They stood tearfully along the wall, watching the media scrum in progress, eyes still red from emotion, cheeks still wet from the disappointment of a state semifinal loss.
It was the fourth year in a row Exira/EHK had ended the season in Des Moines. For a pair of sophomores it was their second straight year in uniform at the Wells Fargo Arena but the first in which they both had a major hand in the outcome.
Ellie Schultes and Kamryn Waymire became regular starters for a team that said goodbye to five seniors after the 2017 season.
While Sophia Peppers and Kealey Nelson remained, and were a big reason why the state streak continued, the development of Schultes, Waymire and a roster full of underclassmen, were a big reason, too.
Now, while the pair reluctantly answered questions and dealt with the harsh reality of a season’s abrupt end, they were forced to confront another harsh reality.
The Spartan girls basketball program, synonymous with winning, with winning Rolling Valley Conference championships and playing in the state tournament, was now all theirs.
The last remaining teammates who had built the program into what it has become would be in graduation gowns in a few short months.
Maintaining the program’s lofty expectations were now their responsibility.
“It’s going to be insanely difficult,” Schultes said. “We’ve had so many great leaders that came before us that we can hopefully learn from and be like them.”
The loss to Springville, the third semifinal loss in four seasons, might rightly be called the end of an era.
Only two players had been a part of all four state trips (Peppers and Nelson) and they were now gone.
Together with the likes of Rose Andersen, Mara Burmeister, Maggie Rasmussen, Rachel Smith and Rachel Walker, Exira/EHK enjoyed a run of success unprecedented for both Elk Horn-Kimballton and Exira.
The largest loss of contributors due to graduation came last season when Burmeister and Rasmussen were part of a five-member senior class.
While Peppers and Nelson might have been enough to win most nights, there were few who believed a fourth run to the Well was in the cards.
But now that it has, could there be a fifth?
“It’s going to be different because we’ve got to rebuild a lot,” Schultes said.” It’s going to be rebuilding and seeing where we get from there.”
Rebuild you say?
That seems like an odd way to describe the future. But consider what type of team this is, and what kind of program it has become.
Peppers and Nelson have been a force in the paint for four years.
Whether it was scoring in the lane with post moves or cleaning up offensive rebounds for putbacks and kick outs, Spartan shooters have been able to depend on that duo since 2015.
The only player with size that remains for 2018/19 is Leslie Caniglia, and she won’t have a teammate down there to take the attention away.
Where the Spartans have been accustomed to playing inside-out, next season may be the opposite.
“Lots of work in the summer,” is what it will take according to Waymire.
“Getting our freshmen to toughen up and play at the same level that (Peppers and Nelson) played at when they were freshmen.”
That’s a lot to ask.
Peppers and Nelson have both scored over 1,000 points in their careers and controlled the game on the boards and in the open floor on the press.
Time will tell if the roster contains similar players that have as wide of a skill set.
If not, success will require an approach that incorporates more players regularly than depending on a dominant duo.
“We’re going to have to change a lot things,” Schultes said. “That will come together this summer in practice. We’ll get together. It’s going to be hard to replace those girls inside. They were outstanding. I can’t say enough about them. Hopefully we come back next year and can figure some things out.”
The Spartans though, do have one believer. Their head coach.
The way he saw Schultes, Waymire, Caniglia, freshman point guard Tatum Grubbs and backups Jacey Anthofer and Lauren Hansen develop, he’s bullish on what’s ahead.
He admitted his attitude was quite different just four months ago.
While he was reenergized by an infusion of youth that forced him to teach the game more than he had the previous few seasons, his group just wasn’t progressing as he’d hoped.
Yet, there he was, in the media scrum answering questions just a few hundred feet off a state tournament court for the fourth year in a row.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d be in this position at the beginning of the year. I know I didn’t just because of the fact the way our younger girls were responding early. But after Christmas break I thought we really turned things around, and that’s a tribute to what our younger kids did,” he said.
“They just have to work in the offseason. We don’t have a lot of kids that play for us. But the ones that do are extremely special to me and will always have a place in my heart.”