INDEPENDENCE — Sumner-Fredericksburg coach Kevin Bergman and the Cougars girls basketball team knew exactly what they were walking into when they arrived for Friday’s Regional semis in Independence. They were well aware Beckman Catholic was coming in white-hot off an upset win at Cascade only days before. Certainly no one downplayed the Blazers’ defense based off the film watched in practice.
“I guess they call it a zone defense,” Bergman said. “But really, it’s a man-to-man, but it switches around and transforms into a zone. [Beckman] is long and does a good job defending underneath the basket. They are very effective on that end of the floor.”
The solution to a zone: Attack the middle and kick out to the open girl as the defense collapses around the ball. But Beckman’s unique zone was not quite that simple to solve, a fact that was evident early in Friday’s game. Sumner-Fredericksburg could not buy a bucket early even as they went inside to junior post and leading scorer Morgan Brandt on every complete play. The Beckman defense indeed hounded her with double, occasionally triple teams and Brandt struggled to get a clean shot up or pass to a teammate. While the Blazers had their own scoring issues, their defensive scheme gave them a 9-0 start.
“Morgan has had this happen a lot this year,” Bergman said. “Teams know to double and triple her. I’ve even seen one team this season send four girls at her. It’s not easy for her, but we’ve had players step up and hit big shots off her feed in recent games.”
Shots from the perimeter, however, weren’t falling against the Blazers early. Brandt stopped the initial run with a bucket inside. The Cougars added a free throw and ended the first quarter with a buzzer beater three from senior Molly Niewoehner, trailing 11-6.
“We were trying to figure out ways to get Morgan the ball through the double teams and work around their defense to get our guards open looks for shots outside,” Niewoehner said. “We’d been working on our press coming into this game, but it wasn’t effective early.”
Turnovers also caused the Cougars to scramble at times, but clearer heads enabled Sumner-Fredericksburg to tie up the second quarter 10-10 and walk into the locker down 21-16, a manageable deficit.
“We were flat shooting and not hitting from outside tonight,” Bergman said. “Nothing came easy offensively.”
The Blazers extended their lead into double figures as they outscored the Cougars 18-9 in the third quarter. Turnovers and empty possessions kept Sumner-Fredericksburg down, but not totally out. A 5-0 run in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter showed there was still some life left in the Cougars’ offense, primarily Brandt and Niewoehner. The senior guard provided the highlight of the night with a bucket and a foul late to get the Cougar fans on their feet.
“I knew I wanted to go out with a bang,” Niewoehner said. “My favorite number is 12 and with that last free throw, I hit 12 points. It was the icing on the cake.”
The rally was too little too late as the Blazers cruised through the final minutes and let the Cougars’ turnovers do the work for them. Beckman walked out with a 49-37 to advance to the Regional final against top-ranked Maquoketa Valley on Wednesday. Brandt finished with 12 points and 21 rebounds, an astonishing 14 of which were offensive boards. Senior Landree Kobliska chipped in five points and three rebounds. Niewoehner added four steals and two rebounds to her double-digit score in her final game as a Cougar.
“Tonight didn’t go the way I thought it could,” Niewoehner said. “It’s hard to get yourself out of that mental state once you’re down so far. In the end, I’m still happy because we played our hearts out and our effort was there.”
Sumner-Fredericksburg ended their season 17-7 (10-6 NICL East), which they opened with a 2-4 record before coming back with runs of eight and six wins. During their rough start to the season, Bergman encouraged his players to focus on the entire season and not just their bumpy beginning.
“Don’t worry about the beginning and don’t be afraid,” Bergman said. “We lost only two games the rest of the way after the 2-4 start. Our girls did a good job of coming together the rest of this season. The seniors have been great to work with. They get along so well and work hard.”
While the Cougars have several volleyball players on their team, basketball has always been Niewoehner’s favorite sport growing up as she watched her older sister play on the court.
“There’s nothing like being in front of a good crowd, canning shots and being with some of your best friends,” Niewoehner said. “Going into my senior season, we knew we had lost some great girls from last season and I decided I’d be happy with a .500 season. We ended up having a terrific group out this season and made it to the third round. I had my favorite season as a senior. I can’t complain.”
Sumner-Fredericksburg returns Brandt next school year after averaging 17.2 ppg and 12.2 rpg in the 2020-21 season. Seniors Niewoehner (5.8 ppg) and Abby Meyer (5.4 ppg) will both graduate in May, but junior Lily Buchholz and Alivia Lange will return to solidify a new core for Bergman in 2022.
“I really think if we can put in some time this offseason we can be really good next season,” Bergman said. “Right now, the returning players have the fever to do what it takes to take a big step next time they hit the court together.”