In 2010-2011, the West Fork Warhawk boys basketball team was undefeated, 27-0, and won a state championship. While most will look at them as just another great team, they were more than that. They were what a community needed to jell together.
The lead up to the 2010-11 West Fork basketball season was big, as all are in the community. It was the 3rd year since S-C-M-T and Rockwell-Swaledale merged together to create one school district in West Fork. Jordan Nelson was the head coach and had led the S-C-M-T Spartans to two start tournaments in 2005 and 2008. While the Warhawks had success in the first two seasons, they fell short of their ultimate goal. In their first season, they lost twice to Garner-Hayfield, including in the district final. The next year they were dominant, but fell again in the district final to Wapsie Valley. Goals were at an all-time high for 10-11, West Fork was coming off a great football season where they made the playoffs for the first time ever, The Warhawks were also returning 4 starters on the basketball court led by 6’9 senior Seth Tuttle who had already signed with the University of Northern Iowa. Add in 6’8 sophomore Payton Plagge and you had a big man duo that most 2A teams could not compete against. As I said, goals were high, but goals are just goals unless you reach for them, not only did they reach their goals, the snatched respect from a state, that had questions of where West Fork was, and why an eating utensil would be broken down into directions.
The season started with a win over North Iowa, A Bison team that would qualify for the 1A tournament the very next year. Then a matchup with non-conference rival Garner-Hayfield. The Cardinals always have good team and are always well coached. West Fork won the game 61-53 behind a triple-double from Tuttle with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. The Warhawks would roll through to the Christmas break with dominant wins over Northwood-Kensett, Central Springs, Saint Ansgar, Riceville and Newman. Coming out of the break the Warhawks would have their biggest challenge in school history, a road trip to face Class 4A Mason City. That year, the Mohawks had a competitive 4A team, they weren’t winning all their games, but they were playing with some of the best teams in the CIML. The Warhawk fans packed the Mohawk gym and from the get go The Warhawks showed Mason City they were a force. West Fork would build a 10 point lead a look comfortable, but then Mason City would get on a run and cut the lead right back down to 2 points. The Warhawks would do that a few more times, and again the Mohawks would fight right back into it. Mason City snatched the lead away late 75-74 and it look as if the turnovers (West Fork had 22) were going to bite them. With 10 seconds left West Fork called a timeout to set up a game winning play. The Warhawks got it into point guard Tyler Larson who drove to the free throw line, rose up for a jumper…..and dropped it off to Tuttle…who laid the ball in with 4 seconds to play for the game winner, 76-75 Warhawks win, Tuttle announced to the Mason City student section that his team had arrived with a massive roar. It also announced to all of north Iowa that this team was more than what they had been in the past. They refused to lose to anyone, no matter how big a school. The large crowd for West Fork was a factor, they and the Mohawk fans helped to create a tournament like atmosphere. And after the game, when asked about the West Fork fans, Tuttle called them the West Fork nation. The term stuck and the fans felt as if just by being there, they gave their team something extra. They were the 6th man clad in black.
The big win over the Mohawks turned into momentum, The Warhawks got back to being dominant with wins over Rockford, Belmond-Klemme, Central Springs and Northwood-Kensett. On Coaches vs Cancer night at Hampton-Dumont, Tuttle poured in 31 points, helping West Fork overcome 21 turnovers against a pesky H-D team. Snow storms had an impact on that season, forcing many postponements. The next week West Fork played 4 games in 5 days, while the final scores were not of the dominant nature, they were wins and by the end of the regular season, West Fork was 20-0, Corn Bowl Conference Champions and heading into the postseason. A postseason that had tormented the Warhawks the previous two seasons. But something about this team was different, they had a quiet confidence about them and they now had a West Fork nation that would follow them anywhere, and follow they did.
It would be wrong to not acknowledge another factor in the Warhawks run to perfection, and that was that the girls were also on a run of their own. West Fork upset #9 AGWSR in the regional semifinals and defeated Wapsie Valley in Regional Finals to punch their own ticket to state. Excitement in the school and community was at a level that cannot be measured. The two teams pushed each other and supported each other. The boys team filled the student section during the girls games and in turn the girls did the same for the boys. West Fork was not only becoming a force on the floor, but a force off of it. Basketball was uniting this community. The Lady Warhawks fell in the first round at state to a very good Roland-Story team.
