An outstanding veteran trio combined with the late emergence of some talented younger players to get the Colo-Nesco girls’ basketball team back to the state tournament in 2013-14.

The Royals earned their first repeat state bids since 1991-92, after going 24-2 and winning the Iowa Star Conference South Division with a 15-1 conference record. Colo-Nesco was knocked out in the opening round of the Class 1A state tournament last season, but this year the more tested Royals advanced to the semifinals before succumbing to top-ranked Newell-Fonda.

"The season went pretty much has we hoped it would, with a conference championship and state tournament appearance," Colo-Nesco head coach Wayne Cafferty said. "We were fortunate to be fairly healthy and we were able to fight through the couple of injuries we did have."

The season began with Colo-Nesco winning its first 11 games to earn a top-three ranking in 1A. The only close contest during that stretch was a 52-50 comeback home victory over West Marshall on Dec. 14.

On Jan. 14 the Royals’ streak came to a close. They were overpowered by ISC North Division champions Janesville, 56-22.

The lopsided setback proved to be the wakeup call Colo-Nesco needed. The Royals whipped CAL in Latimer on Jan. 17, and four days later they took on another rated North Division power in Dunkerton on the road.

This time Colo-Nesco was ready, pulling off an impressive 48-35 victory over the Raiders. The win gave the Royals the lift they needed to finish the regular season strong.

"We grew from our setback against Janesville," Cafferty said.

Colo-Nesco followed up its Dunkerton win by whipping South Division runner-up North Tama by a 57-39 score in Traer. The Royals then pummeled Waterloo Christian, Don Bosco, Tripoli and Meskwaki at home and rolled past GMG on the road, before closing out the regular season with a hard-fought 51-47 non-conference home win over Class 2A school Roland-Story.

The Royals opened 1A regional play with a 68-39 victory over Southeast Webster at home on Feb. 18. They added a 55-39 semifinal triumph over Coon Rapids-Bayard Feb. 21 in Colo.

On Feb. 24, Colo-Nesco took on Martensdale-St. Marys in the regional finals for the right to go to state. The battle-tested Royals controlled the game from start to finish, cruising to a 54-31 victory, punching their tickets to state again.

At state Colo-Nesco was focused on bettering last year’s performance. The Royals faced No. 6 Lynnville-Sully in the quarterfinals and were given all they could handle.

But Colo-Nesco showed what a difference a year can make by coming up with all the big plays it needed versus the Lynx, pulling off a gritty 38-34 victory and advancing to the semifinals. In the semifinals the Royals’ ran into a Newell-Fonda team that posed big problems, as the No. 1 Mustangs overpowered Colo-Nesco, 65-34.

Colo-Nesco ended up giving up only 33.8 points per game – the fewest in school history. The Royals also averaged an impressive 17.7 steals per game and they pulled down an average of 30.2 rebounds.

"Defense was our strength," Cafferty said.

On offense Colo-Nesco averaged 54.9 points, shooting 41 percent from the field, 27 percent from 3-point range and 52 percent from the line. The Royals made a total of 101 3-pointers and they averaged 14.6 assists against 17.9 turnovers per game.

"Team members grew in their ability to take care of the ball and cut down on turnovers, which gave us more offensive opportunities," Cafferty said. "We also improved on feeding our post players."

"Our biggest challenge was being consistent on our outside shooting," Cafferty added. "Too often we would just shoot a quick 3 instead of shooting it in rhythm. Our free-throw shooting was very inconsistent as well."

Senior center Caitlyn Riese and junior guard Shayla Dean were the driving forces behind Colo-Nesco’s success this season. Both players were unanimous all-ISC picks and all-state performers.

Riese was a first-team all-state pick as the go-to force in the middle for the Royals. She led Colo-Nesco in scoring with 15.5 points per game on 57-percent shooting from the field and 63-percent shooting from the line.

Riese was also the team leader in blocks with 1.0 per game and she ended up second in rebounding with an average of 6.2.

Dean averaged 13.3 points shooting 49 percent from the field, 30 percent from 3-point range and 51 percent from the line as a second-team all-state pick. She totaled 34 3-pointers, averaged 5.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds and led the state in total steals with 170 – averaging 6.5 per game.

"When it was showtime, we relied on the abilities of Shayla to make a play on her own and Caitlyn’s increased confidence to be a go-to player when called upon," Cafferty said.

Senior forward Madison Farren also provided quality experience for the Royals.

Farren showed tremendous toughness inside, leading Colo-Nesco in rebounding with an average of 7.0 per game. She also averaged 8.5 points and 2.3 steals.

Juniors Melanie Van Loon and Hannah Buseman were joined by sophomore Makaelyn Neuendorf as the top newcomers to the varsity roster. It was their development that keyed Colo-Nesco’s big late-season push toward making it back to state.

"The increased contributions of Melanie, Hannah and Makaelyn gave us a more balanced attack, which made it more difficult for opponents to defend us," Cafferty said. "All three had big baskets on the tournament trail."

Van Loon averaged 6.0 points and she made 24 3-pointers on the season on the wing. Van Loon also put up 2.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

Buseman averaged 2.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.0 assists at guard. Neuendorf contributed 5.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game at forward.

Juniors Tabitha Halferty and Leah Vincent also stepped up off the bench during the season.

Halferty helped out Colo-Nesco inside. She contributed 3.0 rebounds and 1.2 points per game.

Vincent hit 9 of 23 3-pointers (39 percent) and she averaged 2.1 points on the perimeter.

Colo-Nesco only loses two players off this year’s team as the Royals will aim for a third-straight trip to state in 2014-15. But it won’t be easy replacing the production of Riese and Farren inside.

"They were excellent leaders through their performance and work ethic," Cafferty said. "They ended up second and third respectively in career rebounds (at Colo-Nesco) and they combined for over 24 points per game. They will be difficult to replace."

But with Dean leading the way and Van Loon, Buseman and Neuendorf gaining confidence, the Royals will still have enough firepower to make a big run next season.

"We return all of our perimeter players, so hopefully we will improve our 3-point shooting and ball handling," Cafferty said. "We do lose half our scoring and our top two rebounders, so we are going to have to develop our post players and find ways to get baskets inside. We need to improve our athleticism so that we can become a better rebounding team. But we’ve got a good nucleus of six letterwinners back, and with the development of a couple underclassmen, I think we have the potential to be one of the top teams in the state again next year."