Rachael SaundersBy Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – With four starters, including a pair of Division I signees, gone from a 22-win, state semifinal team in 2014 last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year at West High.
Something funny happened along the way in what many figured would be a down year at West High. The young Women of Troy started to grow up, quickly.
West High came up a few points shy of a second straight state tournament falling to 2015 state champion Waukee by two points in overtime in a 5A regional final.
“It was technically a building year for us as we called it,” West High junior Rachael Saunders said. “It was but we were definitely able to kind of show everyone what we had as a team and our athletic ability and how we know how to play.”
With two freshmen and two sophomores in its starting lineup and six underclassmen in its regular rotation West High went 15-8 a year ago.
With all five starters and its top eight scorers from last year returning, West High wants to be more than just close to a state tournament berth this year.
“No one really thought we could get that far so I think we proved a lot of people wrong,” West High junior Logan Cook said. “We were so close and one basket would have gotten us to state last year so that just makes us even more hungry this year.”
With senior standouts from the 2015 team Mikaela Morgan and Dani Craig lost to graduation a trip to the state tournament seemed like a long shot for West High last year.
When junior Ali Tauchen was lost for the season with an ACL injury in December the state tournament turned into an afterthought.
However, as the season went on West High got better and better. By the time the postseason rolled around the Women of Troy were rolling and ended up a late bucket away from the postseason upset of the year in the regional final at Waukee.
With a roster brimming with talent and experience a return to the state tournament has become the expectation for this season.
West High will start that journey on Saturday when it hosts Davenport Assumption in it season opener.
“If you would have told us all at the beginning of the year that we would have been in a regional final against the defending state champions and had a chance to win it in regulation I think everybody would have taken it,” West High coach BJ Mayer said. “I think honestly we were disappointed not to make it and I think that’s driven some of them.”
Saunders, Cook and senior Maddie Huinker all return to lead a West High attack that ranks among the deepest and most balanced in Class 5A.
West High had six different leading scorers in games last season and returns six players that averaged better than 6.1 points per game last year.
“I think it makes us that much tougher to defend,” Cook said. “Everyone can contribute in some way and I think that’s hard to defend. If one person is struggling one night somebody is always there to pick them up.”
Saunders is poised for a breakout season after leading the Women of Troy in scoring last year with 9.7 points per game.
The 5-foot-8 junior committed to Creighton earlier this month and is coming off a sophomore season in which she shot 35 percent from 3-point range.
Saunders joins Huinker (9.4) and Cook (9.0) as players that averaged more than nine points a game for West High last season.
“Last year we had a lot of youth on our team and it was a big learning and teaching moment the entire season,” Saunders said. “This year we are kind of able to use our first group of varsity to demonstrate a lot more and get things moving a lot faster.”
Sophomores Lauren Zacharias, Cailyn Morgan and Emma Koch return with a year of varsity experience under their belts.
Zacharias averaged 7.1 points, Koch averaged 6.1 points and Morgan averaged 4.5 points per game a year ago.
“Some people have their stars we would rather have everybody at about 10 points a game because if you want to take somebody away we still have lots of people that can score,” Mayer said. “I think last year we had six or seven different people lead us in scoring and I think that will continue this year.”
Toss in seniors Tauchen and Katie McGrane who are both back after missing time with injuries last season along with 6-foot-1 junior Paige Beckner and West High has its top nine returning nearly completely intact.
“I think having those guys back they all understand what we are trying to do because we haven’t changed a whole lot in the nine or ten years that I’ve been,” Mayer said. “They’ve seen what we are going to do what we are going to run so they are a little bit farther ahead in knowing things like what is a good shot and what is not a good shot.”