By Gary R. Rasberry
Not a lot of people thought that the St. Marys girls basketball team would be much to contend with this season.
The roster numbers were down from the past and the team was coming off an 8-13 season.
New Roug-hrider head coach Tim Niekamp, though, had a good idea what his girls would be able to do.
Niekamp, who previously coached the varsity boys at New Bremen, saw in the summer what the team had to offer, and helped guide the team to the top of the Western Buckeye League this past season.
For helping construct a six-game turnaround in the win column and bringing home a share of the WBL crown, Niekamp was named The Daily Standard's 2006 Girls Coach of the Year. "I knew a little bit about some of the players and followed them a bit in the past," said Niekamp during a break from Wednesday classes in a phone interview. "I thought we had a chance to be competitive because we had some tough kids. Kids that, directed in the right way and compete.
"In the offseason and scrimmages, I knew we could be competitive. We would need some breaks along the way, but we have some kids that were coachable and willing to work. You can manufacture breaks along the way. And we were able to do that a couple of times," added Niekamp.
Things looked rough as the Roughriders were 6-5 at the midway point of the season, having lost to WBL rival Ottawa-Glandorf to drop to 3-2 in the league on Jan. 12..
Then things turned around as St. Marys won seven out of their last nine, with none of the losses being league games, to earn the team a share of the WBL title with three other teams.
While the game at Ottawa was a turning point, the big boost came in the next league game, against Van Wert on Jan. 19.
"The big boost of confidence came in that Van Wert game," said Niekamp of the 46-40 come-from-behind win at McBroom Gymnasium. "That's what really helped our kids. You beat one of the premier teams supported by one of the premier players (eventual WBL Player of the Year Allie Clifton). We were able to execute down the stretch in crunch time (St. Marys outscored Van Wert 20-8 in the fourth quarter to overcome a 10-point deficit). That gave our kids a huge boost of confidence."
St. Marys went on to win the last three league games to capture a share of the WBL title -- with Van Wert, Bath and Ottawa-Glandorf -- for the second time in three years.
The Roughriders finished 13-7 in the regular season and earned the top-seed at the Division II Lima Senior sectional before losing to the Bath Wildkittens at the Findlay District.
Niekamp praised seniors Toya Anderson and Kerri Imwalle for their work to help guide the team.
"I think it was because of our senior leadership, what Kerri and Toya did, I think they led the way," said Niekamp. "They accepted what we were teaching and supported it 100 percent. I think the other kids followed."