WATERLOO -- After years of struggling to gain traction inside the Mississippi Valley Conference, the Waterloo East girls' basketball program found progress during the 2016-17 season.
Led by the backcourt duo of speedy track stars Kerris Roberts (15.4 points per game) and Amanee Clark (13.1 ppg), the Trojans snapped a string of 122 consecutive MVC losses with a 65-62 win over Dubuque Wahlert.
East returns nine letterwinners from a five-win season with the majority of this group now upperclassmen no longer being forced to overcome a major gap in experience. East coach William Muhammad anticipates his team being able to play an up-tempo style with a strong perimeter defense.
Nia Crowley and Olivia Shannon have been inserted into the starting rotation and DeNae Nash provides senior leadership. Ma'Kayla Johnson, a 5-foot-10 forward, will give the frontcourt more size, and Erion Gafeney and Jaida Blair, who is returning from a knee injury, provide added depth.
"We want to continue building on our offensive approach and become more diverse," Muhammad noted. "Ball control and cutting turnovers are some things we've emphasized.
"Our girls have fought through some of the toughest moments early, as young freshmen and sophomores playing varsity."
Coming off its first winning season since a 2013-14 run into the state tournament, Waterloo West brings back a key difference-maker in versatile junior Na'Tracia Ceaser. She led last year's Wahawks in points (15.2 per game), rebounds, steals and 3-pointers, while shooting 89.3 percent from the charity stripe.
Ceaser once again figures to be a key cog in an offense that graduated a pair of valuable scoring threats in Tayah Campbell and Aliyah Robinson, who averaged more than 10 points a game. Senior Aleah Cook, junior Jada Draine and sophomore Lauren Conrey return with starting experience. Freshman forward Gabby Moore also has varsity upside.
"This year's team tends to be more of the same size players," West coach Tony Pappas said. "Hopefully we have some flexibility we can take advantage of, and do some things to disrupt the people."
After three consecutive trips to the state tournament, including a loss in last year's Class 5A title game, the Tigers have the pieces to once again contend for the championship.
All-state standout center Cynthia Wolf and wing Kiana Barney join guards Emerson Green and Olivia Remmert as key returners from the Tigers' recent successful campaigns. Senior Kamryn Finley will add another scoring option to the backcourt mix after leading Linn-Mar with 14.8 points a game a year ago.
Wichita State volleyball recruit Grace Burken is back out for basketball and brings her quickness and 6-foot-2 frame as a frontcourt option. Freshman Anaya Barney, Kiana's younger sister, also figures to factor into the mix.
"We had a great run last year with a lot of great senior leadership," Cedar Falls coach Gregg Groen said. "We have other seniors that are going to have to really step up into that role and help lead this team and hopefully we can just bring that continuity together on the court."
Versatile is a word that could be used to describe this year's Waterloo Christian basketball team. Senior Tessa Wynthein joins sophomores Gracie Davis, Anne Ochsner, Sarah Walker and Grace Sliger as returning letterwinners. Senior Emma Armbrecht will be joining the Regents after leading Valley Lutheran with 11.6 points per game a year ago.
Valley Lutheran didn't have enough numbers to compete this season.
Waterloo Christian coach Carmen Wipf anticipates up to six or seven freshmen and new students will supply depth, which is a luxury that was lacking for last year's smaller squad.
"Our challenge this year will be to bring this group of girls together as one unit," Wipf noted. "Over half of the team has not played together prior to this year.
"This is more of a blessing... Last year we were down to six players for a good chunk of the season. Having players to rotate in and out will hopefully cut down on fatigue and injuries."
Three of the top four scorers return for a Columbus team that finished 11-12 a year ago, led by Olivia Fain, who averaged 10.9 points while also leading the team in rebounds, assists and steals.
In total, coach Cory O'Brien has eight letterwinners back with four promising newcomers. With no player on the roster taller than 5-foot-8, O'Brien anticipates using a fast-paced approach.
O'Brien noted overall team speed and quickness as strengths within this unselfish group that he says moves and shares the ball well. The Sailors' coach also looks toward 3-point shooting and defensive pressure as strengths. He noted developing good habits in practice will be a key for growth.