Iowa City’s high school girls basketball dynasty

The West High Trojans celebrate their victory in the 2018 state final against City High, who entered the tournament ranked number one. — photo by Kara Wagenknecht

The Iowa City West High School girls basketball team’s victory over City High’s previously undefeated team in the finals of the Class 5A state championship on March 2 wasn’t just a great game, it was a history-making one. It was the first time in the almost 100-year history of the tournament that two public high schools from the same city played each other for the state championship.

West’s win was anything but inevitable — City High’s Little Hawks defeated West’s Women of Troy twice during the regular season, and the undefeated Little Hawks had been ranked as the top team in Class 5A by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Association since the third week of regular season play. West had a record of 14-7 in regular season play, and was in ninth place in the final IGHSA rankings.

But if West’s victory wasn’t inevitable, it was almost inevitable that these two teams would be the first public school teams from the same city to meet in the finals. Both schools have long had excellent programs. And while the players on the court change every year, as some graduate and new students join, for more than a decade the head coaches of the both teams have remained the same.

For profiles of City High Coach Bill McTaggart and West Coach BJ Mayer, Little Village turned to the experts — the sports editors of the two schools’ newspapers. LV asked West Side Story’s Ellie Gretter to profile City’s McTaggart and The Little Hawk’s Addy Smith to write about West’s Mayer.

BJ Mayer, West High coach

West High coach BJ Mayer pumps his fist after his team clinched the state championship against City High, March 2, 2018. — photo by Kara Wagenknecht

Listening to the way BJ Mayer talks about his players, one wouldn’t think he is a veteran girls’ basketball coach, but rather a father — one with an unconventional amount of children.

So it may come as a surprise that the West High head coach who refers to his players as “our kids” didn’t want to coach basketball at first. In fact, although he’d grown up watching his father coach for 35 years, the reason he himself decided to coach was by coincidence.

“The first teaching job I had there was an opening for a freshman girls’ coaching job and I ended up taking that. It was [by] chance that I got into girls’ basketball, but I think it’s worked out pretty well,” Mayer said.

“Pretty well” might be an understatement considering the list of accolades that follow Mayer’s name, including last year’s Region 4 Coach of the Year and the 2012 state championship title.

In the 25 years since first picking up the clipboard, Mayer has coached both girls and boys of all ages and talent levels. For the past 11, he’s served as the leader of a program that has produced players like University of Iowa standout Ally Disterhoft. For West, not qualifying for the state tournament is rare.

Every day, as soon as the final bell rings, Mayer makes the nine-minute drive from Northwest Junior High, where he teaches Math 7 and Pre-Algebra, to the West High gym for practice.

West High’s Cailyn Morgan jumps for a shot during the state final on March 2, 2018. — photo by Kara Wagenknecht

Mayer is a firm believer in the importance of forming strong relationships with his students and athletes. He credits his teaching position with allowing him to kindle those vital relationships with his future players. So in addition to running plays and defense drills during practice, Mayer sees his practices as a time to strengthen his kids’ relationships with each other.

“We like to have a lot of fun with it, too, so we have drills where some people may walk in and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are they doing?’ but we try to make it fun,” he said. Those drills include passing tag — one team trying to tag the members of the other team out, with passing but no dribbling — and 30 1/2 — a drill requiring 10 layups, 10 FTs, 10 three-point goals and a half-court shot for a win. “It’s a little different but it keeps our kids energized and keeps them looking for what’s going to happen next and [wanting] to keep coming back to practice.”

But come game time, according to his players, Coach Mayer means business. By fostering confidence and trust in teammates in practice, Mayer has faith in his players to “get the job done” on the court.

“Just watching him coach you see that he truly cares about making sure each player tries their best and is playing to their full capability. He’s energetic on the court, but becomes serious and composed in the locker room,” Team Manager Bailey Nock said.

Four-year varsity starter and Creighton University commit Rachael Saunders says that Mayer’s leadership has influenced her significantly.

“I like his coaching style, especially when we lose or go through a rough patch; he keeps us from getting down on ourselves and giving up,” she said. “His guidance has been very instrumental in shaping me as a player and helping me mature.”

Although these “rough patches” aren’t common for Saunders and her team, at the end of January the Trojans suffered four close losses in the span of a week to three ranked teams in Iowa and one of the best teams in Illinois. Saunders believes that her team’s response is the epitome of what makes them successful.

“Our strength has been handling adversity. We took some hard losses but we responded as a team and with heart,” Saunders said. “We played a very hard schedule and I think that was a challenge. However, even though it hurt our record, it prepared us for the bigger picture.”

Coach Mayer purposefully sought out some of the best teams in Minnesota and Illinois to add to this season’s schedule to prepare his team for the tough competition they’d face here at home.

“Girls basketball in Iowa is pretty good,” he said. “Some of our good teams go and play other states and are very competitive in the AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] scene, in the summer and in the spring; a lot of our teams do very well so I think Iowa is progressing in a positive way.”

West High’s Bri Faulkner cheers after Paige Beckner completes a three-point shot during the state final on March 2, 2018. — photo by Kara Wagenknecht

Mayer points to this extracurricular competition, and players with several years of starting experience, for the versatility and depth of his squad.

“We don’t have a star player; we have what we think are five to seven kids who, on any given night, could lead us in scoring,” Mayer said. “We try to [enforce] the point that if it’s your night, go have your night, but if it’s not, go find ways to contribute to the team, and if we can do that, we’ll be in good shape.”

