. ”It’s just a very tough situation to deal with, given how hard they’ve worked for years and years to put themselves in this very position – playing in the game they’ve always dreamed of, and having that chance again after being so close (last year).

”What can you say. It’s very difficult, and you really feel for the girls, because they think they let everyone down and let each other down. In reality, they have so many reasons to hold their heads high, and I am still extremely proud of them.”

The Mustangs had extended a seven-point halftime advantage to 43-31 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter when the Nikes (24-3) started to mount their comeback. Newell-Fonda’s lead was trimmed to six points by the start of the fourth period, and an 8-0 run by Notre Dame actually put the Mustangs in a seven-point hole with 2:24 left in regulation.

Consecutive three-point baskets by Brianna Wells and Taiyler Schrank knotted the score with 29 seconds left, as Newell-Fonda held the Nikes without a single point for over three minutes. A foul was called on the Mustangs with 12 seconds remaining, though, and Notre Dame’s Riley Kilbride sank both free throws to regain the upper hand for her team.

N-F turned the ball over on a set play out of a timeout with less than a second to go. The Nikes split the foul shots for the final margin of victory.

”We’d had a nice answer to their comeback late. We knew this would be a game of runs, and you have to give them credit for holding us off at the end,” Jungers said. ”They hit some big three-pointers (in the fourth quarter), and we missed some shots, both (underneath the basket and at the free throw line).

”Both teams definitely had their chances, which is what a championship game typically comes down to – what you do with those opportunities.”

The Mustangs were only 11 of 25 at the charity stripe, misfiring six times in eight attempts during the fourth quarter alone.

The 6-foot-1 Larsen scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for N-F. She also blocked five shots.

”As you can see, we’re all disappointed,” said Larsen, who – like Maneman – was visibly shaken during the postgame interview session. ”It hurts. A lot. I’m so grateful for the time we’ve had together as a team here. If we could’ve made just one more play … we were that close. It was right there.”

Maneman had 14 points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals. She finished N-F’s three-game state week with 37 points, 24 assists, 13 rebounds and 11 steals.

Larsen registered 53 total points and 37 rebounds.

Maneman, Larsen and fellow starters Scrhank and Jade Hess will graduate from this squad, along with reserve Abby Christensen.

”I knew this would be a bittersweet night – win or lose,” Jungers said. ”I am particularly close to this senior class, especially because my stepdaughter (Schrank) is a part of it. They mean so much to me and we’ve been through a lot together.

”I remember when these girls were in fourth grade and we’d have a pizza party the night of the state championship games – we’d watch them and they’d tell me we were going to be here someday,” Jungers said. ”We made it twice and no one will ever take that away from them.

”Of course we wanted to win a title. That goes without saying. But nothing will ever change the fact that I love them and I always will. Our community feels the same way. This is our family, and we’re there for each other no matter what.”