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Zoning out: MCM girls look to ride zone defense back to state

McCook Central/Montrose guard Morgan Erikson drives past Beresford's Kennedy Goblirsch during a girls basketball game on Friday, at McCook Central High School, in Salem. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

SALEM—Last March, the McCook Central/Montrose girls basketball capped its season with a fourth-place finish in its first trip to state as a co-op.

After coming up just short of the state tournament for much of the last half of the decade, the Fighting Cougars were finally able to break through. Coming into this season, MCM had to replace two 6-foot post players in Natalie Gottlob and last year's Daily Republic player of the year, Morgan Koepsell.

While this year's team does not have the luxury of playing four 6-footers, the Fighting Cougars have not missed a beat thus far, jumping out to a 7-0 start and they have a return trip to the Class A state tournament in mind.

"Every year the start tournament is the goal," MCM head coach Doug Durfee said. "Some years it's more realistic than others, but I think every basketball team in the state has the ultimate goal of making it to the state tournament. It's a lot tougher than people think. You can have a talented team and still not make it. We've been on both sides of it, and fortunately last year, we were able to get over that hump."

One of Durfee's initial concerns was how to replace nearly 25 points per game from Koepsell and Gottlob, but it has not been a problem, as MCM has three players in double figures each night. Sophomore Madisen Koepsell has moved into a starting role and is averaging 16.3 points and 11 rebounds per game, while Jacy Pulse is averaging 13 points and first-year starter Abigail Van Ruler is averaging 10.7 points and nine boards per night.

Where the Fighting Cougars flourish the most, however, is on the defensive end of the court. Durfee has long employed a 2-3 zone, but it is nowhere near a vanilla scheme, holding opponents to 30.4 percent shooting overall and 22.1 percent from 3-point range.

Jacy Pulse—who is track state champion in two different events—and McKenna Kranz—an all-state volleyball player—man the top of the zone and have wreaked havoc on opposing guards, jumping into the passing lanes for 36 steals and countless deflections.

"The misconception about a zone is that you just stand in a spot, but we're really active in our zone," Durfee said. "We don't leave girls open at different spots. Everyone has a responsibility and there's man-to-man principles built into every zone. ... We're able to use our athletic girls up top to create havoc and get some tipped passes."

If Pulse and Kranz aren't forcing turnovers, they are funneling ball handlers into the paint, where the long back row of Van Ruler, Koepsell and Morgan Erikson are waiting.

Koepsell has wiped the glass clean this year, while the 6-foot-3 Van Ruler has become an eraser in the middle of the zone, swatting away four shots per night.

"Teams can't go backdoor and cut into our lane and shoot uncontested," Durfee said. "We always have a 6-footer or 6-3 girl waiting down there to not only block the shot, but to disrupt it. Even if you make a four-foot shot over a 6-3 girl, that's a heck of a shot."

Should MCM make another run to state, its zone defense should be one of the main reasons.

The Fighting Cougars host Sioux Valley today in Salem.