MMCRU advances to state for first time in program history

Thursday, February 25, 2021
(Sentinel Photo By Allen Hamil) Above, MMCRU poses with their state qualifying banner after their 53-43 win over Westwood in a Class 1A regional final played at Sioux City West.

SIOUX CITY — In their fifth season as a combined basketball program, MMCRU earned its first ever trip to the girls state basketball tournament, winning a Class 1A regional final contest by a 53-43 score over Westwood at the Sioux City West gym on Wednesday.

“It feels like a dream come true,” MMCRU junior Ellie Hilbrands said. “This is what we’ve been working for all these years. I don’t know, it’s an unreal feeling.”

The win ends a long drought for the communities which make up MMCRU as Marcus made their only state appearance in 1986 and Remsen-Union earned their only state appearance five years prior to that.

“Neither town has made it down here in about 30 years,” MMCRU senior Jaylen Bork said. “It’s crazy what we are doing here. We’re all together and it really means a lot.”

A large contingent of supporters from those communities made the trip to a nearly full gymnasium in what was one of the best atmospheres for a basketball game since the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the capacity of many crowds this season.

“It was unbelievable, we really do have the greatest fans,” Bork said.

MMCRU maintained a lead for most of the first half although the Rebels, who had knocked off three other War Eagle Conference teams to get to the regional final, kept things within striking distance. While Westwood had knocked off Trinity Christian, Akron-Westfield and Remsen St. Mary’s on their way to the regional final, MMCRU Head Coach Gillian Letsche said her team wasn’t going to be the fourth.

“When the tournament started we said ‘Three games.’ Three games is all we need and we put them up on a board and went ‘Check,’ ‘Check,’ and tonight we can check the last one off,” Letsche said. “We had a feeling it was either going to be St. Mary’s or Westwood so we were just excited to see who was getting knocked off and who were were going to play. We were just super excited because our steps along the way, we were determined every game, one game at a time.”

Taylor Harpenau hit a 3-pointer to make it 7-2 midway through the first quarter before the Rebels clawed back to a tie at 9-9 after Jaeden Ferris knocked down a 3-pointer as part of her team-high 10 points. The Rebels did hold a lead for a few moments in the first quarter, but Emily Dreckman scored a layup with about three seconds left in the period as the Royals led 13-12 after the first eight minutes. Dreckman finished with seven points for the Royals.

After the Rebels scored first in the second quarter, Harpenau knocked down a 3-pointer as MMCRU took the lead for good.

Bork later scored a layup midway through the second quarter which prompted a timeout with the Royals up by six. The team’s next points came on Harpenau’s third 3-pointer of the opening half as she scored nine of her 12 points on those first half treys.

(Sentinel Photo By Allen Hamil) Above, with a defender crashing in, Taylor Harpenau shoots a 3-pointer in front of the MMCRU student section. Harpenau made three treys in the first half as part of her 12 points.

“I knew I needed to focus and we played as a team and looked for the open girl and I got those shots,” Harpenau said. “The family we have together, we have a special bond and we can find that open girl.”

The Rebels went on a short run of their own with a triple from Katie Muenchrath and a layup from Addy Johnson to pull to within two, but Bork closed out the scoring in the first half with a layup and mid-range jumper from the baseline to give the Royals a 27-21 halftime advantage. Bork was especially effective in the first half as she scored 12 of her 16 points before the intermission.

“I was getting all the good backdoors,” Bork said. “We really communicated well tonight, especially with the loud gym we really had to hear each other and know where we were on the court and we did really good together as a team.”

(Sentinel Photo By Allen Hamil) Jaylen Bork puts up a shot over a defender in the regional final. Bork led the Royals with 16 points.

MMCRU used a 14-3 run across the final six minutes of the third quarter to finally get some breathing room that was more than a couple possessions. Letsche explained the adjustments the team made in the second half.

“We tried a couple new defenses, we got a couple steals off of it and we had our momentum back. We attacked the rim a little bit more and I think that’s what really helped us,” Letsche said. “We went into a 1-3-1 and just kind of rattled them. We talked about pressuring the ball up there and we did a good job of that, getting a few tips and deflections off of that and capitalizing on the layups.”

Hilbrands scored eight points in the third quarter as she finished with 12 in the game.

“We came out the second half and we really figured out our offense and we put it all together,” Hilbrands said. “My teammates did an awesome job of finding me tonight. It was awesome. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

While the Royals only scored four points in the final five minutes, the Rebels weren’t able to close the gap by more than a few points as the feeling of winning began to sink in for the team.

“The last two minutes, when it started winding down and we had a bigger lead, I just had a feeling,” Harpenau said.

Kora Alesch capped off the scoring with a free throw in the closing seconds of the contest, part of her six points of the game, and then it was on to the celebration as the team first ran over to the student section before coming back to collect their state qualifying banner.

Westwood concludes the season with a 19-5 record as three of their losses came to state qualifying teams with a pair of defeats in Western Valley Conference play coming at the hands of Kingsley-Pierson who won in a different regional.

MMCRU (21-2) secures the No. 5 seed in the tournament and will face fourth-seeded Exira-Elk Horn/Kimballton at Wells Fargo Arena at 4 p.m., Wednesday.

“Hopefully we can have a practice in a big gym, that will help a lot,” Letsche said. “But for the most part, they’ve just got to be mentally and physically ready and we’re going to get them ready for any team we play.”

Hilbrands said while the dream of reaching state has come true, she is looking forward to continuing on with the dream in Des Moines.

“This has been our dream ever since we were young,” Hilbrands said. “It feels like all the time we’ve put in really paid off tonight. I’m looking forward to the atmosphere. Our fans are amazing and we couldn’t do it without them and I’m just so excited to finally make it.”

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