116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WEST LIBERTY — It’s basketball, after all, so the first inclination is to draw a correlation between this team and the fictional one from “Hoosiers.”
Strike up a conversation with Macy Daufeldt on the subject, though, and it’s a dead end.
“Hoosiers?” she said with a shrug. “Never heard of it.”
Come on, Macy. You’re kidding, right?
“No,” she said. “Sounds interesting, though. We’ll have to see that sometime.”
That brief exchange came Dec. 13, after West Liberty defeated Bellevue in a River Valley Conference girls’ basketball game.
Why the trip?
Well, West Liberty (6-2 at the holiday break) is one of the best teams in the area.
With a legitimate shot to reach the state tournament for the first time in nearly a half century, the Comets are one of the most intriguing squads.
And with a roster of seven players, they are one of the most fragile.
A Class 3A top-10 team and a contender in the RVC South Division, this tiny roster has high hopes for February — and maybe March.
But there’s no room for misstep.
Illness, injury, foul trouble ... almost anything that would be an inconvenience for most teams ... could be catastrophic for this one. It could send the whole house of cards crashing.
“We’ll take Sundays off. We’ll take a lot of Wednesdays off,” said Matt Hoeppner, in his third year as the Comets’ head coach. “We want to save their bodies, save their legs. We need them in February.
“I think the kids are having fun. They very rarely say they’re tired. They don’t want to come out of the game. They’re fighters.”
BEFORE WE GO further, let’s be specific.
Seven players. That doesn’t mean seven players on the varsity roster. That means seven players in the entire program, grades 9-12.
So it's varsity, and varsity only, at West Liberty.
“I thought we would have at least 13 or 14,” Hoeppner said. “We had 18 on our original list.”
Instead, many of those on the fence went another direction — mostly to the wrestling room. West Liberty’s wrestling program includes 15 girls, according to athletics director Adam Loria.
The participation numbers seem dire, but it could have been worse. It started worse.
When practice opened in early November, six players showed up.
There was Daufeldt, a senior and a returning first-team all-state selection who was coming off a phenomenal volleyball season (she was the state co-player of the year and will play at Drake University next year).
There were the Hall sisters, three of them: Sailor is a senior. Finley, a third-team all-stater last year, is a junior. Pearson is a freshman.
There was sophomore Paige Werling and freshman Sophie Buysse.
And that was it.
IT DIDN’T TAKE long for adversity to strike. Before the second game, against Durant, Buysse became ill, and it appeared that only five players would be available to play.
Hoeppner wasn’t too proud to beg for help. He found the contact number for Brooklyn Buysse, a junior and Sophie’s older sister.
“Matt texted me and said it could be a one-time thing,” Brooklyn said. “I said, ‘Sure, whatever you need.’ So I played the next day.”
The following day, the Comets went to Johnston for a game against 5A power West Des Moines Valley. Sophie was still sick, and the Comets were resigned to playing with a roster of five.
Brooklyn was in Des Moines that day, playing at a club volleyball tournament, which ended early. She asked if the team could use her.
“There was a lot of cheering,” Hoeppner said.
And with that, Brooklyn opted to remain with the team for the remainder of the season.
“It’s good to have that extra person, that extra sub, especially when it comes to fouls,” Sailor Hall said.
That was the case in the Bellevue game, in which foul trouble nipped at the Comets’ heels throughout.
Finley Hall had two fouls in the first quarter. Pearson Hall picked up her third, late in the second quarter. With 2 minutes left, three players had four fouls, and Pearson Hall fouled out with 18 seconds left.
Still, the Comets held on, 52-42.
COMPARED TO HICKORY, Ind. (of “Hoosiers” lore), West Liberty is a metropolis. The population was 3,800 in the 2020 census and, at 3A, the girls’ program is in the middle of the state’s five-class hierarchy.
The school’s volleyball program has enjoyed big success lately, earning state runner-up honors in 2015 and 2021. The softball team has advanced to state twice in the last three years.
Basketball, that has been a different story.
As a six-on-six program, West Liberty advanced to state four times between 1952 and 1965. Success was rare in five-on-five.
The Comets had a winning season in 1990-91, then went 29 years until the next one. They went 19-5 in 2019-20, Hoeppner’s first season. They were 16-6 last year.
Both of the last two teams finished second in the division, behind West Branch. And both fell one game short of the state tournament.
Last year’s exit was particularly agonizing, a 47-45 loss to West Burlington.
SO HOW DOES practice work for this team?
The short answer, Brooklyn Buysse said, is to “make do with what we have.”
Of course, five-on-five scrimmaging isn’t possible with seven players.
“We run a lot of five-on-zero (sets),” Sailor Hall said. “We have to make at least seven passes. It has to go through the high post, to the corners, at least once.”
The Comets absolutely must be in top condition. It doesn’t come from a lot of running in practice, just for the sake of running.
“We’re using drills to condition them,” Hoeppner said. “A lot of three-man weave with two shooters.
“We do lots of shooting, lots of fundamentals. Because we have seven, we’ll only practice for an hour, or 75 minutes, or 90 on a consistent basis.”
YOU MIGHT THINK the Comets would play a slow-down, walk-it-up, zone-only approach to conserve energy on game nights.
You might be wrong.
“At our first scrimmage, we just didn’t look good,” Hoeppner said. “We watched the tape and realized that we can press people, use our athleticism to our advantage.”
In the Bellevue game, Daufeldt played all 32 minutes. Sophie Buysse and the two older Hall girls played about 28 apiece.
They find little ways to conserve energy.
“Instead of running sideline to sideline (on offense), I try to find an opening in the defense,” Daufeldt said. “I try to take a second or two of rest when I can.”
Discipline also is key. The team is averaging less than 10 fouls per game.
“I got into foul trouble a lot last year,” said Sailor Hall, who will play softball at Kirkwood Community College next year. “We’re doing a better job staying out of foul trouble.
“We know what’s on the line when we’re not careful.”
Daufeldt said, “We can’t have stupid fouls. We have to have control of our bodies and be smart.”
And if worse comes to worst, and if the Comets have to put four on the floor?
“If people get hurt or get sick, Coach has a plan,” Finley Hall said.
“It’s been in the back of my mind a couple of times,” Hoeppner said. “We won’t do anything special … maybe a 2-2 zone or a diamond zone.”
SIBLINGS CAN PRESENT an interesting dynamic, and the Halls had a moment in the Bellevue game.
When Pearson was shooting a free-throw line, Finley said something to Sailor, and Sailor responded with a slap to the face.
Sailor sat on the bench for the rest of the half. But when they came out of the locker room, all seemed to be forgiven. The elder two were laughing about something.
It’s a team that, by all accounts, gets along well.
“With low numbers, it’s hard to form cliques, so that’s good,” Sailor Hall said.
Hoeppner said, “With some teams, sometimes you have to force chemistry. With this group, it comes naturally.
“We probably let them get away with more than we have in the past.
“Like they say, what are we going to do, bench them?”