Just inside the front doors of Des Moines North High School is the girls basketball team in full swing at a Wednesday night practice.
The typical sounds of basketball – balls dribbling, sneakers squeaking, buzzers blaring – echo from the walls. But with the Polar Bears fresh off Tuesday’s game in which they won the Iowa Alliance Conference title, something else is mixing with the basketball orchestra.
There’s laughter too, and lots of it.
As the team goes through their warm-up exercises, snippets of conversation drift into the stands. Nyla Seay and one of North’s assistant coaches discuss the upcoming understatement matchup. Someone knocks on the locked doors of the gymnasium, which leads to questions about the concert taking place in the auditorium across the hall. Lizzy Puot jokes with Amani Jenkins about becoming a pro setter when she pushes the basketball into the air.
North’s players are enjoying basketball after putting together a season that includes the conference title and an undefeated record against other Iowa Alliance programs.
North and Des Moines’ other public high schools — East, Hoover, Lincoln, and Roosevelt — dropped out of the Central Iowa Metropolitan League after the 2021-22 school year. The move to the Iowa Alliance Conference, which also includes Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, Mason City, Ottumwa and Waterloo East, was done in an effort to achieve a more competitive balance, higher attendance numbers and more flexible scheduling.
Historically, success has been elusive for Des Moines North. The whole point for polar bears is to make the game fun.
Hard work and training stability pays off for polar bears
It had been decades since North had fielded a successful product. This season, the team has won 18 of its 21 games.
From the 2006-07 season through 2018-19, the Polar Bears put together a 16-249 overall record. They posted five winless years during that span. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union has no records prior to the 2006-2007 season.
The Polar Bears last state tournament appearance was in 1983, when the school was Des Moines North-Tech and Iowa girls still played six-on-six basketball. North never made the tournament in the five-on-five era, which began in 1984.
Tashika Lewis and Lisa Montgomery, who played in the 1980s and 1990s, are the Polar Bears’ only 1,000 career point scorers.
North had only three conference losses in 1984 and was back-to-back conference champions in 1988 and 1989. That’s pretty much the list of honors attached to North women’s basketball.
The team had never again won a conference title before this season.
“I’m so happy they won the conference title,” said George Davis, who coached North women’s basketball in the 1980s. “Regardless of the (conference) gimmick, I’m so glad they can put it on their resume.”
While North’s men’s basketball program has had some success, the girls could only dream. That is, until coach Haywood Boston took over. Boston previously coached at Hoover for more than 30 years, then came out of retirement to coach North.
“I said I’d never come to a place like North, because they haven’t won and the kids don’t want to listen,” Boston said. “Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going there.’ It was hard work, but I stayed and promised people I won’t leave.”
Boston, now in his eighth year at the North, has given the Polar Bears something they didn’t have in a coach before, which is stability. Boston laid the foundation for Northern success. The team was not immediately successful upon his arrival, but Boston built the team and that changed.
“The players are here; the kids are here,” Boston said. “The girls show hasn’t been a legendary show. They haven’t had a great season (in a long time). But they’re good kids. little discipline in athletics and believed in them.”
The group of players he has on his roster this year have brought the talent, teamwork and determination to change the program.
Put all the pieces together to tear down the networks
Puot joined the North women’s basketball team as a freshman. She recorded 829 points and 656 rebounds in four years with the Polar Bears, all while helping North move on from the past.
The Polar Bears went 8-15 in his freshman year of high school basketball. North put together a 10-6 record the following season, the program’s first winning record in over a decade.
Last season, Puot picked up a couple of reinforcements.
Nyla Seay and Amani Jenkins both followed their fathers to Des Moines North. Julian Seay is the head coach of the men’s basketball team and Cory Jenkins is an assistant coach. Nyla came north from Ankeny Centennial and Amani joined the Polar Bears as a freshman after developing in the Johnston system.
Both players made an immediate impact as the team finished with a 16-7 record.
