By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – The plans range from pleading to praying but every coach has a theory on how to slow Cooper Kabela.
Monticello coach Tim Lambert joked about going the spiritual route after Kabela put up 32 points on the Panthers in December.
“Pray,” Lambert said when asked the way to defend Kabela. “That’s about all you can do.”
Stu Ordman’s plan was to plead.
“I think you just hang on his knees and beg him not to score again,” the Regina coach quipped after watching Kabela explode for 30 points and 16 boards.
Those two strategies didn’t do much to slow Kabela.
Then again, neither have any of the variety of other on-court schemes and defenses opponents have thrown at the West Branch senior over the first 23 games this season.
Kabela is averaging 23.5 points per game entering Saturday’s Class 2A Substate 4 final against sixth-ranked Camanche (21-2) all while being the center of every opponents’ scouting report.
“I’ve seen some box-and-one a lot of triangle-and-two with me and Beau (Cornwell) and I see a lot of double teams obviously,” Kabela said. “I have seen a triple team a time or two, that was a little odd. You name it I’ve probably seen it this year.”
The constant defensive attention hasn’t stopped Kabela from putting up numbers that rank among the best in the state.
His 23.5 points per game rank 13th in the state and only two of the top 13 scorers are shooting a better percentage than Kabela’s 56.4 percent.
None of those players can match the 57 percent Kabela is shooting from beyond the 3-point line.
So, at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a nearly 60 percent 3-point shooter the question becomes how do you defend Cooper Kabela?
“I kind of like Tim Lambert’s response, I’d pray, that’s one of the best responses I heard to that question,” West Branch coach Tom Burger said. “I don’t know if I’d want to guard him, he just does so many things.”
It’s an understatement to say Kabela does a lot of things and that assessment isn’t limited to the basketball court.
A three-sport varsity athlete, Kabela is an all-district football player and a state track qualifier.
The athletic endeavors are just a small fraction of the equation for the always smiling Kabela who is involved in everything from show choir and band to FFA and 4-H.
“He’s one of the most diversified kids we’ve had here, he does not only athletics he does the fine arts, he does all the co-curriculars that you possibly think of and he’s huge in 4H,” long-time West Branch football coach Butch Pedersen said. “He’s been able to have the time management skills to be able to do all that stuff and excel at all that and that’s rare for a high school kid.”
All of the school activities come on top of the hours that Kabela spends lending a hand on the family farm.
At the top of the list of activities for Kabela has always been basketball.
Regardless of how busy his schedule became, Kabela always made sure to find time for hoops.
“You go from one thing to the next, one sport to the other but I always have time for basketball,” Kabela said. “When I’m in other seasons I’m focused on that completely, I probably don’t get up as many shots as I should during football but I always find time around all the other stuff for basketball.”
Kabela averaged 8.7 points and 3.8 points per game as a sophomore in 2014-2015.
His breakthrough came last season when he put up 17.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on his way to earning a spot on the River Valley Conference elite team.
The strong junior season stoked the basketball fire for Kabela.
He spent the summer working on expanding his shooting range to bolster his offensive repertoire and improving his footspeed to strengthen his defense.
“I definitely tried to improve my 3-point shot,” Kabela said. “I figured if I got that I would be more versatile and tougher to guard.”
That work has shown up this season.
After going 2-of-8 from 3-point range last year Kabela is 24-of-42 from beyond the arc and has made at least one triple in seven straight games.
“It’s not like I re-invented my shot, I have the exact same jump shot I just go into it and shot a lot more this summer,” Kabela said. “I just worked on it a lot more. “
The improved footwork has also helped Kabela.
He has raised his shooting percentage more than eight percent from last year to a career-best 56 percent and is averaging a career-high 7.8 rebounds per game.
“His balance is better in the paint,” Burger said. “Last year he would make a move and he’d just kind of throw it up there and he had success doing that but he’s improved his footwork and his balance and it’s helped him.”
Kabela has improved everywhere.
His ability to beat larger defenders off the dribble has helped him amass a nearly 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio (53-33).
Kabela’s ability to create for teammates has allowed Cornwell (18.9 points per game) and Ben Thompson (9 points per game) to have career best seasons.
“We are unselfish,” Burger said. “We want Cooper to get his points, Beau is going to get his points and nobody is upset about that happening. The other guys are going to get points here and there and that’s what they are doing.”
Kabela has been as consistent as he has been productive.
He has scored in double figures in 45 consecutive games over the past two seasons.
Kabela has four games with at least 30 points this season including a career-high 33 in a district semifinal win over Wapello.
Kabela has done his best work during 12-game West Branch (18-5) winning streak that has the Bears on the verge of history.
West Branch will attempt to earn the first state title berth in program history on Saturday when it faces Camanche in an RVC rematch at Muscatine High School at 7 p.m.
The Indians won the regular season meeting between the two teams 78-67 on December 19 in West Branch.
“I hope that we are a different team than we were back on December 19 but they have good shooters, they have length,” Burger said. “I think one thing we have to do is control the tempo on them.”
West Branch has Kabela.
The senior has scored 25 or more points in eight of the last nine games and is averaging 24 points while shooting 60 percent during the Bears’ 12-game winning streak.
“I know it could be my last game, that is definitely my mindset every time,” Kabela said. “I tell myself this could be my last game so I’m just trying to enjoy every moment of it.”