With tears pouring from her eyes, Mika Rodewald put her arms around Iowa Central Community College women's basketball coach Craig Carlson and managed to stammer a word between choppy gasps for air.
The Tritons' 6-foot-1 forward wanted nothing more than to get her team back to the NJCAA Division II tournament, but perennial power Kirkwood did everything it could to keep her from accomplishing it.
T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE
Kirkwood sophomore Kate Hartman (32) pulls down one of her nine rebounds in front of Iowa Central’s Carly McRae during Saturday’s regional final at the Student Activity Center. Hartman led the Eagles with 15 points.
The No. 4-ranked Eagles marched one defender after another at Iowa Central's first-team All-American and triumphed over the Tritons for the third time this season,
69-54, in Saturday's Region XI title game at the Student Activity Center on the Marshalltown Community College campus.
Kirkwood's six front line players served head coach Kim Muhl as pawns - both expendable and integral as the first wave of an army's attack.
Rodewald, who scored 31 in the first round against NIACC and 36 against Southeastern in Friday night's semifinal, was held to 15 points by the Eagles' deeper and taller post players before fouling out with 6:34 left.
"She's just hard to guard because she's so strong and elusive, and she's a great kid," said Muhl. "She plays hard and she deserves all the honors she's gotten so I'm just glad we're done with her, we don't have to play her anymore.
"We thought all six post players would have to do something (defensively) and they did. They battled her and hopefully she got a little tired, but ... she's just a warrior."
Kirkwood (30-2), winners of 28 straight, had four players score in double figures while its six post defenders totaled 17 fouls trying to control Rodewald and Alison Nagel. Nagel scored a game-high 16 points but the Tritons fell behind too far too fast after shooting 4-for-29 (14 percent) in the first half.
The Eagles led by 17 at halftime and were up as many as 22 before the Tritons pieced together their best chance at a comeback.
Down 50-29, Iowa Central (27-6) used a 14-4 run to close within 11 when Rodewald powered through Kirkwood's collapsing man-to-man defense for a layup with 6:50 left.
But Iowa Central's all-time scoring leader left the court in tears after picking up her fifth foul, and the Eagles scored the next seven points to effectively extinguish the Tritons' last flicker of hope.
"Mika's been a godsend for us, just done a tremendous job game in and game out," said Carlson, who returned five sophomores from last year's fourth-place national finisher.
"Again drawing two, three, four defenders every time down the floor and for her to hold up and play as well as she did with the physical play inside is pretty incredible.
"Kirkwood was just too deep for us this year."
Kate Hartman, one of three sophomores, led the Eagles' widespread attack with 15 points and nine rebounds in her personal quest to return Kirkwood to the national tournament after a nine-year streak ended last season.
Getting it done required stopping, or at least slowing, Rodewald.
"We read that in the paper this morning that she scored 36 (Friday) night and we're like, 'That's not happening to us tonight,'" said Hartman. "We were not going to let her do that because she's big for their team and once you put a stop to her, their team winds down.
"Between her and Nagel we knew we had to stop them and we knew we had the post strength. We have six posts to go in and out of there so that worked great for us. We wanted to give them their money's worth."
Iowa Central never found the outside touch to complement its interior presence. Kirkwood did, netting nine 3-pointers after a slow start. Bianca Dufelmeier made three treys on her way to 12 points, Aisle Quinlan had a trio of 3s on her way to 11 points, while Kianna Jacobs chipped in 10 points in the paint.
"They're just so resilient, they bend but they don't break a lot of times," Muhl said of his squad. "We played a really difficult schedule, won 30 games and won a lot of close ones.
"This group (of sophomores) had a purpose in mind. They've done a great job of leading in the right direction and we had to get that back in our program because we'd lost that for a couple years even though we won a national championship."
Tara Gray, a freshman guard from Toledo and graduate of East Marshall High School, attempted only one shot in her court time for Kirkwood. Iowa Central was without one of its top outside threats in freshman guard Lauren Bengen, a Gladbrook-Reinbeck grad who was sidelined by a back injury prior to Friday's semifinal game and was held out of Saturday's title contest.
Behind Nagel and Rodewald, the Tritons got eight points from Rebekah Rolling and six off the bench from Carly McRae.
"We just haven't shot that bad in a long time and some of them were contested shots, but we had some good looks and then it kind of gets contagious," Carlson said. "One of your better players misses a shot and the next one gets a little nervous and there you go."
Then Rodewald came up to her head coach to offer her apologies.
"Nothing to be sorry about, you do the best you can and sometimes it ain't good enough," Carlson told her. "You've had a wonderful career kiddo, wonderful. Keep your head up."
Rodewald, a University of South Dakota recruit, averaged 27.3 points and 12 rebounds per game during the Region XI tournament and was named the captain of the all-tournament team for the second consecutive year.
"We had all the experience back from last year and I think these kids today took it awfully, awfully hard. We went in expecting to win a region championship and life ain't fair. Sometimes it doesn't work out," Carlson said.
Kirkwood, whose only losses are to ranked Division I schools, will play in the national tournament March 20-24 at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Ill., in search of the program's seventh NJCAA title.
"I'm excited just to be able to play there and since we're going there now, make a run for it," Hartman smiled.