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Several coaching changes in Red Rock Conference as new girls hoops season looms

EDGERTON — Once again returning a solid nucleus of talented and experienced players, Southwest Minnesota Christian will likely be among the best high school girls basketball teams in the area.

The Eagles have the rare distinction of winning their last two games last winter, as they finished a sensational 2016-17 season with a stellar 27-4 record that included a pair of victories and a consolation trophy at the Class A state tournament.

While veteran coach Denise Nerem returns to guide the fortunes of Southwest’s perennial powerhouse, there are several coaching changes in the always-competitive 11-member Red Rock Conference this season.

Jeff Balz, who coached B-squad boys’ basketball at Wabasso last year, is the new head coach for the Red Rock Central girls who won the conference championship last year with a perfect 16-0 league record. The Falcons, who were 25-4 overall, were defeated by SW Christian in the South Section 3A championship game and graduated a pair of exceptional all-around players in Ramsey Piotter and Rachel Kedl.

But the Falcons, like the Eagles and the oncoming Hills-Beaver Creek Patriots (20-6, 13-3), have a lot of experience and all-around talent returning to be considered as a favorite again.

“We expect to be a deep team with several experienced players who will contribute,” Balz said. “We are working on building on the success of the past couple of years and believe that we can play well this year, too.”

Juniors Haley Simonson, Kaitlyn Rindfleisch and Vanessa Kedl were key players for the Falcons the past two seasons. The squad’s only two seniors — Hannah DeCock and Meghan Shannon — will also contribute, as will juniors Karina Klabunde and Sophia Bellig.

Nerem returns eight players off last year’s team, but will need to replace the fleet-footed Chantel Groen, who led the conference in scoring last season.                                                                                                                                                                                             

SW Christian was 15-1 in conference games last year, and the Eagles bring back senior all-conference players Emily Nerem (three-year starting point guard, school’s all-time assist leader) and Brooklyn DeKam (school’s all-time leader in three pointers). Junior Hannah Nerem (the team’s top rebounder last year) and sophomore Jazlyn Prins were also big-time contributors a year ago.

Prins is a gifted all-around athlete who can use either hand, has improved her shooting range and has the “ability to score from the perimeter and in the paint, making her a difficult matchup” according to Coach Nerem.

H-BC returns a pair of tall and talented juniors — Sidney Fick (leading scorer) and Grace Bundesen (leading rebounder) — who were each all-conference choices last year, along with senior guard Paige Tilstra from its 2016-17 starting lineup. Seniors Courtney Rozeboom and Megan Gehrke also are back with experience, as is junior Madison Spath.

“We do have quite a bit of experience and have an opportunity to be relatively deep,” said Patriots coach Kale Wiertzema. “We also have quite a bit of size and athleticism.”

At Adrian, a trio of Bullermans — Hannah (scoring and steals leader), Paige (leading rebounder) and Moriah (assist leader) — return for new coach Patrice Peters, who takes over the Dragons’ program after Hall-of-Fame mentor Randy Strand retired after nearly 30 years coaching the girls at AHS.

“The girls are excited for the season to begin,” said Peters, who is co-coaching with Fulda native Jes Hermeling. “We’re thrilled to be working with a great group of girls and can’t wait to see what each player gives back to the team.”

At Fulda, Gregg Slaathaug has moved on to become Hayfield’s superintendent and Jonathon Curry is the new head coach. Emily Schroer and Camryn Baumhoefner are two talented senior veterans returning for the Raiders.

Heron Lake-Okabena will also have a new coach this year, the program’s fourth over a four-year span. Neal Brandt fills in for his daughter, Anna, who is serving a year of active duty with the U.S. Army. Tessla Crowell, Abi Fest, Taylor Johanning and Kiana Leighty are four experienced seniors returning for the Wildcats.

Murray County Central brings back junior Montana Beckmann (all-conference last year), along with seniors Rachel VanIperen (leading rebounder) and Riley Schmitz (team’s best defender), from a squad that really played fine team defense last season.

“We are excited to go out and compete,” said MCC head coach Patrick Freeman. “We have taken small strides the past two years, and are hoping we can put it all together and see big improvements this year.”

