CLARINDA, Iowa — Jill Vanderhoof vaguely recalls beating a Bedford basketball team in sixth grade. She's pretty sure, anyway.
The Villisca senior and an entire community won’t soon forget this victory. The unrated Iowa Class 1-A squad grabbed a lead early in the Region 7 final’s fourth quarter and hit free throws late to pull off an improbable 57-50 upset against No. 3 Bedford (22-2) in a standing-room only crowd at Clarinda High School on Monday night.
The shocker sends Villisca (21-4) to the state tournament for the first time since 1968 and second in school history while last year’s state runner-up goes home.
“You keep telling them, 'You can do it, you can do it, you can do it; they're beatable, they're beatable, they're beatable,'” Villisca coach Donna Williams said with what remained of her voice. “You say it enough, you believe it.”
The season began with a team picture in front of an airplane, with the slogan “Final Flight” recognizing the Bluejays’ last year before they join with Corning next fall to become the Southwest Valley Timberwolves.
The farewell tour will make its closing stop in the unlikeliest of places — Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Villisca plays No. 2 Newell-Fonda (22-2) Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. to kick off tournament week.
“Amazing,” Vanderhoof said. “That’s all we’ve wanted and we finally got it.”
Both sides were all square at 36 to start the fourth quarter after staying within single digits of each other the entire way. Putbacks on consecutive possessions by Amanda Focht and Vanderhoof, then a Focht layup and Jenny King free throw staked the Bluejays to a seven-point lead with 5:23 to go.
“I just took the open shots and kind of gave us some momentum,” Focht said. “We got ahead and we stayed ahead.”
The Bulldogs drew within four twice, including 53-49 on a Peyton Russell layup with about 30 seconds remaining. But Villisca hit 15 of 20 free throws in the fourth to hold on, setting off a delirious celebration among blue-clad fans
Chants of “On To State” and “F-A-B” – that’s “Forever A Bluejay” – reverberated through the gym afterward. Bedford fans watched in stunned silence.
With five seniors and a junior figuring prominently into the outcome, Villisca finally got the Bulldog off its back. Morgan Haer and Vanderhoof each finished with 19 points, and Focht added 12 to go with seven rebounds. The squad went 20 of 36 (55.5 percent) from the field and committed only two turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Seniors Kayla Lindenmeyer and Savanna Thornton each posted 16 points for Bedford, which looked dominant most of the winter. The Bulldogs held a 26-22 halftime edge after riding a 17-2 run into the second quarter.
The lead changed sides three times in the third frame. Lindenmeyer’s three-point play late – one of three she converted in the game – knotted the score heading into the fourth.
Vanderhoof said her team’s confidence increased as the competitive second half wore on. In their 49-30 regular-season loss at Bedford on Dec. 17, the Bluejays trailed just 14-12 at intermission. But they unraveled behind a barrage of turnovers and mental errors.
Not Monday. Their familiar slogan – Look up, get up but never give up – shone through.
“We’ve been playing together for so long,” Vanderhoof said. “We played so well (tonight) and that’s what helped us out a lot.”
Bedford, going for its third straight state trip, played even with the Bluejays in most statistical categories.
But the Bulldogs gave up the turning 7-0 run in the fourth before Lindenmeyer fouled out with 3:17 remaining.
Villisca won its first Corner Conference tournament since 1997 earlier this season. It ended two more long droughts Monday in dramatic fashion.
Williams is in her fourth season back as a head coach after stopping in the 1980s to raise her children.
She doesn’t know what the new situation will be in the shared program next year. But having gone to state three times as a player at Manilla in the mid 1970s, she teared up at the thought that her current team will have that experience next week.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” Williams said. “These kids have been wanting to do this for years. Ever since then were in fourth grade, they wanted to do this. There’s nothing better.”
Villisca (21-4) ................. 15 7 14 21—57
Bedford (22-2) ................. 14 12 10 14—50
V: Morganne Haer 4-5 9-12 19, Jill Vanderhoof 7-13 5-6 19, Mikayla Dolch 3-4 0-0 6, Jenny King 0-2 1-2 1, Amanda Focht 6-9 0-0 12, BreeAnn Fisher 0-3 0-0. Totals: 20-36 15-20 57.
B: Madison Walston 2-6 0-0 4, Emily Weed 0-0 0-0 0, Kayla Lindenmeyer 6-7 3-3 16, Peyton Russell 2-5 6-8 10, Savanna Thornton 5-11 3-3 16, McKenzie Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Rachel Armstrong 0-1 0-0 0, Kendyl Gruttenmeyer 2-4 0-0 4. Totals: 17-34 12-16 50.
3-point goals: V 2-4 (Haer 2-3, Vanderhoof 0-1), B 4-11 (Lindenmeyer 1-1 Russell 0-1, Thornton 3-7, Gruttenmeyer 0-2). Rebounds: V 23 (Focht 7), B 16 (Walston, Gruttenmeyer 5). Assists: V 8 (Fisher 3), B 7 (Gruttenmeyer 4). Turnovers: V 13, B 16. Total fouls: V 14, B 21. Fouled out: Weed, Lindenmeyer.