Last year was a banner year for MAC girls basketball.
The conference produced Division I recruits, sent two teams to state and had its first state champion in four years when North Scott captured a Class 4A title.
Matt Hoeppner is excited to be a part of it.
After serving as Rock Island's head sophomore girls coach for the past nine seasons, Hoeppner is entering his first season as the head varsity coach at Davenport North, taking over after Ron O'Brien stepped down in April.
Hoeppner, the newest of all the MAC coaches, looks to keep the Wildcats at the same heights O'Brien took the program to in his tenure. North won 56 games in the last three years and consecutive conference titles, but many of the players who took the Wildcats to that level are gone now, a new chapter set to begin.
"The first thing we have to do to even get back to that level is to allow this team to find its identity because that’s the first thing when I got over here people were saying how great (those players) were," Hoeppner said at the MAC girls luncheon Friday at the RiverCenter.
"We understand they’re great players, but they’re no longer here so it’s time for this team to figure out who they are and what they’re going to do, and once they do that, which we’ll help them to do, they can rise up and take it from there and hopefully stay at that level."
The cupboard is far from bare for the Wildcats. They return MAC player of the year Paige Bradford, who averaged 19.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last year, as well as four-year starter Coral Dillie, whose hard-nosed style is highly valued by any coach.
"(West coach Frank Dexter) mentioned 50/50 players and how he had a player who thought every 50/50 ball was his, and Coral Dillie is that player on this team right now," Hoeppner said. "If there’s a ball on the ground, she gets a chance, she’s taking that."
While those two have taken the reins of leadership, there are plenty of other pieces to help the Wildcats. Hoeppner likes his juniors and said there are some sophomores and freshmen who will compete and possibly contribute this year.
With North's first game scheduled for Nov. 21 against Cedar Rapids Jefferson, there's still plenty of work to be done, and Hoeppner is focusing on perhaps the one big weakness of those teams of the past few years — defense. Last year, the Wildcats allowed 51.2 points per game, often relying on their high-scoring offense to carry them.
"One big difference you’ll realize is we’re going to play defense this year," he said. "Last year they did their thing but they had a lot of offensive players there, but we’re working hard, and that’s where we’re headed. We’re going to play some defense and get after it night after night."
While this is all new for Hoeppner, it's also a new time for the MAC as a whole, moving to a true round-robin format with an 18-game conference schedule. The conference truly helps prepare teams for the postseason, as showcased by North Scott, which responded to a 65-28 loss to Pleasant Valley with 11 straight wins and the first state title in the program's history.
"Last year for us, playing in our conference was the sole reason we were so successful at the end of it," Lancer head coach TJ Case said. "(PV) beat us by 37, and that was a big turning point for us. I basically told the girls, 'How invested are you at this point in time? Are you ready to move on to go do something else or do you want to do something here?'
"It's good to see some of the top teams a second time. It obviously helps you."