The 2A postseason tournament started much like the regular season did, a home matchup with Garner-Hayfield. West Fork got 21 from Payton Plagge and 18 from Tuttle and 13 from Jace Winfrey. The first step was out of the way, and home court advantage was gone. It would be neutral sites from here on out. Next up was the district final, the round that bounced the Warhawks the previous two seasons. It would be at Clear Lake, facing a very talented Lake Mills team. It was a cold day, the temp outside could not have been more than 10 above zero. As broadcasters, we like to be there plenty early to set up things and to get settled in, the calm before the storm if you will. When we rolled up to the Clear Lake gym the storm had already started. It was 5:00 pm, tip was at 7:00 pm and the doors to public opened at 6:00 pm. We figured we would be the only ones there, except for some administrators and such, we were wrong. Over 100 West Fork fans were bundled up and lined up outside the doors. The team had not even boarded the bus in Sheffield, but the nation was at a fever pitch, cold would not turn them away. When the doors open they filed in and warmed up, when the team took the floor they let out a massive roar that let their team know they were there. The team responded, they jumped out early, The Bulldog did not have an answer for the big man duo. Tuttle had another triple double (11 pts, 11 boards and 10 blocks) Jace Winfrey and Tyler Larson each had 12. And midway through the 3rd, Tuttle would take the ball on the right wing, drive to the hoop and with a thunderous dunk send the nation into a frenzy. The district final demons were gone, The Warhawks were a game from their ultimate goal, the only team standing in their way was Dike-New Hartford.
Out of the NICL-East the Wolverines were good, and battle tested. They were led by an outstanding point guard in Eric Joblinske, who now is playing baseball at Texas A&M, They had a nice forward in Lance Welsh and size with Sean Morgan and pesky freshman guard named Carson Parker. It would also be a matchup of not only great basketball teams, but two schools who will pack the gym to support their team. The 2A substate final would be played at Cedar Falls High School, another 4A gym. We knew it would be a madhouse, so myself and Cory Borcherding made the effort to be there early. I think we were there around 4:30, again, we were not alone. We would be greeted by the nation, almost 200 deep in a line that went from the doors to the gym, down the stairs, across sidewalk and down street. It was a line filled with Warhawks and Wolverines, it was 2 blocks long and may have reached as long as 3 blocks. As the fans filed in, the gym filled….and filled some more…..and filled to the point where there were no more seats. The gym was filled to capacity, those left standing in line were turned away. The ball had not gone in the air yet, and the teams had not taken the floor for warm-ups.
The game could not have started worse for the Warhawks, DNH got up early and took it right at West Fork. It was 15-5 Wolverines after the quarter. Thats when head coach Jordan Nelson got in Tuttle’s ear and simply asked him when he was going to start playing. Play he did, the Warhawks hung around in the 2nd and a Tyler Larson buzzer beater jumper kept the Wolverine lead at 10 going to the locker room. West Fork cut the lead to 7 going to 4th. The start of the 4th it was all DNH, as they amassed a 45-36 lead, But West Fork was not going to go quietly. The Warhawks continued to chip away, Tuttle was could not be stopped inside and the lead continued to dwindle for DNH. At 45-43, a steal led to a Jace Winfrey layup to tie the game at 45. A Tyler Larson steal and pass ahead to Jordan Hubka gave West Fork their first lead at 47-45. West Fork ended the game on a 15-0 run. And punched the ticket to state 51-45. The come back was complete, a goal was reached. The Warhawks were headed to Des Moines.
