ANNA — The trend for the first half of Anna’s season was set in its first game. The Rockets competed with New Bremen throughout a nonconference game on Nov. 24 but started the season with a 40-35 loss.
The close losses kept coming — in addition to a few lopsided ones. The Rockets dropped to 7-6 overall with a 32-29 loss at Fort Loramie on Jan. 11.
Anna coach Jeff Maurer said he knew the team was getting better but wondered if it could find a way to win close games.
The Rockets have. Anna has won its last six games, four of which with single-digit margins.
“Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking and preaching about having some poise in those big moments late in the game,” Maurer said. “We’ve been telling the girls that we need to play under control and play our style of basketball and be more patient on the offensive end of the floor.
“I think we’re really more connected right now on defense. We’re communicating, and that’s helped. We’ve been playing a little bit more within ourselves and under control.”
Maurer said everyone on the team is playing more consistently and the lapses of making bad passes or not dribbling well are less frequent.
Among the players Maurer said have progressed are center Emily Aufderhaar, forward Kiplyn Rowland and guard Abby Gaydosh. Gaydosh tore an ACL last year, and Maurer said it took her a while to get back into full playing shape.
“Everybody is really starting to buy into what their roles are,” Maurer said. “Some girls are giving us big minutes, maybe only two or three minutes at a time, but they’re giving us really valuable things when they’re in there. They’re accepting those roles and understanding that we need all 10, 11 girls to step on the floor and fill the role that we need them to fill.”
After losing to Russia by two points on Dec. 16, the Rockets won a rematch between the Shelby County Athletic League teams by seven points on Jan. 25. Anna (13-6, 7-3 SCAL) followed the win up two days later with a 45-40 win over Minster, who was the No. 1-ranked Div. IV team at the time.
If Anna was in danger of becoming complacent after beating Russia (14-5) and Minster (15-3), Thursday’s game against Lehman Catholic (8-10) should have helped. The Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead and then cut a late 12-point lead by Anna in half in the final minutes of the game.
“As much as you preach every game’s a big game, sometimes it’s hard after you come off an emotional win, and our girls were extremely excited after beating Minster,” Maurer said. “We took Lehman very seriously and knew they had some good guards that were going to give us some trouble, but sometimes it’s hard. But when we made mistakes, we were able to recover, and that was the big thing.”
Anna should be one of the top seeds in the Dayton Division III sectional. Maurer is hoping the team can keep up its recent progress in the postseason.
The Rockets have played a strong schedule to get ready for the tournament. Aside from a strong SCAL slate against the likes of Fort Loramie and Russia, Anna played Ohio Heritage Conference power West Liberty-Salem in addition to Midwest Athletic Conference powers Minster and Versailles.
“We’ll see where our seed falls,” Maurer said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good team and we’re gelling together now. Any team, if you don’t show up to play, can surprise you.
“… I kept telling the girls through our losses that we’re getting better, and I think the last week has went a long way into showing the girls that I’m not just talking. We can play with these top-tier teams. Not just hang with them, but we can beat them if we play our style of basketball.”
For Anna to play well in the tournament, Maurer said the team will need more performances like senior guard Macey Huelskamp had on Thursday.
Huelskamp led Anna with 24 points, 14 of which came in the second half. She also was effective on defense, including one play where she tore the ball away from Lehman’s Alanna O’Leary.
“She looked like the senior tonight we need her to be,” Maurer said. “Tonight, more than any game all season, she wanted the basketball in her hands. She demanded it, and she went and got it. She rebounded the ball and fought down in the post, and she didn’t shy away from any big shots. We need her to be that going forward into the tournament.”
Anna plays at Botkins on Saturday. The girls tournament draw is Sunday.