Spartan Girls Basketball

New additions to the lineup such as, left to right, Tatum Grubbs, Kamryn Waymire and Ellie Schultes, have been a major factor in Exira/EHK’s fourth straight trip to the state tournament.

The names Sophia Peppers and Kealey Nelson will forever be synonymous with winning at Exira/EHK.

That duo have each scored over 1,000 points, been a part of 95 wins and will end their high school careers at the state tournament - an event they've been a part of each of the last four years.

While the Exira Vikettes and their 2010 state championship might rightly be called the best team in school history, Peppers and Nelson have the rights to the most successful era.

Four straight conference championships and four straight state tournaments is unprecedented by any other program in the building.

Yet, as dynamic as they've been, this final trip to the Wells Fargo Arena to close their Spartan careers would be impossible without the contributions of players who were no names just a year ago.

"There was a lot of pressure coming into the season," sophomore Ellie Schultes said Monday after practice. "We knew coming off the summer we were going to have to step up huge this year. We were all taking on new positions and new roles that were really hard."

Schultes is a new starter alongside fellow sophomore Kamryn Waymire and freshman Tatum Grubbs. Off the bench, junior Leslie Caniglia and sophomores Jacey Anthofer and Lauren Hansen have seen increased minutes and increased expectations to chip in.

After the 2017 graduation of five seniors, two of whom were regular starters, Schultes, Grubbs, Waymire and the rest could no longer hang out in the background and defer to someone else.

That's true of a lot of teams most years. Replacing valuable seniors is a reality every team faces.

But Mara Burmeister and Maggie Rasmussen had held down spots in the starting lineup for the past three seasons. Rachel Walker and Sadie Schultes took on more responsibility as seniors.

Alex Petersen was a regular off the bench.

Every one of those players had been a major piece of the puzzle since they were freshmen. That made it more unique situation than most.

When the situation changed, coach Tom Petersen's approach also had to change. He was back to teaching more than coaching - stopping practice to explain concepts and ideas.

The desire to win however, was still as strong as ever.

Still there were growing pains.

The Spartans won the the first seven games of the season but mostly had what Petersen often called inconsistent performances.

Right after the season resumed from the holiday break, a road loss at Boyer Valley ended a 57-game Rolling Valley Conference win streak.

Petersen said the team wasn't prepared. There were too many players who felt entitled to success simply because they were a part of a successful program.

The worst part, he said, was the team showed little heart.

"It was hard. There's a tradition here, and it felt like it was our fault we lost that streak," Schultes said. "It's kind of hard not to put it on yourself because we're the new players."

It might have been the wake up call needed to bring everyone together.

Exira/EHK won the next 16 in a row while allowing 35 points per game and defeating 3A opponents Kuemper Catholic and Shenandoah.

In a rematch with Boyer Valley, the defense forced nearly 30 turnovers and reminded any doubters why they remained the team to beat.

Schultes knocked down three 3-pointers in the game, Grubbs scored 13 and the confidence was growing.

Though Waymire was scoreless in the victory, she went on to make big shots in the postseason including three of her own from beyond the arc in the Regional Final win over Boyer Valley.

But it was on the other end of the floor where Petersen said they made the biggest and most necessary step.

"I'm sure they'd be the first to tell you, the defensive rotation is what they've had to figure out, and they're still learning," Petersen said. "They're still asking questions even today, and that's a good thing. They want to keep learning and improving."

"Rotation, rotation, rotation," Waymire repeated jokingly about the constant message Petersen pounds home every day in practice.

"He tells us, if he's not yelling at you, you're doing something wrong," Schultes said. "That sums it up. He pounds on us pretty hard, but its' worth every second."

The constant lessons on rotation will be key on Wednesday when Exira/EHK plays AGWSR at 3:15 p.m. at the state tournament.

The Cougars have a similar profile with a pair of players who drive the offense.

One, senior Mandy Willems, has the fourth-most 3s in all of Iowa this year with 79 and hits shots from the outside at 49.1 percent.

"They're continued development is the major reason we've been successful," coach Tom Petersen said. "We're not all the way there, because we're trying to get better every day. But without them, we wouldn't find ourselves in this situation or won as many games as we did."