Newton’s boys basketball program has been a tale of two eras.
First, there were the golden years in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Newton was a perennial state contender. Years such as those are what the current sizable gymnasium was built on.
“Going to state was an expectation,” Newton assistant coach Tom Weeks said.
Fast forward to 2014, and the program has experienced quite a few lean years, but this year’s team is on the verge of changing the narrative.
The 12-win Cardinals travel to Iowa City tonight to take on City High in a substate semifinal matchup. It’s the farthest the Cardinals have advanced in more than a decade.
“I’m excited to get going,” Newton junior Tyler Wood said. “Because we haven’t been to a semifinal game in how long?”
“2001,” senior Chandler Sturtz chimed in.
“Yeah, 2001, so we’re all pretty pumped and ready for the game,” Wood continued.
In 2001, the four seniors on the squad were in kindergarten, and Sturtz made it clear that knowing that history will make playing in this game even more memorable.
“I’m feeling really excited,” he said. “The seniors are really excited because it’s win or go home. I think we’re all really prepared for it. It’s been a great season. We kind of started off slow, but about midseason, we finally hit our stride. We came together as a team and won our last nine of 12.”
Newton’s biggest trouble with City High will likely be something the Cards have had work against them all season — size. Although the Cardinals have actually out-rebounded the Little Hawks this season, 656 to 640, City High’s 6-8 Austin Withrow could give the Cardinals trouble in the post on offense and on the boards at both ends.
“They’re really big compared to us, very athletic, active on the perimeter,” Newton head coach Nick Wilkins said. “Defensively, we think they’re going to pound it inside. They have a 6-8, 260 kid and we have a 6-3, 200 kid. But I think if we have great help defense, we’ll be in good shape.”
“We’ve got to block out and make them reach over the top of us to get rebounds so hopefully we can get some fouls called,” Wood added.
The mantra of “help defense” has gotten through to the players. Scoring has not been a problem for the Cardinals all year. Newton ranks third in Class 4A with 169 3-pointers made, and of the six teams to have made at least 160 threes, the Cards are the only team making the long range shot at above 41 percent. Wood and Sturtz have been a big part of that, accounting for 115 of those makes this season.
“Our defensive execution is going to be huge here, because we know our shots are going to fall. We have good shooters, but if we can keep their big guys in check, we should be alright,” Sturtz said.
Following the emotional victory over Ottumwa on Monday, Newton’s players were a bit sluggish, according to Wilkins, “but that’s to be expected,” he said. Despite that, Wilkins is enthusiastic with the amount of work the team has put in going into tonight’s game.
“(Wednesday) we had a really good practice. They started to buy into it as far as our strategy going into the game,” he said. “(Thursday) we just kind of sured up what to do and get some shots up so we’re ready to go. I think we’re ready to. It’s just a matter of executing.”
The game tips off tonight at City High at 7 p.m.