Seven of the top eight rated teams made the Iowa Class 1-A girls state field, so the chances of an easy first-round matchup were slim.

Yet that two-town school — Newell-Fonda — certainly grabbed the attention of Exira-EHK when the pairings were revealed.

Second-rated Exira-EHK will meet the No. 7 Mustangs — last year's 1-A champ and a finalist the past three seasons — in Monday's 3:15 p.m. quarterfinal at Wells Fargo Arena.

It is the Spartans' second straight state appearance, bowing out in the semifinals 68-57 to Springville last year. But Newell-Fonda is playing in the capital city for the seventh time in nine years.

"They're very similar to all the Newell-Fonda teams," Exira-EHK coach Tom Petersen said. "They'll pressure you for 32 minutes and they like to play fast. The girls are going to have to be able to handle their pressure, but also apply it on the defensive side as well."

The Spartans return four starters from last year's club, led by 5-foot-10 sophomore Sophia Peppers. She averages 16.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.4 steals while shooting 54 percent from the field. The Mustangs don't start anyone taller than 5-9.

In Exira-EHK's narrow regional final win over Nodaway Valley, Petersen didn't think his team got Peppers enough touches.

"The one thing that I do want to establish for sure is Sophia Peppers on the inside," he said. "That's going to be my No. 1 focus, to get the ball inside. They're not a very tall team, but it's extremely athletic and good at what they do."

The other returning starters are 5-7 juniors Mara Burmeister (13.1 ppg) and Maggie Rasmussen (11.9), and 5-8 sophomore Kealey Nelson (11.5). Senior Rose Andersen (6.2 ppg) rounds out the starters.

Newell-Fonda counters with three returning starters from last year's titlist — 2015 all-tournament selection Maddi Morenz (13.3 ppg), a 5-7 senior; Erin Gerke (12.7), a 5-7 junior; and Abby Smith (8.3), a 5-9 senior.

The Mustangs played another strong schedule. They faced only four 1-A teams all year. One of their losses was to a 4-A school, three were to 3-As and the other two were to 2-As.

That Newell-Fonda is rated seventh speaks to the quality of the 1-A field, Petersen said.

"I think this might be one of the best fields in girls basketball that's been down there in quite a while," he said. "I think the basketball continues to get better at our size of school. That's a good thing for girls basketball."

Petersen wants his team to appreciate the moment when it arrives in Des Moines.

"To me, the opportunity to play at the state tournament for girls basketball is the most special thing that there is," he said. "I want them to have fun and enjoy it, but remember that you're also down there to do your best and try to compete and to continue to play into late next week."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1055, kevin.white@owh.com, twitter.com/KWhiteOWH

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