After struggling a little early in the year, the young West Point-Beemer Cadets have hit their stride and are ready to take their spot among the area's elite.
Coach Taylor Shepard's squad had to replace four senior starters from last year's 23-3 state tournament team. Two of those four, forward Sierra Kile and guard Andrea Hoffman, combined to average 23 points per game.
"We knew, coming into this season, that we'd have a lot different look than we had last year," Shepard said. "But we've got a core group of juniors, and our girls have done a really nice job of stepping into their roles."
The 11-4 Cadets opened the season with a 43-37 home loss to Arlington but avenged it by defeating the Eagles 40-26 in the semifinals of the Wayne State holiday tournament.
The team's other three losses have come at the hands of North Bend Central, Hastings St. Cecilia and Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur, who sport a combined record of 41-2.
"We've had the unique opportunity of seeing some teams that have really challenged us, and then it's been nice to get some wins against Arlington, (Fremont) Bergan and Battle Creek, just to see that we are able to compete at a high level," Shepard said.
Junior point guard Sidney Swanson was the only non-senior to start for the Cadets last season. As a sophomore, she averaged 15 points and four rebounds per game. Swanson has upped her game this year and leads the team with 20 points and three assists and six boards per contest.
Shepard said Swanson has embraced her leadership role. "Sidney put in a ton of time this summer and has really worked on rounding out her game," she said. "She's able to attack the hoop, work for the outside shot and anything in between.
"It's been just great to see the things she can create. She's such an unselfish player. She's constantly looking for ways to set up her teammates and to really help our team be successful."
Junior shooting guard Brooklyn Weddle is a force on both ends of the floor. "She provides lockdown defense every single game, day in and day out, and we know we can rely on her to be a consistent scorer," Shepard said.
Another junior, forward Rachel Groth, gets the assignment of shutting down the opponents' bigs. "She's done a nice job of really bodying up defensively," Shepard said. "On the offensive end, she can stretch out and shoot the outside shot, but she also does a nice job of getting in there in the post and being strong and aggressive."
Shepard asked forward Jadyn Meiergerd to take on a big scoring role this season, and the sophomore has delivered by averaging eight points per game. "Her shots weren't falling early in the season," Shepard said, "so she really used that as an opportunity to work on attacking the rim and using her ability to go get rebounds to up her scoring. It's been nice to see it all coming together for her."
Sophomore Emily Toelle rounds out the Cadet starting lineup. Shepard said Toelle (pronounced tell) does all of the little things well. "She hustles for every single ball and she's been able to get quite a few steals this season by being in the right place, and we know that we can always rely on her defensively to give a great effort," Shepard said.
The Cadets' only senior, Katie Combs, comes off the bench, as does junior Hannah Landholm. "Katie does a nice job of locking down the post players, as well as providing Rachel with some backup minutes, and Hannah's been a great defensive role player for us," Shepard said. "She does all the little things that we love — going for rebounds, diving, sacrificing her body on the floor — which is exactly what we want to see."
Shepard also is looking forward to having junior Reece Snodgrass join the varsity. "She'll be eligible toward the end of January. We're excited to see her fit into the mix. She does a great job of attacking the rim. It's been fun to see her defense at the (junior varsity) level, so we're really excited to get her on the court with the rest of our girls."
Shepard said she feels her team is playing its best basketball right now. "Our half-court defense has really caused teams some fits and been able to hold them well under their averages, which I think is giving us more opportunities to go out and win those big games."
This week's sample size is smaller than usual as Mother Nature wiped out all of Friday's scheduled games and many of Saturday's.
One matchup on the Friday slate between No. 2 Oakland-Craig and No. 3 BRLD had to be postponed to Saturday, but it was worth the wait. Chaney Nelson's 3-point basket at the buzzer gave the Knights a 55-52 win.
Oakland-Craig remains second this week, but the Knights will have a chance to take over the top spot when they square off with No. 1 North Bend Central on Friday night in Oakland.
Even with the loss, BRLD solidified its hold at No. 3, while Guardian Angels Central Catholic went 3-0 on the week to remain fourth.
Crofton picked up a big win over South Dakota power West Central of Hartford and stays in the fifth spot while Ponca hangs on at No. 6.
West Point-Beemer's convincing 47-32 win over previous No. 7 Battle Creek earned the Cadets that seventh position while Norfolk Catholic stays eighth after a victory over Columbus Scotus.
Battle Creek, O'Neill, Clarkson/Leigh, North Central and Summerland head the list of honorably mentioned, along with Ainsworth, Boyd County, Tekamah-Herman, Wakefield/Allen and Winnebago.
Chambers/Wheeler Central and Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family have clearly established themselves as the front-runners among the area's Class D1 and D2 elite.
The Renegades are 13-0 while the Bulldogs sport a 13-1 record, with the only blemish a holiday tournament loss to Class C No. 1 North Bend Central. The two juggernauts will not meet during the regular season but appear to be on a collision course in the D1-5 subdistrict, which is set for Feb. 18 and 20 in Albion.
Humphrey St. Francis remains third after a win over Class C1 Pierce, and Wynot stays fourth following a victory over Niobrara/Verdigre.
Previous No. 5 Pender falls out of the ratings after a 52-48 loss to Homer. That made room for Hartington Cedar Catholic, Elkhorn Valley and Laurel-Concord-Coleridge to move up one slot each.
Neither No. 5 Cedar nor sixth-ranked Elkhorn Valley played a game last week because of the weather. Meanwhile, No. 7 Laurel-Concord-Coleridge recorded an impressive win over Class C1 Wayne, and Stuart reentered the ratings at No. 8 despite a road loss to CWC.
Pender tops the Class D honorably mentioned along with Elgin Public/Pope John and Santee.