Prep Basketball

Emerson Whittenbaugh is back to full strength, and thus, so is Maquoketa Valley

Resilient Wildcats open the season as The Gazette's top-ranked girls' basketball team in Class 2A

Maquoketa Valley seniors Taya Tucker (left), Ella Imler (center) and Emerson Whittenbaugh pose for a photo during girls'
Maquoketa Valley seniors Taya Tucker (left), Ella Imler (center) and Emerson Whittenbaugh pose for a photo during girls’ basketball practice last week at Delhi. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DELHI — She couldn’t play last season, and Emerson Whittenbaugh needed her competitive fix.

Her new game was physical therapy. Her tool was her left knee.

Her opponent was the calendar.

“I’m a competitive person,” Whittenbaugh said. “It was supposed to take 8 1/2 months for me to be back. Instead, I was back in seven.”

Whittenbaugh was ready in time for volleyball season, more than ready. She led the state in kills.

Now, it’s on to basketball. And Whittenbaugh’s return adds another dimension to an already-stacked roster at Maquoketa Valley High School.

With Whittenbaugh back after tearing her meniscus in the fall of 2019, it essentially gives the Wildcats (17-5 last season) three all-state-caliber seniors. Ella Imler was a Class 2A second-team selection last year; Taya Tucker was a third-teamer.

Because of that talent level, The Gazette has tabbed Maquoketa Valley as its preseason 2A No. 1.

“We have a lot of kids that can help at a lot of different places,” Coach Scot Moenck said. “We’ve got to stay healthy, and we’ve got to continue to improve.”

And they’ve got to consider Whittenbaugh an addition, not a replacement or a distraction.

“The first time we practiced with Emerson, it was different,” Moenck said. “It was challenging. She does a lot for us. But that first night, the other kids got caught standing and watching her.

“She can play all five spots. She doesn’t tire. She plays with tremendous energy. She rebounds, she can shoot from outside, she can post up.

“She’s a matchup nightmare.”

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Whittenbaugh averaged 12.1 points as a sophomore, shooting 56 percent from the floor. In her absence last season, Imler (14.9 points, 4.7 assists per game) and Tucker (15.0 points, 8.4 rebounds) expanded their roles.

Imler, Tucker and Whittenbaugh are year-round teammates. In the offseason, they play for Iowa Prep, an AAU team out of Hiawatha.

“We have a bond that’s strong and special,” Imler said. “We have big expectations that we know we can reach, and we hold each other accountable with that in mind.”

Whittenbaugh’s return adds to the Wildcats, but it doesn’t complete them.

Nothing can.

There was a fourth member of this class that was on the same athletic trajectory as the other three. Her name was Anna Nefzger.

“She was so tough, just like those other three,” Moenck said. “She absolutely would have been a starter on this team.”

In the summer of 2016, before her eighth-grade year, Nefzger was killed in a utility-vehicle accident. She was 13.

“There were a lot of tough days,” Moenck said. “Those other three girls, they were in my room a lot of days, in tears. But they never got off track.”

Whittenbaugh said, “I think it brought the three of us even closer together. Nothing can be taken for granted. You never know when your last day is going to be.

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“We’re a family. Basketball is such a little part of life. When you’re having a hard time, you can go cry on somebody’s shoulders.”

It was the players that provided the shoulders in March, with the death of Moenck’s mother, Marge Burgess.

“Mom only missed one game of my high school career and only four games that I’ve coached,” Moenck said. “The girls were great. They stopped at my house. They wrote me a long card. There were lots of calls and text messages.”

Then, in July, tragedy hit again when Teige Hunt, another member of the Maquoketa Valley class of 2021, drowned in Lake Delhi.

“These seniors, they’ve been through a lot,” said Moenck, who has posted a 249-76 record in 14 years at the school. “They’ve taught so many in the community how to persevere.”

And now, like everybody else, they’re dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wildcats wear masks in practice, thankful for each day in the gym together.

Their practices in the first week were three hours apiece.

“Coach works us hard and gets on us sometimes,” Tucker said. “But it’s because he believes in us and knows the potential we have.”

Lots of potential, but right now, it’s just potential.

“We could be something really, really special,” Whittenbaugh said. “We have a lot of young kids that are going to have to step up and pick up some minutes for us.”

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Key complementary pieces include juniors Carissa Sabers and Kylie Chesnut and sophomore Kennedy Rausch.

Maquoketa Valley is a perennial contender in the Tri-Rivers Conference West Division, along with North Linn and Springville. To climb past those teams, and to make a deep postseason push, the Wildcats must improve their shooting accuracy (35.5 percent from the field, 27.2 percent from long distance, 54.0 percent from the line last year).

“Defense wins championships. That’s been a thing for us since we were young,” Tucker said. “But we have to shoot better.”

If they do, and if the season proceeds, something very good could come to this group that has dealt with so much bad.

“This team has all the makings, but we’re not there yet,” Moenck said. “We have the pieces to the puzzle, but we have to fit them together.”

Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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