Is it too early to make some observations about what has transpired in the first month of the high school basketball season?
It could be, but that’s not going to stop Ankeny Fanatic from doing just that.
Here are some random thoughts from what I’ve seen thus far on the hardcourts in the CIML:
* The Ankeny Centennial boys’ team is a legitimate contender to win the Central Conference. After going 9-13 a year ago, the Jaguars are off to a 6-0 start that includes road wins over Johnston and Ames, last year’s conference co-champions. The addition of former Ankeny player Jaron Crews, who is averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range (15-of-40), has helped open up the floor for all of his teammates. The other Centennial starters have sizzled from behind the arc as well, going a combined 22-of-49 (44.9 percent). Another key to the Jaguars’ undefeated start has been their defense–they are allowing just 42.5 points per game. If Centennial can continue to make shots while defending like it has been, the Jaguars should have a great chance to earn their first trip to Wells Fargo Arena.
* The Ankeny boys’ squad is also off to a great start. The Hawks won three of their first four games without Braxton Bayless, their top returning scorer and rebounder. Since Bayless returned to the lineup, Ankeny has rolled to victories over Southeast Polk and Urbandale. The 6-foot-1 point guard is averaging 24.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, teaming up with fellow seniors Jaxon Smith and Jordan Kumm to form a potent backcourt trio that combines for 53.7 points. Ankeny has also gotten solid contributions off the bench from junior Matt Stueckradt and sophomores Ryan Crandall and Braden Simonsen. The Hawks will need for that to continue because Bayless can’t do it all.
* The Dowling Catholic boys’ team scored just 28 points in a season-opening loss at Iowa City West, but has since rebounded with five consecutive victories, setting up a showdown on Jan. 3 against Centennial for sole possession of the league lead. Like the Jaguars, Dowling has already won twice on the road against conference foes–at Ankeny and Johnston. The winner of the Centennial-Dowling game will clearly move into the driver’s seat, especially if the Jaguars can improve to 3-0 with only two more conference road trips remaining. The Maroons rely on a balanced attack–four players average between 9.2 and 11.0 points–and they have a tall front line that can match up with Centennial’s inside duo of Micah Johnson and Cody McCullough. Dowling is still waiting for freshman phenom Omaha Biliew to become an impact player. The 6-7 Biliew is averaging just 3.7 points and 3.7 rebounds off the bench, but he has all the physical tools to develop into a superstar. It probably isn’t a question of if, but when, it will happen.
* The Johnston girls’ team already has a leg up in the race for the Central Conference title. The defending champion Dragons are off to a 2-0 start in league play, but they needed a fourth-quarter rally to defeat Centennial and then needed another one to knock off Dowling, including a steal and layup at the buzzer by freshman Molly Noelck that allowed Johnston to overcome a 41-point outburst by the Maroons’ Caitlin Clark. Johnston is led by senior point guard Maya McDermott, a Northern Iowa recruit, but it’s her strong supporting cast–including Kendall Nead, Anna Gosling and Maddie Mock–that makes the Dragons the early favorite to defend their conference title. There isn’t much of a gap, though, between Johnston and the rest of the league.
* Dowling remains a contender for the girls’ crown simply because of Clark, who is averaging a ridiculous 33.1 points and already has 28 3-point goals in eight games. The Iowa recruit is one of the top seniors in the nation, and she has the ability to almost single-handedly carry the Maroons to a victory. Three times this season, she has scored 39 points in a Dowling win. Ironically, on the two occasions when Clark scored 41 points, the Maroons lost both of those games. It will be interesting to see how Clark is defended when the Maroons host Centennial, the top defensive team in Class 5A, on Jan. 3. The Jaguars won both meetings against Dowling last season, holding Clark to an average of 29 points on 22-of-71 shooting (31.0 percent).
* Centennial allows just 35 points per game, and for that reason alone the Jaguars are a threat to win the conference title. Coach Scott DeJong’s team got off to a 2-3 start that included the fourth-quarter collapse at Johnston, but Centennial then rebounded with back-to-back impressive victories over Des Moines Roosevelt and at Ames. The Jaguars’ defense will keep them in every game. The question, though, is whether or not they can score enough points to defeat their elite opponents. The game at Dowling next week will be a huge test for Centennial. A win would put the Jaguars in the thick of the conference race. A loss would drop them into the middle of the pack.
* The Ankeny girls’ team may have to play the role of a spoiler the rest of the way after dropping its first two conference games. The Hawkettes got off to a 4-1 start this season before running into a gauntlet of top-10 teams before the holiday break in Dowling, Southeast Polk and Urbandale. Senior guard Kayla Pitz is playing the best basketball of her career–she leads Ankeny with an average of 15.7 points per game. But injuries have taken a toll on the Hawkettes. Senior forward Holly Trimble is playing through pain–she sat out the first two games with a rare bone growth disorder before returning to the lineup. If she can get fully healthy, and if junior forward Abby Johnson can return from an offseason knee injury by Feb. 1, Ankeny could have the potential to make some significant noise in the postseason.