GREENFIELD, Iowa — They won the opening tip and immediately called time out.
It was a junior varsity basketball game, but the Nodaway Valley varsity players also were gathered around the bench area. They all turned and looked to the seat that remained sadly empty.
Cindy Kohler, the wife of Wolverines assistant Dick Kohler, had died suddenly at 60, six days earlier. The seat occupied by the beloved woman who kept the team shot chart for 17 years and always had an encouraging word for her second family was now vacant.
Coach Kohler placed a rose in the spot where his wife would normally sit. All of the Wolverines broke the huddle to “Cindy!” and the game continued.
As a talented Nodaway Valley team readies itself for the stretch run, it’s been forced to deal with a harsh dose of mortality.
“It’s a hard way for the kids to grow up,” Nodaway Valley coach Darrell Burmeister said. “She meant a lot to our program. Some kids have gone through experiences like that in the past. For some it was the first time.”
Nodaway Valley is rated third in the state in Class 2-A and first in western Iowa (Class 2-A/1-A) by The World-Herald and carries a 20-1 record into Thursday’s district home opener with the West Central Valley/Panorama winner.
The Wolverines say the minor bickering that occurs within any team during a long season has been largely absent since Cindy Kohler’s death.
“When we heard that that happened, those things weren’t so big anymore,” junior TJ Bower said. “The next day we worked a little harder in practice, and it’s kind of carried through.”
Nodaway Valley recently wrapped up its second straight 16-0 run through the Pride of Iowa Conference, and will take a 34-game league winning streak into next season.
Senior Brad Baudler, a 5-foot-10 point guard, is the team’s leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, to go with 4.0 assists and 2.2 steals. He’s shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 37.2 from 3-point range, and has undergone a dramatic transformation from last season, when he shot 29 percent from the field and 22 percent from 3 while averaging 5.8 points.
Baudler also passed the 1,000-point milestone for his career with a 22-point effort against Bedford last Tuesday.
Senior Alex Welsch, a 6-7 center, is next at 16.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. He shoots 61.6 percent from the field. The third double-figure scorer is Bower, a 6-3 forward who pitches in 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting at a 57.7 percent clip.
Dan Ehrsam, a 6-2 senior, is the top long-range shooter, hitting 31 of 75 from 3-point range (41.3 percent) and also 90.6 percent (29 of 32) from the line. The fourth senior starter is 6-0 Dean Frank, who returned after Christmas from arthroscopic knee surgery and averages 8.5 points.
The top reserves are 5-11 senior Tim Hansen, 6-2 junior Zach Plymesser and 6-0 freshman Jackson Lamb.
The day Cindy Kohler died, the Wolverines decided to proceed with their game against Wayne, winning 71-39. They then went to their assistant coach’s house, ate pizza and offered support in an emotional gathering.
“He’s done so much for us. We came together and helped him as much as we could,” Frank said. “We always had a motive to go to state and try to win it. But now our goal is to win it for her.”
A year ago while competing in 1-A, Nodaway Valley was on the doorstep. In a game featuring 11 lead changes, Danville pulled away late for a 65-49 semifinal win. The Wolverines settled for fourth after getting blown out by Storm Lake St. Mary’s 81-46 in the consolation game.
Of Iowa’s 368 teams this season, Nodaway Valley ranks third in scoring average (75.8) and second in defensive average (31.1). After starting with 14 straight wins, it lost to 3-A Creston 59-49 for its only blemish.
The Wolverines responded with a 115-24 win over Corning. Bower said the Creston loss wasn’t enjoyable, but proved beneficial.
“When you’re winning by 50 a game, you need somebody to kind of wake you up,” he said.
Burmeister pushes his players hard. They spent every weekend but one during June and July at a tournament, playing more than 40 games against top competition from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota. They’ve scrimmaged the state’s top teams this season.
“They’ve paid their dues,” Burmeister said. “These are good kids. Near 4.0 students. Active in their church, active in their community, active in 4-H.
“This is something they’ve been wanting for a long, long time and we hope it works out for them.”
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