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Girls basketball: Bulldogs win share of Iowa Alliance south title

Feb. 12—OTTUMWA — To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the Ottumwa High School girls basketball did it their way on Friday night.

Multiple steals. Multiple turnovers forced. Multiple shots from multiple players.

It all added up to one more decisive regular-season win at Evans Middle School Gymnasium for the Bulldogs. The 76-25 win on Friday night over Des Moines East not served as a perfect sendoff for seniors Sydney Rockhold and Leah McKay, but also clinched Ottumwa's first-ever Iowa Alliance Conference south division girls basketball title.

"There's a lot of things that could have gone wrong during the final stretch of games, but we took care of the games we needed to," Ottumwa head girls basketball coach Joe Vandenberg said. "To go out here with this group of girls and win a conference championship, something this program hasn't done in a long time, is special. They worked their butts off for it and they're not done yet."

Ottumwa produced perhaps the team's most balanced effort of the season. The Bulldogs had 10 different players contribute to the scoring effort with eight different players sinking at least one of Ottumwa's 16 made 3-pointers in the contest.

Hunter Caldwell posted a conference-clinching double-double for the Bulldogs, scoring 19 points while hauling in 10 rebounds. Caldwell's shooting touch sparked a 12-4 start for the Bulldogs, sinking two of Ottumwa's first four 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the contest.

"It feels good to know that, when we're struggling down low, we can work around the arc and put shots in," Caldwell said. "We knew East has a big girl in the post (Asia Thompson). She's amazing. She's tall. She's athletic and fast. She can cleanly block your shot. We focused this week on warming up around the arc and get some shots in."

It wasn't just Caldwell that contributed to the fast start. McKay, making her first varsity start alongside Rockhold, sank her first shot attempt from the field as part of the early 3-point barrage for the Bulldogs finishing her Senior Night with six points, two rebounds, two steals and one assist.

"I just knew I had to do it for my team. I could feel the support from them," McKay said. "I had the confidence and my adrenaline was going. Our shots were on right from the start."

Rockhold, who missed her entire junior season recovering from a knee injury, added a 3-pointer of her own for the Bulldogs as part of Ottumwa's 43-point first half. Rockhold added two rebounds, two assists and two steals as 11 different Bulldogs contributed to the team's 24 steals while forcing East into 30 total turnovers.

"Once I finally got cleared in March, I started going to work to get back into things for team," Rockhold said. "It's special to close out my senior season with a conference championship. It shows how much better we've gotten over the years."

Friday's win closes out a 16-4 regular season for Ottumwa, the most single-season wins for the Bulldogs since posting a 16-8 record in the 2006-07 season. That season marked the last regional final appearance for the Ottumwa girls, a drought the Bulldogs will try to end on Saturday when Ottumwa travels to Des Moines Roosevelt for the Class 5A, Region 3 semifinals.

"Our team chemistry on and off the court is beyond colors. It's truly amazing how well we bond together, how well we know each other on the court, knowing each other's capabilities and knowing when to pick each other up if we're feeling down," Caldwell said. "This year has really been a gift to play with this team this year."

Roosevelt (14-7) matched Ottumwa with a 9-1 conference record with a 57-35 win on Friday over Des Moines Lincoln. The Roughriders also replaced Ottumwa in the top 15 of the IGHSAU Class 5A rankings, and likely earned home court advantage against the Bulldogs, with a 42-34 win on Feb. 2.

That game was Ottumwa's fourth road game in five days. The Bulldogs will return to Roosevelt next Saturday having an entire week off to rest and fully prepare for the rubber match between the teams, similar the week off Ottumwa had to prepare for their 49-34 win over the Roughriders back on Dec. 15 at Evans Gym.

"Roosevelt is a team we've had success against, but also a team we've struggled with," Vandenberg said. "I know I'm excited. I know that our team is excited. We get a week to prepare. We get a week to get healthy and fresh. We get one more shot at them before this year is over."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.