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North Union’s Von Bank, Nielsen captain All-Area hoops team

PLAYING DEFENSE — North Union teammates, counter-clockwise from right, Olivia Von Bank, Sam Nielsen, Lily Henderson and Cassie Beadle surround a Pocahontas player during Iowa Class 2A, Region 7 quarterfinal basketball action in Armstrong. Von Bank and Nielsen were named as the Fairmont Sentinel’s 2021 All-Area girls basketball players of the year. (Photo by Greg Abel)

ARMSTRONG — After the conclusion of a pandemic-condensed prep hardwood season — four months long in Iowa and just three months in Minnesota, it’s time for the Fairmont Sentinel newspaper, so to speak, to “unmask” its annual All-Area girls basketball team for 2021.

Fittingly, the pair of co-captains for this year’s six-player elite team were required to wear masks during practice sessions and while sitting in the bench area, but not when competing head-to-head in games.

Sophomore forward/guard Olivia Von Bank and junior post player Sam Nielsen utilized their all-around athleticism and outstanding vertical jumps to elevate the North Union Warrior hoops program to a 15-7 overall record, including four clutch down-to-the-wire victories in overtime this winter.

Nielsen capitalized on every inch of her 6-foot even frame to share team-best scoring honors with Olivia Von Bank — 202 to 201 in total points en route to respective averages of 9.2 and 9.1, while also garnering the 11th-best rebound total (161, 7.3 rpg) in the Top of Iowa Conference this season. The 5-8 Von Bank also proved difficult to box out in the low blocks by pulling down 112 boards for a respectable 5.1 clip.

The scrappy Von Bank tied for 11th in the conference by pocketing 67 steals for an impressive average of 3.0 per outing to net the No. 2 spot behind teammate Cassie Beadle on North Union’s roster.

Von Bank also distributed 30 assists, blocked 14 opponents’ shots and connected on 79 of 189 field goals overall for 41.8 percent during her second varsity basketball campaign.

Meanwhile, Nielsen displayed her defensive skills by rejecting 17 shots and netting 40 steals to complement doling out 21 assists. The Warrior center made 84 of 203 field goals overall for 41.4 percent this season.

Nielsen, a second-team all-conference selection in 2021, and Von Bank, an honorable mention choice for league accolades, earned their first spots on the Fairmont Sentinel All-Area girls basketball as co-players of the year.

Without further ado, the Sentinel will unveil the final four All-Area team members.

Madysen Allen (Fairmont) — The senior guard played much taller than her 5-4 frame, utilizing her vertical jump, strength, tenacity and outstanding boxing-out skills to pull down 3.3 rebounds per game in 2021.

The two-year starter spearheaded the Cardinals’ trademark smothering defense by netting a team-best 41 steals this winter to complement distributing Fairmont’s No. 1 assist total (36) from an offensive perspective.

The hard-working Allen scored 5.5 points per outing on the strength of 51.7 percent shooting from 2-point range (30 of 58) to help power the Cardinals to a 13-6 overall record and appearance in the Section 2AA, South Sub-Section semifinals.

Katelyn Diegnau (Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman/Martin Luther) — The 6-foot junior post player emerged into a force to be reckoned with during the 2021 COVID-condensed campaign.

The first-team all-Valley Conference choice produced points at a 9.3 clip and pulled down 5.4 rebounds per outing for the Jaguars.

Diegnau displayed her defensive skills by blocking 15 opponents’ shots and making 26 steals to go with distributing 15 assists from the low blocks.

Diegnau, who connected on 65 of 167 field goals for 39.0 percent, helped guide the Jaguars to a 10-7 overall record.

Arika Howard (Blue Earth Area) — The only All-Area repeat selection improved her team-leading numbers in both scoring and rebounding for a second straight season.

The 5-6 senior forward delivered 11.6 points and hauled in an incredible 7.2 rebounds per game on the strength of her athleticism, power and agility.

Howard, who earned all-Big South Conference honors, demonstrated her versatility by distributing 44 assists and garnering 33 steals during her final prep hoops season.

Marissa Whitehead (Martin County West) — The two-time all-Valley Conference basketball selection played an integral role in powering the Mavericks to a 14-6 overall record and an appearance in the Section 2A, South Sub-Section championship game.

The 5-6 senior playmaker scored 11.0 points and pulled down 3.3 rebounds per game from her starting position in the MCW backcourt.

The fleet-footed Whitehead doled out 59 assists, pocketed 54 steals, made 69 of 141 shots from 2-point range and 16 of 40 from behind the 3-point arc to close out her stellar prep basketball playing days.

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