West Fork was the #2 seed despite their 24-0 record. PCM, Monroe had a 25-0 record and the #1 seed due to more wins over 3A competition. The first round opponent was Fort Dodge St.Edmond, a team that year in and year out were at the state tournament. the Gaels were led by Nick Clark, a junior guard who averaged almost 20 points per game. Their staple was their defense, The Gaels always have and always will have athletes. The game tipped off at 12:05 pm and the Gael fans and Warhawk fans each had their sides full. Neither team came out with any jitters. West Fork led by 1 at half as the Gaels had no answer for Tuttle and Plagge in the paint. St. Edmond would take a 34-32 lead going into the final quarter. West Fork would snatch the lead back. Up by 2, Payton Plagge got a steal, lobbed it ahead to Jordan Hubka who missed the layup, but Tuttle followed it up with a dunk to push the lead to four and ignite the West Fork nation. Nick Clark would silence the crowd at the other end with a 3 to cut it back to 1. Plagge would answer at the other end to push the lead back to 3, Clark would answer for the Gaels to cut it back to 1. WIth 13 seconds left St. Edmond’s Anthony Flattery missed a layup that would have give the Gaels the lead, Tuttle went to the line and hit two. The Gaels had chance to tie but Clarks 3 came up short and West Fork won 48-45, keeping their season alive.
In the next round the Warhawks faced North Cedar. The Knights were led by Jordan Hay, who averaged 24 points per game, and they also had the size inside to battle with Tuttle and Plagge. This game however, was over early. Nate Plagge opened the game with a 3, followed by a Tyler Larson 3. The lead built, 8-0, 12-0, 15-0, 17-0….it was 17-1 after the quarter, 33-10 at half. West Fork was proving on a state wide stage that they were not a fluke, they were not a one or two man show. They were the real deal, In the end the Warhawks beat the Knights 64-35, setting up a date with two time defending state champion Western Christian in the final.
Now, Western was the favorite, they had size with 6’10 David Denherder and 6’8 Dillan Moss and they had skill in senior forward Tyler Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff averaged 19 a game, Westerns only two losses on the year were to Lemars and Heelan. (Heelan would win the 3A title that year) Western coach Jim Eekhoff was going for his 7th title, to try to equal that of Paul Moon of Davenport Central. When Western made the title game, they didn’t lose, 6-0 in title games.
I remember the morning of that game, we were in the hotel with the team just trying to kill some time. You see, this team took us as broadcasters in as part of the team. They did not have to, We never asked them to. But they wanted us to be around them. We stayed out of their way when it came to preparation, but it was fun to just sit and talk and get to know them as people and not just kids in a uniform. We (myself and Cory Borcherding) were in our room watching the ACC tournament when Tuttle and some of the other players just walked in and sat down. You wouldn’t know it by the way they acted, but they were about to play in the biggest game of their lives. They all acted like it was just another game, that winning or losing did not matter, they had proven to themselves and to the state that they belonged there. I had to kick them out after awhile to allow myself time to prepare and to allow them the same. As Tuttle walked out of our room, he turned to us and said, someone is going to beat those guys, it might as well be us. He walked away, myself and my partner looked at each other and after 5 minutes of silence, we both agreed, something special was about to happen.
The problem with a state title game is there is no flow, you start late, there are television timeouts and just when you start getting up and down it feels like you have to stop. The kids aren’t used to it, the coaches aren’t used to it. The 2A final started with a Western 3 by Matt Wenstra, the Warhawks would lead by 2 in the 1st. Late in the 1st the Wolfpack would hit a 3 with JD Boer to go up 4, but Tyler Larson would answer and it was a 1 point game after the quarter. Larson’s shot served as notice, no matter what you throw at us, we are going to keep coming. Larson would hit a 3 again early in the 2nd to put West Fork up 16-14, a Hubka jumper made it 18-14, and 18-16, Hunter Clausen hit a 3 to make it 21-16. West Fork was taking it to Western and Seth Tuttle had not done alot, another 3 by Larson with 1:30 to go in the half made it 29-20, was West Fork going to pull away from the 2 time defending champs? No, Western closed the half on a 4-0 run and West Fork led by 5 at halftime.
In the 3rd quarter, every time Western would cut into the Warhawk lead there was answer, A jumper by Wolterstorff cut the lead to one, but Tuttle hit two free throws, the Clausen buried another three and all of sudden the lead was back to 6. Western battled back again and Jacob Granstra hit a layup at the buzzer of the third, West Fork still led by 2.