With the opening of Liberty High School in 2017, many community members are beginning to wonder how long West High’s consistent success will last. Mayer has already noticed his program losing numbers as students are redirected to Liberty, which he acknowledges might take time to adjust to –but he is confident that this period won’t last for long.

“I think it’ll probably take a downturn for us for a little bit, but then I think we’ll get back in there because we’ll get more kids at the junior high that’ll play and then we’ll try to get them over here [to play] too,” he said. “I think [the addition of Liberty] is a good thing, so we’ll see what happens next year when City and Liberty and us play all the time too.”

Despite the uncertainty of the future that awaits Coach Mayer and his players, he is certain of one thing: they’ll be ready to embrace the challenge. After all, the task of pushing his team to be the best, season after season, is part of why he ultimately decided to coach, and what has kept him going for 25 years.

“I think that if you’re just content with getting there, then you probably shouldn’t be coaching anymore — you should be trying to get to that next step.”

Addy Smith is a senior at City High and is the sports editor for The Little Hawk. She likes writing about basketball because it makes her feel closer to Barack Obama.

Bill McTaggart, City High coach

City High coach Bill McTaggart at the state tournament. — photo by Hagan Myers

Twenty years ago, all Bill McTaggart wanted was to get out of southern Texas and move back to his hometown of Iowa City. After having his car stolen and house broken into twice, he said, “at that time [I] wanted to raise my kids in the Midwest back where I grew up. So I made an effort to try to find a teaching and coaching spot around Iowa.”

McTaggart did just that, but this time, he was on the other side of the river; a graduate of West High School, class of 1980, he now works at his former rival school. He landed a social studies teaching job and also a girls basketball head coach position at City High School. However, McTaggart did not believe that he would stay in the head coach position for long.

“I told my wife I think I can do two [years],” McTaggart laughed. This is his 20th season coaching.

McTaggart has well exceeded the goal set for himself, and his team has also surpassed expectations. The 2017-18 City High girls basketball team went into the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Girls Basketball State Tournament ranked as number one. Throughout the season, the team went undefeated in regular season play to defend their top spot.

But, in Assistant Coach Travis Dyer’s opinion, the seasons that are most rewarding are the ones that do not go as smoothly.

City and West face off on Dec. 12, 2017 at City High. City won 53-40. — photo by Addelynn Smith

“My first year we had a pretty good team but we had lost five or six games throughout the year and it was just kind of [an] up-and-down [season],” Dyer said. “Then the playoffs rolled around and we actually made it to state that year when nobody really thought we would. Looking back on it now, it makes me grateful for that run and realize how hard it is to actually get to a state tournament. So, I never take anything for granted. You know, like this year we’re undefeated but it makes no difference because you can lose.”

Over his 20 years, between good seasons and bad, McTaggart has accumulated nearly 450 wins.

As a West High graduate, McTaggart remembers the atmosphere and intense rivalry between City and West when he was in high school. McTaggart feels that this rivalry has become softened by the local media since he attended high school in Iowa City.

“I think [the media has] tried to downplay it more than when I first got here,” McTaggart observed. “They used to put starting lineups in the paper and the games were all on Friday night. Now, the last couple of years [the games] have been on Tuesday night and [the newspapers] never ask for starting lineups.”

However, McTaggart believes that high school girls basketball is more appreciated now in Iowa City, due to there being highly talented teams on both sides of town. Dyer said he sees Iowa City as a kind of girls basketball oasis, surrounded by small towns where the sport receives less attention.

“I think the people in our town know that [we play good basketball],” Dyer said.

McTaggart said neither the 1,000-plus-mile move from Texas to Iowa, nor the switch in loyalties from City to West were so worrisome to him as the coaching transition from boys to girls.

“[The coaching job] was more unusual as I didn’t know how I’d handle coaching girls since I was more familiar with coaching boys. So, that [switch] was more of a challenge,” McTaggart said.

Even though there were adjustments that had to be made, McTaggart feels that he has come to understand female athletes.

“Well I think I’ve gotten better at explaining things. I used to change starting lineups, as a boy’s coach, without thinking much of it. I find myself explaining to girls why I do things and why we’re doing things,” McTaggart said. “But other than that I coach at the same pace. Everything else we do is the same. The defense stays and the fundamentals are the same.”

Bill McTaggart on the jumbotron during the girls basketball state tournament at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo arena. — photo by Hagan Myers

McTaggart said the differences he’s observed between male and female athletes are neither positive or negative, so long as they’re respected by the coach.

“I think they think more about things,” he said. “Girls tend to think more when I do something, they think if I [change a lineup] it’s because they’re doing something wrong, that’s not the case with boys. [Boys] roll with the punches and don’t say much.”

McTaggart’s passion for coaching carries to the classroom. He always knew he wanted to be a teacher, but the subject he wanted to teach changed with time.

“In college I was interested in history … and when I was in high school, not so much. I thought [I wanted to become] a math teacher,” McTaggart said. “I had a good professor in college and I thought that it would be better to teach history. Twentieth century history is my favorite; I really enjoy what I do.”

Ellie Gretter is a senior at West High School and is the digital and print sports editor for the West Side Story. Ellie’s favorite part about covering sports is getting to showcase all of the talented athletes at West, and also when the Trojans beat their cross-town rival.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 238.

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