IOWA CITY - When most sports fans from around the state of Iowa hear the name ‘Springville’, they automatically think amazing girls’ basketball.
And why wouldn’t they?
The Oriole girls have been one of the most successful programs over the past decade and a half in Iowa girls basketball history. Seven state tournament appearances. Six trips to the state finals, and four class 1A championships.
Yeah, that’s worth noting.
But Saturday, Feb. 29, at Iowa City West High School in a class 1A substate final, the Springville boys made a loud statement that they can indeed play the game at a pretty high level too.
“We’re not just a girls basketball school anymore,” said Oriole senior Kyle Koppes, who helped the Springville boys to their second-ever state tournament berth, and first since 1975, with a thrilling 72-65 victory over Pekin.
“If you had told me three years ago that this would happen in 2020, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. To accomplish something like this, getting the Springville boys basketball program back to the state tournament for the first time in 45 years, means a lot to me and all of us. We worked hard for this opportunity, and we weren’t going to waste it.”
For a short stretch early in the fourth quarter however, it appeared everything the Orioles had worked so hard for might just slip away, as Pekin rallied from a double-digit deficit to tie the score at 54-54.
“We had been able to control momentum and the pace of play for most of the game, but then we got slowed down for a couple of possessions, had a few turnovers and Pekin was able to tie it up,” said Springville junior Alex Koppes, who scored a game-high 24 points in the contest.
“Kyle picked up his controversial fourth foul and momentum was beginning to swing back to their side. We had to get back to playing the way we wanted to play, and not allow Pekin to dictate tempo. Over the last five minutes of the game, we were able to do exactly that.”
With their senior leader relegated to the bench, the Orioles pulled it together and went on a run that will not soon be forgotten in the annals of Springville boys basketball history.
Sophomore Rhenden Wagaman broke the 54-54 tie sinking two free throws with 5:15 remaining, and the Orioles would never trail again.
Luke Menster added a field goal after an aggressive Springville defense forced the Panthers into a turnover, giving the Orioles a 58-54 lead that forced Pekin to call a timeout.
It wouldn’t matter.
After the two teams went nearly three minutes without scoring, Menster scored again at the 2:20 mark stretching the Springville lead to 60-54, forcing the Panthers to call yet another timeout.
“After a stalemate in scoring early in the fourth quarter, we were able to get a bucket followed by an and-1 steal and score by Luke that seemed to turn the momentum back to us,” said Springville boys basketball coach Nick Merritt. “We gradually extended back to double digits and at that point it was just a matter of hitting free throws.”
With just 1:44 remaining to be played, and with the Orioles holding a 60-54 lead, the Panthers were forced to start fouling, but the Springville boys were up to the challenge.
“That was the difference in the game in my opinion,” said Kyle Koppes. “We were able to make our free throws in the last couple of minutes. Pekin made a run at us and we responded making a couple of big shots, then a bunch of really big free throws.”
Kyle’s brother Alex was sent to the line first by the Panthers, and calmly swished a pair before Menster added two of his own to give the Orioles a 64-54 lead with 1:27 left.
Springville fans could begin to sense that their boys’ state tournament dreams were about to come true.
“We made a couple of questionable in-bounding decisions to make it closer late, but we have been shooting free throws really well recently so we felt confident that despite that, we could seal the game.”
And seal it the Orioles did.
After back-to-back baskets by the Panthers cut the Springville lead to 67-63 with 34-seconds left, and another with 23-seconds remaining made it 69-65, Pekin was called for an intentional foul with 17.4 left, where Alex Koppes put the Panthers away for good with two more free throws.
“After a couple of misses on their end and clutch free throw shooting by us, the rest was history,” Merritt said. “We are able to continue our spectacular season.”
The Orioles celebrated with their huge contingent of fans who made the trip to Iowa City as a sea of orange engulfed the green Trojan gym.
“We’ve been firing on all cylinders all post-season, and we kept it going against Pekin,” said Menster, who tallied 15 points and a team-high five steals.
“Our 3-point shooting has been amazing and it seems that whenever we’ve needed a big basket, we’ve been able to get one from beyond the arc. We got a lot of them in this game, and now we’re going to the state tournament.”
Menster has been to Wells Fargo Arena numerous times over the last half decade, but each occasion was to watch his older sister Rylee play at the state tournament.
This time, it’s his turn.
“It was always so cool being able to watch Rylee celebrate with family and friends at state all those years, but I wasn’t too sure if we’d get a chance like that too. Now, we’ve got it. We kept the streak of Springville trips to the state tournament going.”
The class 1A substate final didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts, as both teams struggled to shoot from the field or find any kind of rhythm offensively.
“From the start, it looked like both teams had a bit of nerves as the first quarter wasn’t quite as clean as either team wanted,” Merritt said. “Pekin hit some three’s early that got us a little concerned, but we did notice that our press seemed to be making them a little uncomfortable and we saw some things that we liked about their break.”
Pekin led 12-10 at the first quarter horn, but the Oriole offense was just getting warmed up.
Springville poured in an amazing 32 second quarter points as back-to-back 3-point baskets by Wagaman to start the quarter, ignited the run.
“Rhenden’s two three-pointers really broke the ice for us offensively,” Alex Koppes said. “All of a sudden, everyone started hitting shots, and from all over the place.”
Alex Koppes added two of his own in the frame while Kyle Koppes also connected from beyond the arc as well as the Orioles exploded to a 42-33 halftime advantage capped off by a long Menster 3-pointer as the second quarter horn sounded.
“In the second quarter when it appeared the nerves had settled and our guys started to play, we looked like our usual selves and put on a show,” Merritt said. “While we weren’t perfect, we moved the ball cleanly and shot with the confidence that we usually have knocking down eight of our 10 3-point attempts and really forced Pekin to play at a quicker tempo and created some turnovers that gave us some easy looks.”
Wagaman quickly got things started again in the third quarter drilling an early trey as the Orioles stretched their lead to 45-35 before Pekin began to gradually chip away at the Springville advantage.
After trailing by as many as 11 (48-37) in the third quarter, the Panthers closed the quarter going on a 15-6 run to pull within two points at 54-52 when the Panthers hit a 3-pointer with one-second remaining.
Pekin added a field goal to start the fourth quarter, knotting the score at 54-54 before the late Oriole heroics.
“I am so unbelievably proud of this accomplishment by this team,” Merritt said. “These guys have been working so hard, not only this season, but in the off-season and are deserving of this accomplishment.
“I think most teams set state as a goal and to be one of the eight 1A teams to keep playing is something to be proud of. On top of that, these guys are great young men and good things happen to good people. I’m convinced that is something that also factored into our success.”
Wagaman finished with 18 points while Kyle Koppes added nine more to go with nine rebounds. Bryce Wilson, who hit a huge early trey to help get the Springville offense going in the first quarter, finished with five points, seven rebounds and five steals.
As a team the Orioles were sizzling from the field connecting on 55-percent (12-of-22) of their 3-point tries and overall were 46-percent (20-of-44) from the field.
“I’m honored to be able to coach at Springville and glad that I was able to help lead our boys’ basketball program back to the state tournament,” Merritt said. “I’m hopeful that all of the players who have been Orioles in their career take some pride in knowing that they were a part of this path and we are thankful for everything they’ve done for the program.”
The Orioles enter the state tournament Monday, March 9, at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines with a 20-5 overall record.