Norse girls overcome early challenges to win the HOIC and make state

Joe Randleman
Story City Herald
Reece Johnson took over at point guard for Roland-Story in her junior season. She made second-team all-conference and helped lead the Norse to the HOIC title and a trip to state in Class 3A during the final season for head coach Justin Morton.

The Roland-Story girls’ basketball team showed that patience pays off during the 2020-21 season. 

The Norse entered the season needing to replace all-conference point guard Juliann Clark and three more valuable seniors in Amy Rathmacher, Kyle Tjernagel and Emily Berggren off last year’s 19-4 team.  

Junior Reece Johnson moved from the wing over to point guard. Senior Dani Grady took over a starting spot and underclassmen Madi Bauer, Ellie Erickson and Elziabeth Ihle saw their first extensive varsity playing time. 

Roland-Story also had to open against two of the best teams in the state and go through a COVID-19 quarantine. As a result, the Norse went through some early growing pains.  

But despite a rough first month Roland-Story never gave up. They followed the team motto and ‘trusted the process’.  

The end result was a Heart of Iowa Conference championship and the school’s second trip to state in three years. 

“I was really happy with our season,” Roland-Story head coach Justin Morton said. “I thought we showed tremendous growth, both on and off the court.”  

Roland-Story opened the season ranked ninth in Class 3A. But in their first two games the Norse had to face off against eventual 4A state champion Ballard and a Gilbert team that ended the regular season ranked 10th in 4A. 

They lost both games by 32 points. Ballard defeated Roland-Story by a 60-28 score and Gilbert handed the Norse a 72-40 defeat. 

There was a three-week gap between those two games thanks to Thanksgiving and then the COVID quarantine. 

“At the beginning of the season (COVID) was a tremendous challenge,” Morton said. “At one time we only had five girls at a varsity practice. But as the season went on it became our new normal and we had very few issues.” 

Things started to turn around for Roland-Story on Dec. 17. The Norse downed eventual 2A state qualifier Grundy Center on the road by a 51-41 score. 

That victory started a stretch of nine wins in 10 games for the Norse, with their only loss coming by two points at Iowa Falls-Alden (36-34) Jan.5.  During that run Roland-Story defeated South Hamilton (65-27), Nevada (65-47), Prairie City-Monroe (60-27), West Marshall (39-38), Southeast Valley (55-40), Saydel (82-19), Nevada again (51-34) and South Hardin (58-21). 

“I think our leadership grew as we went through the season,” Morton said. “We had some big shoes to fill from the year before, but as our leadership on and off the court progressed we were able to have more and more success.” 

Eventual 3A state semifinalist Clear Lake dealt Roland-Story a 48-39 setback in Story City Jan. 28. The Norse didn’t lose again until the state tournament. 

Roland-Story ended the regular season with wins over Saydel (68-14), Greene County (59-26), South Hamilton (60-27), PCM (54-29) and West Marshall (39-28). The Norse went a perfect 11-0 in the HOIC. 

“It felt great,” Morton said of winning the conference title. “I thought it was great for the team to be rewarded for our hard work and dedication to be our ultimate best.” 

Roland-Story opened 3A regional play by crushing Saydel, 60-27. The Norse then ousted a strong Knoxville team by a 53-40 score in the semifinals. 

A Des Moines Christian team ranked seventh and featuring Division 1 recruit Moriah Prewitt awaited Roland-Story in the regional finals. The Norse senior tandem of Madeline Morton and Ava Charlson combined to hold Prewitt to 2 of 15 shooting as Roland-Story punched its ticket to state with a 38-29 victory. 

At state Roland-Story took on Unity Christian in the 3A quarterfinals. The Norse didn’t have the firepower to keep up with eventual state champions, falling by a 70-42 score to end yet another fantastic season with a 17-5 record. 

 “I felt we reached the level of play I thought we could reach,” Justin Morton said. “We had several different girls step up in several different games, which was nice to see.” 

Roland-Story averaged 51.8 points shooting 37 % from the field, 28 % from 3-point range and 63 % from the line. The Norse made 159 3-pointers and averaged 12.6 assists against 13.3 turnovers as a team. 

Defense was where Roland-Story really stood out. The Norse ranked first in the HOIC and were among the best in all of 3A in giving up just 35.9 points per game. 

“We played tremendous half-court defense as the season progressed,” Justin Morton said. “They did a great job of carrying out the game plan.” 

Junior Reagan Barkema made second-team all-state in 3A for the second year in a row and Madeline Morton joined Barkema as a first-team all-HOIC selection. Johnson, Grady and senior Jadyn Nelson made the all-HOIC second team and seniors Madison Martindale and Jordyn Ramus were all-conference honorable mention. 

Barkema averaged 14.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.4 assists. She shot 49 % from the field, led the team with 50 3-pointers shooting 36 % from downtown and hit 75 % of her free throws. 

In addition to being a lock-down defender on the perimeter, Madeline Morton averaged 6.7 points and 2.5 rebounds. She hit 32 3-pointers and shot 74 % from the field. 

Johnson put up 7.7 points, 3.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. She shot 40 % from the field and made 23 3-pointers. 

Grady tallied 4.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. She hit 14 3s and shot 81 % from the line. 

Nelson averaged 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds. She shot 47 % from the field and 60 % from the line. 

Martindale produced 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game and shot 48 % from the field. Ramus averaged 1.9 points and 1.2 rebounds and made 12 3-pointers. 

Bauer came on late in the season and averaged 2.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists. Charlson averaged 2.0 points and 1.1 rebounds, Erickson 2.3 points and 2.0 rebounds and Ihle 1.7 points. 

Junior Madison Geise averaged 2.5 points and sophomore Lydia Oetker saw varsity time down the final stretch and totaled seven points, six rebounds and four steals. 

This was the final season for Coach Morton, who led the program to tremendous success over the past decade. He will leave with his daughter and a talented senior class that went 75-18 over the past two years with a pair of trips to the state tournament. 

Justin Morton ended a successful run as Roland-Story's head girls' basketball coach by leading the Norse  to a state appearance and HOIC title in 2020-2021.

“This group will always hold a special place in my heart,” Justin Morton said. “With the help of some of our NBA (Norse Basketball Association) parents I’ve coached this group in some compacity since they were in fourth grade and of course with my daughter in the group it was a great group to end my coaching career with.” 

Losing their coach and such a large senior class leaves the Norse with a lot of rebuilding to do heading into 2021-2022. But with Barkema leading the way they still figure to be a threat to repeat as HOIC champions and make a deep postseason run. 

“Many of the younger players and remaining letterwinners are really going to need to get in the gym and get a lot of shots up this summer,” Justin Morton said. “All the girls will need to spend time with their new coach getting acclimated to his or her style of coaching for the offense and defense. But I think they can have a great season and repeat the success we had this season.”