Going to the 4th it was pins and needles, the Warhawk fans knew they were close, but also had seen how good Western was. I felt that Western always thought they were going to win the game. The fourth quarter, the two best players on the floor took the ball game over. Tuttle would score, Wolterstorff would answer, Tuttle would score again, Wolterstorff would answer again. With 3:36 to play Wolterstorff was fouled on a layup, the free throw tied the game at 48-48. Wolterstorff would finally give Western the lead at 50-49 on a free throw with 2:55 to play. Tuttle hit a layup to put the Warhawks back up 51-50. After a Wolterstorff miss Tuttle was fouled, made 1 of 2 to give the Warhawks a 52-50 lead with :15 seconds to play. While West Fork led, this game was destined for more. With four seconds left, while being defended by Jace Winfrey, Tyler Wolterstorff hit what looked like an impossible shot to tie the game at 52. West Fork called timeout, Larson would get off a 3 quarter court shot that hit just about every part of the rim and went out, which is probably good cause I would have flipped the broadcast table over. The game was going to overtime. Western had new life, but West Fork never flinched.
West Fork ran the first two minutes of overtime off the clock on their first possession, after turning it over Wolterstorff missed two free throws, at the other end Tuttle hit a layup and was fouled, the free throw made it 55-52 with 1:02 to go. With 26 seconds left Western got it back to 1 on a pair of free throws and it appeared disaster, Tuttles inbounds pass was stolen, Dustin Douma had a free layup for the lead which he missed and Tuttle snatched the rebound and was fouled. The entire West Fork crowd just about fainted, Tuttles free throws put West Fork up 3, Wolterstorff would miss a lay up and Tuttle went to the line to ice the game with :06 left. The first free throw was short, the 2nd one on the money. Tuttle would steal the ball away as Western came into the front court, he launched the ball into the air hoping it would come down as the horn sounded, it did. West Fork had done it, they had knocked off Western Christian and won the state title, 60-56 in overtime. Tuttle finished with 27 points, he was outdone by Wolterstorff who put his team on his back and scored 34. Plagge and Larson each had 11 points, but the key was Hunter Clausen, he had 6 points on 2 threes, but they came at crucial points of the game when West Fork was extending a lead and when Western was cutting into one. Plagge was named to the 2A All-Tournament team as was Tuttle, Tuttle was named the captain. The goal had been reached, the mountain had been climbed, the impossible had become possible.
Why was West Fork’s state title in 2011 so important that it deserved its own dedicated blog here today? The most important reason is because the success that team had that year sent waves through the community. SCMT and Rockwell-Swaledale were rivals, and when rivals are forced to come together, feelings can be bitter. While this occured in the 3rd year of the sharing agreement, those 3 words, West Fork Nation, unified everyone. Nobody was a Spartan or a Rebel, they were Warhawks. The time for bickering and complaining about this or that was over, it was time to move on. Change is hard, especially when it is something that is all you have known for generations. But a basketball team calmed that tension and people who probably never would have spent time together, did. That is what sports does, as much as it can tear things apart, it has a unifying power to it.
Did they have to win the state title to do that? No, that job was done before they ever stepped a foot on the court at Wells Fargo. The title was for them, to put West Fork on the map and earn respect from teams that had made Des Moines their late winter vacation getaway or years. No longer would West Fork be looked at as that whole grade sharing agreement school in north Iowa with the goofy name.
Teams at West Fork will come and go, the 12-13 team added another trophy to the case with a runner-up finish last year, they are off to another great start this year. More trophies and banners will be in the West Fork gym as years go by. But the 10-11 team will never be forgotten, not only were they great basketball players and brought a community together, these guys were super heros. Kids want to be Seth Tuttle and Payton Plagge and Tyler Larson and Jace Winfrey and the list goes on and on. Kids saw what they did and it was real life! Not like watching Lebron and Kobe on TV, who needs them when your superstar lives right down the block and mows his parents lawn and will probably play h-o-r-s-e with you if all you do is ask? To me, more than anything, THAT is what made that team special, and that is what I will always remember