Tough Schedule Preps West High for Run to Class 5A State Championship

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Jeff Yoder Photo / iagameday.smugmug.com

Ryan Murken

Your Prep Sports

DES MOINES – This is what veteran West High coach BJ Mayer had in mind nearly a year ago when he loaded up his non-conference schedule with some of the best teams in the Midwest.

Mayer didn’t want seven losses or a four-game losing streak late in the season but got both.

On Friday, Mayer got exactly what he wanted, a 5A state title and he had his rugged regular season to thank for it.

West High (19-7) closed the season with four straight wins over top-10 teams and claimed the second state title in school history and first since 2012 with a 56-45 win over top-ranked and previously unbeaten City High.

“We’ve got a good core group that has been here before and they had to overcome some adversity,” Mayer said. “We put them through a gauntlet of a schedule and we wavered a little bit, I’m not going to lie, losing five of six and four in a row but we got a little bit of our swagger back and we came down here and our kids executed.”

West High dropped five of six games during a 13-day stretch in January that concluded with four consecutive losses to ranked teams.

During that stretch West High lost to state tournament teams City High, Cedar Falls and West Des Moines Valley along with Illinois powers Bolingbrook and Montini Catholic.

The losses provided some tough moments for a West High group that had lost a combined 15 games the previous three seasons.

Those losses also provided the experience that Mayer knew was necessary to make a postseason push.  

“Even though those games are a long time ago that really helped us prepare for the situation we got in at state,” West High junior Emma Koch said. “We knew no matter what the situation we were in we’d been through there before and we had to get through it.”  

Following its four-game losing skid West High dropped to ninth in the 5A rankings.

West High closed the season with eight straight wins, the final four coming over top-10 teams that combined for an 87-11 record.

The eight-game, season-ending streak started with a victory over eighth-ranked Pleasant Valley in the regional final.

In three games at state West High defeated the third, 10th and top-ranked teams in the state.

“I think that our schedule even though we took a few losses in the middle really helped us deal with adversity,” West High senior Rachael Saunders said. “Having that stretch just made us that much more aware of how we could overcome our challenges and they were just another challenge that we needed to overcome and we came out on the winning side today.”

The key to the late season surge for West High was defense.

West High held opponents to 43 points per game during its eight-game winning streak to end the season and allowed just 47.7 points in three state tournament wins.

“In the beginning our defense was kind of a struggle but the past few weeks we really improved,” West High junior point guard Lauren Zacharias said. “That really helped us out.”

Strong defense and balanced offensive production have long been calling cards for the Women on Troy under Mayer.

West High was at its best in both categories this week in Des Moines.

Only once in three wins at state did West High have a player score more than 15 points and West High didn’t have the high scorer in any of its three wins.

However, five different players scored in double figures for West High at state and all five averaged between eight and 15 points per game for the tournament.

“We feel like we have five really good players on the floor with whoever we put in there,” Mayer said. “We’ve always told them just be ready because you never know when it’s your night.”

The only thing better than West High’s ability to share the ball at the state tournament was its penchant from stopping opponents from scoring.

West High held three state tournament opponents to combined 31 percent shooting and didn’t allow a team to shoot better than 36 percent.

“Defense is always a big thing for us but I think this is the best defense we have played all year,” West High junior Cailyn Morgan said. “We all played great defense together.”

West High didn’t allow a state tournament opponent to get within 15 points of its season scoring average.

The final performance was the best for West High as the Women of Troy held top-ranked City High to a season-low 45 points, nearly 32 below the Little Hawks’ season average.

West High limited City High senior Ashley Joens to 26 points, five below her season average.

“Cailyn has been face guarding people all week and we just needed some other help and Logan and Paige were phenomenal on Ashley,” Mayer said. “It’s never a one-man show on defense but we had everybody in there.”