Brian Rathjen/NT Sports Editor

Six seniors return for Atlantic as they look to gain a top-division finish in the Hawkeye Ten Conference this winter. From left: Lauren Nicholas, Haley Rasmussen, Tessa Grooms, Taylor McCreedy, Maycie Waters and Nellie Grooms.

ATLANTIC – Year one was the toughest, winning just four games and playing one of the state’s toughest schedules.

Year two was better, more than doubling the number of wins from year one.

So what of year three under coach Dan Vargason and the Atlantic girls’ basketball team?

It could be another trip north in the Hawkeye Ten Conference standings, with double-digit wins and being in the conversation for an upper-division finish in one of the top leagues in western Iowa.

With six seniors returning, one of them all-state last year, the Trojans look to improve on their 9-14 mark a year ago.

“The number that’s always in my head is we go back when I was coaching with Kelly Juhl,” said Vargason. “He got things turned around and got them to a 13-9 season and that number is something we want to be at or better. We feel we have a team that can go out and win 15, 16 games but feelings don’t translate to wins.

“We have a solid core and we’ve been working hard,” he continued. “But it’s going to come down to execution and who can be mentally with it with COVID. We’re going to have games, we’re going to lose games (from the schedule), we’re going to have potential shutdowns. Whoever can respond to that adversity is going to have the best chance this season.”

Tops among the senior returnees is Haley Rasmussen. She led the Trojans with a 17.3 points-per-game average, and added 44 assists and 89 steals, both at or near the top of the team’s stat sheet. She connected on 40.9% of her shots and had a team-high 51 three-point baskets. She was also 88.6% from the free-throw stripe.

“Very talented basketball player, offensively and defensively,” said Vargason of his talented three-sport player and shooting guard. “She’s a very good offensive player but I think she’s even better defensively. She was one of the top defenders in the state and she’s got quick feet. A lot of her points were off steals and she’d get a run out.

“She’s a good three-point shooter but her strength is getting to the rim and a lot of that is in transition from her good defense.”

Taylor McCreedy, who is coming off a fourth state cross country meet, is the team’s second leading scorer back from a year ago, with 5.9 points per game. She added 87 rebounds, tops among returnees.

“A defender,” said Vargason. “She wants to start as a defender and turn it into offense as well. She likes to get after it on offense and jump the ball on the backside and get run-outs from the team.

“Her shooting has improved quite a bit and her range has improved from freshman year to now,” he continued. “She’s added eight to nine feet from where she’s comfortable shooting.”

Maycie Waters is a late-comer. She didn’t go out her freshman year but a year ago broke into the starting lineup and avaeraged just over five points per game.

“I remember her sister was playing and she was in the gym shooting,” recalled Vargason, “and I was begging for her to come out. She wouldn’t. Then she came out her sophomore year and every year she’s gotten a little bit better. I think this year she’s going to get better yet.

“She had that big breakout game against Creston,” he continued. “I think we’re going to see more games like that where she plays more confident and she’s going to shoot the ball very well. We want to see her get to the rim and we want to see her improve defensively and stay out of foul trouble.”

Lauren Nicholas was one of the players who came in off the bench a year ago and gave the Trojans a big lift.

“Sharpshooter. We saw it against Kuemper. We put her in the corner against the box-and-one and she lit them up for 15. She’s capable of doing that every night. Her defense is night-and-day better than it was two years ago. Her improvement defensively is going to be big for us.”

Then there’s the Grooms twins, Nellie and Tessa. Tessa is the team’s tallest girl at 6’0” and saw some starting time a year ago while grabbing 79 rebounds. Nellie played in 13 games last year and is in line to see more action this year.

“Tessa’s our inside post player. We’re going to have to rely on her to generate our post game,” said Vargason. “She’s got moves. She’s physical and aggresive and the question for us is can she stay on the floor and not get into foul trouble? I think she’s going to have a very good season rebounding and scoring.”

Nellie is in a rotation of several girls for the sixth- and seventh girls off the bench.

“Nellie ... is very aggresive. Right now she shoots the ball well, but we’ve got to get the rest of the game developed. We’ve got to continue to work on running the offenses and doing her rotations on defense.”

Sophomore Jada Jensen will likely see a starting role as point guard, after starting 16 games last year. She scored just 25 points last year but that figures to improve along with some of her other statistics.

“She’s a strong girl, very physical. She’s getting very comfortable with the offense and running it,” said Vargason. “It’s nice when you’re a sophomore point guard and you look to the side and have a senior all-state player and the other side and have a senior who’s started a couple of years.

“There’s going to be a learning curve and she’s going to make some young-player mistakes,” he continued. “We’re going to work through those and she’s going to be a dang-good player for us. With her range, she’s good defensively and going to get to the rim.”

Also figuring to get playing time in the main rotation are Aspen Niklasen and Malena Woodward, both juniors.

Woodward is an undersized post-player but is a hustle player and one of the strongest girls on the team whom Vargason liked for her work ethic. Niklasen, who is overcoming an elbow injury to her right arm, has learned to shoot with her left hand and has done very well. As Rasmussen’s primary box-and-one defender in practice, the coach said Niklasen may be the best defender on the team.

Rounding out the team are Maddie Huddleston and Kierra Olsen, who have also helped push the team.

While concerned about post depth and adjusting if they run into foul trouble, Vargason is concerned about the lack of an off-season, all thanks to the pandemic that limited summer workouts.

“As a group, I like our work ethic,” said Vargason. “They’ve bought in to what we’re trying to do. Defensively they get after it. They play tough and hard and don’t take plays off. They’re doing a very good job of keeping their intensity high as we’re working on the fundamentals.”

The Hawkeye Ten Conference, as mentioned, is tough as always. Five teams were ranked to start the year, with Class 4A No. 1 Glenwood expected to be the league favorite with just about everyone returning. Four other teams were ranked: Council Bluffs St. Albert, No. 12 in Class 1A; Creston, 10th in Class 3A (although they’re pegged as the 82nd-largest school in the state, which would place them well into Class 4A territory); and Denison-Schleswig (ninth) and Harlan (11th) in Class 4A.

Red Oak wasn’t ranked in Class 3A but is expected to be a major contender with returning starter Kelsey Fields and two other 6-foot starters back. Council Bluffs Lewis Central, the Class 4A runner-up a year ago, lost several key starters due to graduation but always seem to re-load. Even the conference stalwarts – Carroll Kuemper Catholic, Clarinda and Shenandoah – will be tough games.

But figure that Atlantic will rank right up there, in strong contention for one of the upper-division spots when the season is finished. They certainly have the tools and talent to make their case.

“Every night, 2-through-6, is going to be a mess and a dogfight. I’m excited,” said Vargason. “We absolutely intend to be there (in the upper division) and let the basketball do the talking.”

The Trojans were slated to host Denison-Schleswig tonight, but that game has been postponed, with no reason given. The first game, then, will be Dec. 1, at Creston.

To reach Brian Rathjen, send correspondence to sports@ant-news.com or phone (712) 243-2624.

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