Likewise, the Chargers of Westbrook-Walnut Grove have a “good group returning and are looking to be competitive,” according to head coach Adam Kletscher. Four of W-WG’s top returners are senior Theresa Merrick (good defender), junior Grace Woelber (playmaker, long-range shooter), sophomore Camryn Bunting (key rebounder) and junior Brittany Erickson, a fine all-around player who is back for the Chargers after not playing last season.

Ellsworth returns four starters, including senior Devin Dreesen (honorable mention all-conference) who was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season. Ashlyn Meester, Sierra Smith and Kallie Chapa also were starters for Panthers last year.

Big South Conference, West

Pipestone Area ran the table in the West Division of the Big South Conference last winter, winning the league title with a perfect 12-0 record while going a sparkling 24-2 overall. The Arrows return a strong nucleus and will likely contend again, along with perennial powers Marshall (13-14, 9-3) and Worthington (16-9, 9-3) The Trojans will be highlighted in a separate story.

Three other area teams --- Luverne (10-15, 4-8), Jackson County Central (9-17, 5-7) and Windom Area (6-21, 2-10) --- will challenge each other strongly, along with Redwood Valley (2-25, 1-11), for an upper-division finish.

Luverne coach TJ Newgard expects the Cardinals to be very competitive this season.

“We are somewhat on the small side, but I really like our versatility and athleticism,” he said. “We have multiple players who can play any position.”

Five of those versatile LHS players are senior point guard Joci Oye, senior guard Sierra Schmuck, senior post Rachel Oftedahl, junior guard MacKenzie Peterson and junior guard Jadyn Anderson. Schmuck (honorable mention all-conference), Peterson and Anderson are each top-notch track and field performers for the Cardinals.

Only two seniors with significant varsity minutes graduated from JCC and the Huskies return a “nice group of girls that has been focused and showing great effort and teaching ability in our early-season practices,” according to head coach Chris Aggen.

Seniors Lauren Murphy and Molly Brinkman join sophomore Alaina Wolff as returning starters for the Huskies. Seniors Ali Eckert, Alyssa Post and Emily Paplow will also contribute, as will juniors Kailey Koep and Melissa Brandt along with eighth-grader Sadie Voss.

Windom will be young with no seniors on the squad. Junior Maurissa Isaacs, sophomore Autumn Hage and sophomore Halle Jackson all contributed for the Eagle varsity last winter, but Jackson, a point guard, is out for the season following knee surgery.

Coach Jeff Huska indicated that “we have a lot of question marks and not much experience, but are hoping to gain some quickly. He said that the Eagles would be “playing a lot of 10th-graders and some ninth-graders.”

H-LP, G-RL, S-O striving for good seasons in Iowa                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Playing in the War Eagle Conference, Harris-Lake Park returns its entire roster from a year ago when the Wolves were 7-15. Juniors Jazmin Voehl, Taylor Meyer, Madison Brevik and Grace Elser join seniors Blake Gunderson and Avery Heikens as HL-P’s six returning veterans with the most varsity minutes.

“Returning all of our players from last year is our biggest strength,” said H-LP head coach Andy Irwin, who is the school district’s superintendent. “Rachel Martin, Brianne Ihnen and Skylar Forbes all improved their games over the off-season, and we expect them to help our depth.”

Voehl (leading rebounder) and Meyer each averaged double-figure scoring a year ago. Meyer, an outstanding volleyball player, finished the season with a team-leading 60 steals.

Sibley-Ocheyedan and George-Little Rock both play in the highly-competitive Siouxland Conference, and both squads return several players for the upcoming season.

S-O, coached by veteran mentor Henry Eekhoff, bring back four of last year’s top six players, as seniors Carly Sievert (10.2 ppg), Megan Grimes (assist leader), Toni Lonneman and Nichole Lowe are each starting for the Generals. Leah Ackerman, Kelli Greenfield, Jenny Caudros and Michaela Block will also play key roles for S-O this winter, according to Eekhoff, who says his squad has “much experience and adequate size.”  

Over at George-Little Rock, the Mustangs return seniors Wynona Steenhoven and MacKenize Burg, along with juniors Kayla Gerken and Courtney Dykstra with lots of varsity experience. Gerken led the team in both assists and steals last season, while Steenhoven was G-LR’s leading rebounder.

Mustangs coach Tyler Glanzer said that each of the four veterans have different strengths, and he’s looking for a couple of other girls to step and play big roles for G-LR.

“We lack a little size this year,” he said. “But, as a whole, we are quick, scrappy and competitive.”