Ames girls ready to start rebuilding under new coach Christopher Harken

Joe Randleman
Ames Tribune
Christopher Harken is taking over the Ames girls' basketball program in 2021-2022. The Little Cyclones must find a way to replace the massive production of current Bradley Brave Caroline Waite and Drake Bulldog Ashley Iiams as they navigate a tough CIML-Iowa schedule.

Madison Pankonen knows her final season playing girls' basketball at Ames is shaping up to be a challenging one.

All-time leading scorer Caroline Waite and versatile all-state forward Ashley Iiams are gone, having moved on to Bradley and Drake respectively. The Little Cyclones also lost three other players who logged significant varsity minutes. 

Top post player Kennedy White transferred and athletic wing players Ireland Buss and Cameron Moon decided to focus on what should be a dynamite track season for Ames. Athletic defensive stopper Leah Tietjens graduated.

Other players on last year's team also decided not to join the team this year for various reasons.

To top it off, Ames has a new coach in Christopher Harken.

So Pankonen knows she's going to have to be the glue that holds the team together until the younger players start catching up.

"I've been thinking about my senior year ever since I was a freshman," Pankonen said. "I knew we were going to lose a lot of players and since I'm the only senior I have to be a really good leader."   

But while Ames will likely take its lumps this year, this is also a golden opportunity to start fresh building a program that can compete with the best teams in Class 5A down the road. Pankonen wants to set the tone in that regard.

"I've got to be positive for all of them," Pankonen said. "Even if we're not winning it's all about playing as a team."

Harken arrives at Ames with 14 years of coaching and 16 years of teaching experience.

Harken's only head coaching experience at the varsity level was from 2011-14 at Ankeny Christian Academy. He was a head coach at the JV level for Johnston as well as at the freshman boys' level for both Johnston and Ankeny.

During his time at ACA he led the 2013-14 team to an 18-5 record — the best in school history. He was a member of Ankeny's 2020 4A boys' state champion coaching staff and was also an assistant on the state-qualifying Johnston girls' team of 2010 and boys' team of 2018.

Harken admits that with so many new varsity faces he's not sure what he's going to get in his first season with Ames. But he's looking forward to finding out. 

"Being a new head coach, I don't know what to expect in general," Harken said. "With this group and what I've seen so far it's definitely going to be a team effort every night."

Junior forward/off-guard Julia Grawe is the only returning starter for Ames. In 2020 Grawe averaged 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds and she hit 22 3-pointers.

Junior Julia Grawe (left) and senior Maddison Pankonen will be counted on to lead an inexperienced Ames girls' basketball team in 2021-2022.

Pankonen averaged 1.3 points and sophomore Haley Prakashan 1.2 rebounds as the only other returning players to see action in at least 10 games.

"We have a lot to make up for with Ashley and Caroline leaving," Grawe said. "I think that we need more scorers to step up, me included." 

But Harken isn't panicking.

"It just gives other girls the opportunity to shine," Harken said. "I think it's beneficial to us as a team as a program because we're looking at rebuilding anyways and it gives us a chance to find our own identity."

Ames does feature a promising freshman class led by Anisa Percival. 

"I'm really excited to see how the freshmen do," Grawe said. "They should be pretty good."

Other freshman that could be counted on include Karsyn Pankonen, Jada Britten and Alysa Grawe. Lauren Smith, Emma Evans, Morgan Wahl and Abbey McGuire join Prakashan to form a deep sophomore class and Eliza Loecke and Aakiaya Mosley are two juniors capable of contributing.

Harken wants to make the game simple and fun for his players.

"We're going to do our best to transition the ball up," Harken said. "With our lineup we'll have a lot of sets that run into a natural play. We'll get some quick hitters and after that we'll try to score naturally and just let the girls play ball."

More:Ames girls end season with loss to Ankeny: Little Cyclones fall in regional semifinals, 73-37

More:Ames girls excited for chance to defend state championship: Waukee, Iowa City West are favorites

More:Ames coaching legend Flannery selected to Hall of Fame; Flummerfelt also honored in girls' swimming

The Ames coach will know how much his team can hang with top 5A schools by the end of the first week in December. By that point the Little Cyclones will have faced off against Waukee Northwest, Johnston and Ankeny.

"It's a nice gauntlet at the beginning of the season," Harken said. "But in our division (the CIML Iowa) I think we can compete pretty well." 

Ankeny and Ankeny Centennial will be the favorites in the CIML Iowa. 

If the Little Cyclones can hold steady and pull off some upsets, they will be able to build momentum for the program heading into future seasons.  

"We can be good in our upcoming years," Pankonen said. "I want to show the younger girls that basketball is a fun sport and that they should stick it out."