Few high school athletes have experienced what Donna Williams experienced in March of 1974.
Then Donna Schroer, she helped tiny Manilla High School upset No. 1 Adel 91-74 for the girls state basketball championship.
For those unfamiliar with 6-on-6 girls basketball in its heyday, few sporting events in the country matched the spectacle of Iowa's Sweet Sixteen, when the state crowned one champion among its 442 schools. A crowd of 14,319 jammed into Veterans Memorial Auditorium on March 16 and watched Schroer, then a junior, score 16 points, while sophomore sensation Jean Rostermundt led the way with 49.
Thirty-nine years later, Williams returns to Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena, across the street. She'll lead unrated Villisca (21-4) into its first state appearance in 45 years, a 10 a.m. Class 1-A state quarterfinal against No. 2 Newell-Fonda (22-2). That will precede No. 4 Ar-We-Va (21-3) and No. 13 Bellevue Marquette (16-6) at 11:45.
It will also be Villisca's last appearance on its own. The Bluejays will join with Corning next year and become the Southwest Valley Timberwolves.
“I am just so excited to be able to allow Villisca, this last year especially, to have the experience of this, and all of these girls to experience it as well,” Williams said. “I remember it as a player, and now we can share that, the same feeling of success and making it to the state tournament. There's nothing better than that.”
Villisca and Corning will enter into a five-year, whole-grade sharing agreement. As with any decision that affects many lives, Williams said the past year has been filled with turmoil. There was talk of postponing the inevitable for one more year, but Williams told anyone who would listen that it made sense to make this the final school year.
“People were pretty passionate about knowing the success that we could have this year as the last team coming out of Villisca,” she said. “I think they made the right decision.”
The current Bluejays advanced in dramatic fashion, knocking off state No. 2 Bedford 57-50 in the regional final. Williams also coached the current players in junior high, and they hadn't beaten the Bulldogs in junior high or high school.
“I think that deep down, we all thought that someday we were going to have an opportunity, and if the opportunity came ...” Williams said. “You can see when they understand what you want them to do and they understand each other. That's so exciting to be able to see it come together.”
Seniors Amanda Focht, Jill Vanderhoof and Morganne Haer are four-year starters for Villisca, and BreeAnn Fisher is a three-year starter and four-year varsity contributor.
The 5-foot-10 Focht leads the team in scoring (14.2) and rebounding (11.1) and is a career 1,000-point scorer along with Vanderhoof, who averages 13.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.2 steals. Haer averages 13.5 points and leads the team with 34 3-point goals. The fifth starter is junior Mikayla Dolch.
The Bluejays will play a tradition-rich Mustang club making its third state appearance in four years. Renee Maneman, a 5-5 junior guard, leads her team with 17.3 points, 5.4 assists and 3.5 steals per game.
“We have to be in control of our emotions going down there,” Williams said. “We can't let the whole event take us over. We're there to play basketball, and let's hope that we can keep our focus on what we need to do.”
Also from western Iowa, Ar-We-Va is making its third straight state appearance and fourth overall. The Rockets are led by 5-7 junior guard Paige Danner, who averages 18.0 points and 3.9 steals and passed the 1,000-point mark for her career in the regional finals.
Senior guard Brittany Stoelk (11.9) is next in scoring and has made 52 3-pointers, seventh in Class 1-A. Seniors Megan Ehlers (9.4), Amy Hinners (9.4) and Lexie Vande Hoef (8.2) are also scoring threats, and Hinners averages a team-best 7.0 rebounds.
The Marquette game is a rematch of a 2011 state semifinal, which Ar-We-Va won 52-46. Ehlers and Stoelk started for the Rockets in the game, and Danner was the top reserve. For Marquette, senior Sarah Lampe started in that game, and now-starters Kelsey Tebbe and Danielle Bender were the top two reserves.
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