Jenkins amassed 728 points and 440 rebounds in less than two seasons at the North. This year he leads all of Class 5A with 57 blocks.
Seay — who stands 5-foot-2 — had 242 points and 171 assists on North. She is second in assists in Class 5A and is among the Iowa Alliance Conference leaders in steals.
Puot is happy to have those two next to her on the floor.
“I wanted to come here and make a change,” Puot said. “Now, I have two beautiful teammates right here to help me make it happen. I’m grateful that they came in and helped North be the best we can be and helped put something on the wall.
Puot turned and pointed to the conference championship banner that is already hanging in the North Gymnasium. It had only been a day since the girls had cut their nets to celebrate February 7th. Puot and Seay smiled when they talked about photos from that moment; Jenkins set the photo of her cutting the net as her phone’s wallpaper.
“When I was little, I used to watch the high school team cut the nets when they won something like this,” Seay said. “Little girl me is so proud of us.”
The community gathers around polar bear basketball
Between TikTok dances at the start of practice and players piling into Seay’s self-described clown car for food runs at Kwik Trip or McDonald’s, the energy surrounding Northern women’s basketball has shifted.
But the change isn’t limited to within the team.
Jerry Jones Sr. and Carla Jones have been coming to North basketball games since 2006 when their son Jerry Jones Jr. enrolled at North. He played on the boys’ team and graduated in 2010, but the Joneses continued to attend Holcomb Avenue games.
From the Polar Bears scoring 4 points in a game to the girls barely knowing how to dribble the ball, the Joneses have seen some tough years off the bleachers.
Sixteen years later, the Joneses are a staple in women’s basketball team games. They know the names of all the players, even those on the varsity youth teams. They even traveled to Kansas City when the Polar Bears played Olathe North.
“They need support,” Carla said. “When we started coming, maybe it was us and another group of parents at the gym. We would have more visitors on that side (of the stands).”
Not so this season. The stands were full – students and families – during North’s senior night game against Hoover. Puot said students come up to her in the corridors and congratulate her. People in the community recognize girls basketball players.
Like Boston, the Joneses offer girls a sense of stability, knowing that someone will always be on their side. Seay said just hearing them cheer for her makes her smile.
“I can tell when she’s playing badly and that’s why I’m going to call her,” Jerry said. “It’s nice to motivate them, but knowing that we are appreciated is great.”
Even after Puot and Seay graduated this year. Boston doesn’t see the momentum slowing, because its team has changed the way the Northern community looks at women’s basketball.
“It’s a tighter community,” Boston said. “They see that girls can play, they can be successful. The girls see they can play. The community has embraced them as good guys, good basketball players, and that’s great to see.”
Still some obstacles between North and the state tournament
The Polar Bears have come close to one game at Wells Fargo Arena in the past three seasons.
In 2020, North lost to Ankeny in the first round regional match. The Polar Bears made it to the regional semifinals a year later when Roosevelt eliminated them from the competition. Last year, eventual state champion Johnston dashed North’s hopes in the regional championship game.
This year won’t be easier.
North faces Waukee (10-11) in a regional semifinal on Saturday. If the Polar Bears get through that matchup, it will be Waterloo West (20-1) and Oklahoma will draft Sahara Williams, one of the top seniors in the country, between the North and the state tournament.
Boston will be happy regardless of the outcome of those two games.
“I never talk about winning,” Boston said. “The main thing is not basketball. He is teaching them things about life. If they enjoy it, get good grades and accept it, I appreciate it.
Puot, Jenkins, and Seay also take joy in learning about the impact they’ve had on the program. They take pride in representing their diverse community and like to flip the underdog script.
Few Iowa high school basketball fans expected North to do as well as he did this season. The Polar Bears’ historic run should end in one of the next two games. But for anyone who underestimated North or didn’t think the show could turn the tide, Puot has a message:
Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at [email protected] or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.