Defending champs and underdogs: Panthers prep for first-round game
The Panthers may be the defending state champions, but the Mt. Pleasant boys’ basketball team knows that it’s going to be fighting an uphill battle at the state tournament.
“We’re going in as the underdog; that’s the approach we’re taking,” Coach Paul Rundquist said.
The sixth-seeded Panthers (19-5) play their first game against third-seeded Waverly-Shell Rock (20-4) tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8:15 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Underdog or not, Panther fans can expect to see the same Mt. Pleasant team on the court that they’ve been watching all season.
“I don’t want the kids to go in and stress too much, and that happens when you change too many things,” Rundquist said. “We’re just going to play our game and hope its good enough.”
A big part of that game is their class-leading defense. The Panthers have allowed fewer points per game than any other team in Class 3A, and also lead the class in steals.
“Every game we defend a little bit differently,” Rundquist said. “We play the players differently. I really like to watch the other players and learn their tendencies. It’s important for our kids to recognize who they’re guarding. I’ll stop practice and say a (jersey) number, then ask, “What’s his name? How do you have to guard him?
“We focus on particular players, not on what they do as an offensive scheme.”
The Mt. Pleasant defense will have its work cut out for it on Tuesday, as they will see some extremely talented players.
At the top of the list is Klinton Carlson, a 6-foot-8 returning starter for the Go-Hawks and a UNI basketball recruit.
The senior averages 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
“He’s left-handed, he drives hard, he’s extremely athletic, and he can shoot outside,” Rundquist said. “He’s a great player. We’re just trying to prepare a couple different ways to guard him, and we’ll see what works best.”
The Panthers won’t be able to devote all their attention to Carlson, as Waverly-Shell Rock also brings two very talented starting guards to the floor in Dan Stensland and Jake Velky, each of whom averages more than 10 points per game.
And it doesn’t stop there.
“We can’t lose sight of the other players, either,” Rundquist said, referring to Drew Demuth and Shawn Westendorf, the Go-Hawks other two starters. Any one of those five players is liable to lead the team in scoring.
The Go-Hawks are a pretty young group, and the school has had a couple tough outings at the state tournament in the past two years.
Carlson as their only starting senior this season. Stensland, Westendorf and Demuth are all juniors, and Velky is a sophomore.
Velky and Carlson were also starters on last year’s W-SR team, which was seeded second but upset in the first round by No. 7 Grinnell. The Tigers went on to lose to Mt. Pleasant in the semifinals.
The year before that, the Go-Hawks fell by two points (62-60) in the championship game to Bishop Heelan Catholic.
“They come in with goals, but all eight teams do,” Rundquist said.
That includes the Panthers, as both coach and players alike have made it clear that they were not interested in qualifying for the state tournament just to get to Des Moines and finish in last.
Some have been there before, know how sweet a victory is, and want to bring the second straight trophy to Mt. Pleasant. Some are making their first and last trip to the tournament, and want to capitalize on that opportunity.
All are ready to fight for what they want, and that fight will start tomorrow against Waverly-Shell Rock.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Rundquist said.