Others who happened to see her in action in fifth-grade Parks & Recreation games took second looks, or simply sat down and watched as this diminutive "Energizer Bunny" dazzled teammates and opponents alike with her incredible skills, a nose for the basketball, and a hustle and killer instinct that can't be taught on the basketball court.
I'm speaking about Autumn Bartel, now a Morningside College senior who just helped guide the Mustangs to an NAIA Division II National Championship with a perfect 38-0 record. A second-team All-American pick last year when Morningside finished second to fellow Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) rival Northwestern College in Orange City, Bartel was not only a first-team All-American selection this year, but also was named National Championship MVP for leading the Mustangs to its historic 2008-2009 season.
For the record, Bartel helped lead Cherokee to the State Basketball Tournament in her sophomore and senior seasons, with her junior year ending in a heartbreaking loss to Okoboji in District finals when shaky officiating sent the Pioneers to the foul line 46 times.
Bartel's senior year, Cherokee was 25-0 regular season and finished 26-1 in a loss to Guthrie Center in the State Tournament semifinals, again a controversial end for the WHS gals in a foul-plagued game.
In a recent telephone interview, Autumn told me she was surprised that Cherokee still remembered her and that it was quite an honor to be named NAIA MVP and to finish her career with a National Championship as a first-team All-American.
"There's no better way to go out," said the daughter of Dale and Linda Bartel of Cherokee, who also sports a flashy 3.8 GPA in her Biology/Chemistry majors.
"My passion growing up was basketball and it's gratifying to know that all the hard work paid off," continued the WHS grad, who plans on becoming a doctor after graduating in the future from Des Moines University.
"My parents raised me that if you do anything, give it your all or don't do it. Sports were always big in my family. I remember starting out throwing the ball at a Fisher-Price toy basket when I was three. Dad's Emery, S.D. team won the State Championship and he was an all-stater so I think I got my love of basketball from him, although my mom was really good in track and field in high school."
Autumn told me the fact that she and her team are National Champions has finally sunk in after two weeks, but that her MVP and first-team All-American honors "are hard to grasp. I'm so much a team player that it overshadows the rest of that stuff," said the modest repeat prep all-stater.
As one who attends basketball games as part of his job, I've seen thousands of games and thousands of players at all levels in my lengthy newspaper career. Autumn Bartel was and remains the very essence of a team player. She knew when to defer to teammates, when to turn up the heat on defense and offense, and when to strike that fatal blow with the game on the line in the closing seconds. Most importantly, if coach had a game plan, rest assured it would be followed to the letter.
Coach Sale utilizes a four-guard squad with a single post player, which allows his best athletes (speed, quickness, savvy) to employ a tenacious full-court defense, and an explosive offense with the players able to execute from any spot on the floor.
Bartel was his point guard and started for the Mustangs all four years, although any of the four could play the point and sometimes did. "All our parts were interchangeable," explained Bartel. "We pushed the ball and played defense or else we sat and watched."
When asked about her incredible achievements despite her small stature (listed at a wiry 5-9), Bartel said, "My stature is deceiving. I'm quicker and stronger that opponents may realize, and maybe they always underestimated me a little bit."
No ship, Sherlock.
Autumn also added that at crunch time, extra adrenaline would kick in, she'd have more energy and "spunk in my step," and had the necessary confidence to make the big shot, or get the big steal or rebound to seal the deal. "I knew I had put the work in," noted Autumn.
I've got a boat-load of Morningside season and career basketball records that Autumn is involved in. In just her final, stellar season, she led her team in scoring, three-point and free throw shooting accuracy, and field goals. She was the GPAC Defensive MVP. She put the team on her back in the National Tournament to lead them at both ends of the court to five straight wins to close out the perfect season.
There's much more, but statistics sometimes bore me and hearing them recited makes Autumn blush, so end of that story.
Above it all - the incomparable basketball and academic successes, the countless plaudits on both state and national levels, the wonderful memories, the cherished teammates and coaches, and the game she so dearly loves - the fact that this community and I cared enough to follow her storied career admittedly overwhelms her.
"I just want to say, "Thank You' to those who followed me. Cherokee is such a special place," said Autumn. "I've got so many great memories from high school. When dad would tell me about the Cherokee fans he saw at my (Morningside) games, it made me play a little harder so I wouldn't disappoint anybody."
(Editor's note: Using the words Autumn Bartel and disappoint in the same sentence has never happened before and will never happen again.)
I don't know about you readers, but I don't personally know too many National Champions, first-team All-Americans, and National Championship MVPs. But I know Autumn Bartel and what a privilege it was to report on her incomparable prep career here.
And although her legendary basketball career may be over, while in medical school Autumn said she will probably play a little rec league basketball in Des Moines.
Pity the fools on the other team. Of either gender.