These are exciting times in the small communities of Ashton and Franklin Center. At least whenever the girls basketball team takes the court.
“This place is full every night,” says AFC coach Chris Jahn. “For a girls basketball game, it’s almost standing room only in here.”
Why? Because the Lady Raiders are good…real good! This week they’re ranked second in the state in Class 1A. They’re NUIC East Division champions, and their record going into the weekend was 23-2. Just two wins away from the school record of 25 wins set last season.
How big of a goal is it to break that 25 win mark?
“That is a really big goal of ours,” says senior guard Bryce Gilttleson.
The Raiders returned four starters from that 25 win team last season. They have solid guard play with Gittleson and Lexi and Laci Meurer and with junior Emily Shrimplin, but what separates AFC from most 1A teams is their size thanks to the Prestegaard sisters. Sophomore Jaynee is 5’11 and junior Madeline is 6’2.
“The best thing about Madeline and Jaynee, Madeline is 6’2 Jaynee is 5’11 but they’re just good basketball players,” says Jahn. “If they were both 5’9 they’re still going to be some of the best in the state.”
Both players have incredible turnaround jumpers, and they have quick releases. Their teammates do a great job of getting them the ball.
“I feel like we communicate a lot by just eye contact and knowing where our hands are and our guards and our wings are super good at reading that,” says Madeline Prestegaard. “They know where to throw it and when to throw it.”
“Those girls are some of the best passers ever to those posts,” says Jahn. “They know that’s what we’ve got to do. They get it in there it ain’t coming back out. I don’t want it to come back out. They just turn around, shoot the jumper and the other one goes for the rebound. That’s a pretty potent combo for us!”
“We like to play fastball,” says Gittleson. “We really like to push the ball up the court. Try to get everybody moving. Our goal is to never stop moving on defense and offense. Get it to the ‘bigs’ and when the ‘bigs’ are covered we usually try to shoot outside a little bit more.”
“I think the number one thing that we do here is teamwork and a basketball family,” says Jahn. “It starts right with the crowd and those girls. They treat each other with respect every moment. To me that’s what we have going here. It’s the respect plus these girls have a great work ethic. They love this game of basketball.”
AFC girls basketball doesn’t have much of a postseason tournament history. The board on the gym wall shows just one regional championship in school history from last season and no Sectional Championships. Last season the Raiders lost in the Sectional Semifinals to a strong Annawan team by three points in overtime. That loss set the stage for this season.
“They were ranked in the state and we were not in the top ten, so to everyone of those girls it was a confidence builder,” says Jahn. “We took them to overtime. We had them. We didn’t quite get it done.”
(“I remember in the locker room we’re all just sitting there and we were so down on ourselves, because we knew we could have got that one,” says Prestegaard. “If we just had one thing different. We couldn’t push it in overtime. Then we were like, ‘You know what this wasn’t meant to be this year. You know we just need to build a little bit more before we do that.’ So then this offseason we just worked.”
“Everybody knew as soon as we walked out of that gym that we were starting for this year,” says Jahn.
So now tournament time is here once more. The Raiders are the favorites to win their regional again, but in the Sectional tournament they might have to deal with the team that knocked them out last year Annawan and one of the two teams that have beaten them this season Amboy. (The other is Stillman Valley)
“Amboy’s a great basketball team!,” says Jahn. “We’ve battled them three times and beat them twice.
“We are really excited to see what we can do this year since we only got to Sectionals last year,”says Gittleson. “We’re going to push to get into Sectionals, win the Sectional Finals, possibly going as far as we can as hard as we can go.”
So how often does Prestegarrd look up at that championship board in the gym at that blank spot under Sectional Champions and think, ‘We’ve got to do something about that?’
“Oh yea like very often.” I’ll walk in the gym and I’ll just look up there. We really have an actual chance to put an actual championship up there. That’s going to be pretty cool if that happens. I’ll probably look at it every day after that,” she says with a laugh.
“We’re working really hard,” says Jahn. “Everybody has with sights set pretty high for a small school like us. We’re dreaming bigger than that board over there. It’s exciting. ‘Hoosiers’ is our favorite movie. This is it, I mean we’re really living it! We’ve got something really special here and we’re enjoying every minute of it.”