DES MOINES - Searching for an elusive state title, the Newell-Fonda girls basketball team appears poised to finally break through this time around.
Making their ninth trip to Des Moines in school history, the second-ranked Mustangs (22-2 overall) will battle Villisca (21-4) in a Class 1A quarterfinal this morning at 10 a.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena.
"Our team has a lot of balanced scoring and plays an uptempo style of game," N-F head coach Dick Jungers said. "I hope our kids can get settled into our gameplan like we want. We were very young the last time we made state (in 2011) and had to face the No. 1 team (Martensdale St. Mary's) in the first round, which was a tough way to start things out."
Junior Renee Maneman (17.3 points per game), senior Andrea Christensen (10.5) and junior Claudia Larsen (9.6) are the top scoring threats for co-Twin Lakes Conference champion Newell-Fonda, which boasts the No. 2 offensive attack in 1A at 65.0 points a night. Maneman also spearheads the team in total assists (129) and steals (85), while Larsen leads the way in rebounds (153) and blocks (66).
Rounding out the starting lineup for the tradition-rich Mustangs are juniors Brianna Wells (7.0) and Taiyler Schrank (6.6).
"I feel like we have great depth and capabilities for a lot of different looks," said Jungers, who owns an overall mark of 225-49 in his 10 years at the helm. "We're also very aggressive defensively, which is always our main focus and where games are won or lost."
On the defensive end, relentless Newell-Fonda allows just 38.9 points per contest and has held eight opponents to 29 or less. The Mustangs, who have racked up at least 70 points on 11 different occasions, are second in 1A in both three-pointers made (146) and attempted (433).
Newell-Fonda suffered its lone setbacks this year to then-No. 3 (3A) Estherville-Lincoln Central (60-47) and Sioux Central (51-50). During regional play, the Mustangs ousted Coon Rapids-Bayard (68-27), Southeast Webster-Grand (73-40) and Northwood-Kensett (79-45).
Seniors Amanda Focht (14.2), Morganne Haer (13.5) and Jill Vanderhoof (13.0) anchor the balanced charge for the Blue Jays, who have prevailed in six straight and 14 of their past 15 games. Focht is also shooting a team-best 55.2 percent from the field, while grabbing 11.1 boards a night. Vanderhoof paces Villisca in both total steals (104) and assists (86).
"(The Blue Jays) have three kids that do most of the scoring (Focht, Haer and Vanderhoof combine for 73.2 percent of the scoring)," Jungers said. "They are a very well-coached and fundamentally sound team."
Villisca, which tied with Stanton for third in the Corner Conference at 8-3, eliminated Orient-Macksburg (79-19), Corning (63-43), Murray (56-46) and No. 3 defending state runner-up Bedford (57-50) en route to Des Moines.
Prior to this season, the only other state appearance for the Blue Jays came back in 1968.
Like usual, loyal community support has been a key factor in all of Newell-Fonda's recent success.
"Our school and community have just been phenomenal for us," said Jungers. "When our fans get vocal, it seems to give our kids an extra spark and makes them play even harder."
Maneman and Christensen each started on Newell-Fonda's 2011 1A state quarterfinalist squad. The Mustangs previously settled for 1A state runner-up honors in 1997, 2000 and 2008.
Jungers has also guided Newell-Fonda to the state softball tournament six times since 2005, including a 1A crown in '08 and second-place efforts in '06, '09 and '10.
Monday's winner advances to face either No. 4 Ar-We-Va (21-3) or 13th-ranked Bellevue Marquette (16-6) in a 1A state semifinal Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.