CASSELTON — For the last two years, the No. 4 Maple Valley High School girls basketball team has operated like a well-oiled machine.
The formula essentially comes down to Rylee Nudell setting the tone with plenty of points in the paint, then getting a bit of assistance from a deep supporting cast.
But Thursday at Central Cass, the home Squirrels threw a wrench into the equation, putting Nudell at a major size disadvantage, then keeping her guards from getting open looks in a 54-34 loss for the Raiders.
"You know what? They're a great team," said Maple Valley coach Jeff Miller. "They've got some big girls and some big size, and we struggled with it."
Most notably, it was in the post, where Nudell, who is 5 foot 10 inches, has had little trouble against sizable defenders this season, but was consistently stopped by Faith Dooley, who stands six feet three inches.
If that wasn't enough, Central Cass kept close tabs on guards Abbie Tinjum and Cassie Pautz, two of the Raiders' main scoring sources. Though Nudell had 17 points in the game, Ashley Punton was the only other player that scored more than four points for the Raiders.
Despite the scoring troubles, the game was close for the majority of the contest.
Dooley opened the game with a layup for Central Cass, but Pautz responded with a 3-pointer to give Maple Valley their only lead of the game with 6:56 left in the first.
It was the only shot Pautz made all night.
From there, the Squirrels went on a 10-0 run to make it 12-3 with 4:09 left, but Nudell and Megan Kasowski put together a short run to make it 12-10. Cass finished the quarter up 18-12.
In the second quarter, the Central Cass defense started to bear down on Tinjum and Pautz, giving sophomore Ashley Punton many of the open looks.
"They kept pressure on Abbie, Cassie and Rylee, and the other girls, they really just sagged completely off them and let them shoot," Miller said.
Punton came through on multiple occasions, hitting two shots in the second quarter to break a scoring drought and start a run that narrowed Cass lead to 28-22 by halftime.
The struggles continued as the Raiders scored only 12 points in the second half, including six from Nudell, four from Tinjum and two from Katie Pautz.
Nudell's 17 led the Raiders and Punton finished with 6.
Hannah Breske led Central Cass with 17 points and Dooley had 12.
The loss, though big, was only Maple Valley's second of the year, the first coming in overtime to Valley City early in the season.
Miller said he hopes his team can use the game as a learning experience and improve on it when they play the Squirrels at home later this month.
"I told them 'You're going to lose some games, you're going to fail. It's what you do next. You can't sit and dwell on this, it's what you do next,'" Miller said. "This is an important game, but it wasn't the most important. I think we'll be alright."