On paper, Atlantic’s girls’ basketball team is a heavy favorite in its first-round Iowa Class 3A regional quarterfinal game Saturday against Clarinda.
The Trojans dealt the Cardinals a pair of one-sided losses earlier this season, both by continuous clock: 78-23 and 69-34.
The BC Moore ratings service has the Trojans 35 point favorites over the Cardinals.
But, as Trojan coach Dan Vargason will be the first one to tell you, and any other coach for that matter, records and regular-season accomplishments mean nothing this time of the year.
Every team – from the No. 1 team in the land to the last-place team – resets at 0-0, and it’s win or go home.
So don’t think for a moment that Clarinda won’t be ready and champing at the bit to pull off the upset of the season of Atlantic, a team that is now looking to right the ship after six straight losses to end the regular season.
The Trojans have been in the midst of a turnaround season and were 8-7 prior to the current losing streak, those games coming against the upper-echelon teams in the always tough Hawkeye Ten Conference.
“We’re not going to look ahead to anybody,” Vargason said earlier this week. “Right now, our schedule says Clarinda, and there’s nothing after that. Yeah, we beat them twice, but it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.
“Three times in a season of beating anybody that takes some effort but we’re definitely up for the challenge, we’re going to come out and our focus is 100-percent on Clarinda because it’s win-or-go-home season.”
Defensive pressure will be key in beating Clarinda. The Trojans pilfered 47 steals over their two games against the Cardinals this season, including 26 in the home contest back in December.
“That’s what we want to do any game,” said Vargason. “We want to make sure our defensive intensity is high and we’ve got to get to the rim.”
Despite the team’s late-season swoon, the Trojans have played a very good schedule, one ranked 15th toughest in Class 3A by BC Moore. Atlantic split this year with Creston, which ended its regular season with a 12-9 record; that Dec. 13 win over the Panthers on their home court perhaps was the Trojans’ best win, aside from a 30-point victory over Des Moines North, a Class 5A team that has had one of its best seasons in recent memory.
Clarinda, meantime, had its schedule ranked No. 34 by BC Moore, and except for a 14-point loss to Shenandoah has not come within 30 points of any Hawkeye Ten Conference foe. Cardinal wins have come against Bedford and West Nodaway of Burlington Junction, Mo.
Clarinda ranks at the bottom of most of Region 8’s statistical categories, several by a significant margin below the seventh-place team. This includes points scored per game (28.3, or 595 total), points allowed per contest (62.5), assists (129), field goal percentage (26.1 percent).
Clarinda does rank ahead of Atlantic in rebounds, 637 for the Cardinals to Atlantic’s 498.
Jessalee Neihart, who a year ago was playing for tiny South Page – their athletic program discontinued last year – is the Cardinals’ team leader in scoring (7.1), free-throw shooting (61.4 percent) and rebounding (172),a nd is second in assists (29) and steals (35). Chloe Strait has blocked 11 shots.
The Trojans, meanwhile, rank usually near the middle of Region 8 in several key statistical categories. These including points per game (51.4 ppg, 1,079 total points, both third), points allowed per game (53.1, fifth), steals (260, second) blocked shots (62 total) and made three-point shots per game (4.3).
Atlantic has a pair averaging double figures, in Haley Rasmussen (16.8, including several 20-plus point games) and Kenzie Waters (12.6). Corri Pelzer, despite being just 5’8”, has been a bear on the boards with 110 rebounds and 27 blocked shots, while Rasmussen is the team’s leading thief with 79 takeaways. Rasmussen is also a 90-percent free-throw shooter.
As Vagrason pointed out, defensive pressure will be the key to defeating the Cardinals. If the Trojans are able to build a big lead early, this may both build the Trojans’ confidence and make it difficult for the Cardinals to attempt a rally, something they haven’t done yet against a Hawkeye Ten Conference foe. A big lead would also give Vargason a chance to use his bench early and get younger players ready for much tougher regional games ahead.
Game time is 7 p.m. at Atlantic High School. The winner gets a road date against Red Oak or Shenandoah, that game to be played Wednesday at Red Oak High School.