Cordell Pemsl is not headed to the Hawkeyes as a blue-chip prospect and surefire Big Ten star.
But Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is getting a player with enough honors and hardware to already have a spot in the Iowa High School Athletic Association's basketball hall of fame:
Four years of varsity experience in the Mississippi Valley Conference.
The top scoring mark at Dubuque Wahlert, which makes its record 29th state tournament appearance on Tuesday.
Two Class 3A state titles.
The 6-foot-8-inch post player has battled injuries and opposing fans and a lack of recruiting buzz, but his resume is impossible to ignore.
If Wahlert wins a third straight title this week at Wells Fargo Arena, Pemsl will become one of Iowa prep basketball’s all-time greats.
“Unfortunately, kids are often judged on what’s ahead of them instead of what they’ve accomplished,” Wahlert coach Tom English said. “People are kind of waiting and seeing what Cordell’s role is going to be at the University of Iowa. What position is he going to play? When is he going to start contributing? Is he going to redshirt?
“If you’re looking strictly at high school careers, goodness. I don’t know how you could argue with what Cordell’s done.”
In the state tournament’s 103 years of operation, only six teams have won three straight championships. Wahlert begins its quest for a three-peat at 2 p.m. Tuesday against fourth-ranked MOC-Floyd Valley (21-3).
Pemsl will be a popular quarterfinal figure. He leads the Golden Eagles (19-5) with career bests in points (21.8) and rebounds (10.2) — the fourth straight year he's led the team in those categories — as he chases history at the state tourney.
“I appreciate the accolades and honors, but I’ve just kind of shaken them off the last couple years,” Pemsl said Sunday. “Going for a second and third championship have been more important than anything I can win individually. The records are significant, but I think it’ll take a little while to sink in.”
Even with a personality big enough to match his 240-pound frame, Pemsl’s profile has been limited by a litany of injuries. A separated shoulder as a sophomore was followed by a torn meniscus in his junior season and he underwent a knee osteotomy last May.
“People saw him play hurt,” Iowa City West coach Steve Bergman said. “If they watched film as this year has gone along, they’d be awful impressed.
“I’m amazed at how cavalierly it’s assumed teams will win state tournaments. If it’s that easy, why did Ricky Davis not win one or Jess Settles or Raef LaFrentz? The attitude is, who wouldn’t win a state title with that talent? It’s really, really hard.”
Rehab dropped him from the summer AAU circuit, which in turn dropped him out of the Rivals 150 recruiting list. He’s a consensus three-star prospect, but concerns linger.
The breakdown doesn’t sound like some of Iowa’s other legends; Al Lorenzen, LaFrentz, Nick Collison, Harrison Barnes and Marcus Paige have all been Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-Americans.
“I’ve seen Cordell dating back to his freshman year,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Snow said last summer. “I think he’s a role guy at the Big Ten level. He’s a tough kid, but a little undersized and not an elite athlete by any stretch. He’ll have to get healthy and work on his body, but he’s got a solid future.”
The bruising post player squashed any potential recruiting drama by committing to the Hawkeyes early, too. On May 1, 2014, fresh off his first title, he pledged to stay in-state with McCaffery.
That allowed the nit-picking and unfair comparisons to begin for the talented and capable but below-the-rim post.
“Cordell is a team-first guy and to me that’s most important,” English said. “There are a lot of Division I kids that don’t even make it to the state tournament, let alone win one or two or more. I think sometimes we take it for granted, and sometimes we take him for granted. It’s pretty special what he’s helped lead this program to.”
Pemsl pays attention to the noise. It’s motivation for his grinding game, which has worked with a talented supporting cast. Wings Josh Carter and Nolan Timp and guards Jared Walker and David Wedewer have all averaged double-digits scoring in the last three seasons.
“I hear what people say; I’m on social media,” Pemsl said. “I never respond. I try to shake it off and not let it get to me. I hear, ‘Oh, he’s never been 100 percent. He’s not going to North Carolina or Duke or he’s not that good.’
“But I’m not going to sit on my phone and type back to people that aren’t in my situation. I use that as fuel for the team and it’s been working for us.”
Opponents recognize his versatile skill set. Add in a propensity for on-court chatter and his school’s 3A powerhouse status, and games can become a frustrating experience.
All Wahlert has done with Pemsl in the lineup is win.
"I've played against him since sixth grade,” Dowling Catholic center Ted Brown said.
"He's always been good. His team was always humongous and no one wanted to play them. He's always had good touch and now he can shoot outside. He's just developed his game."
The 18-year-old says he feels sharper and more explosive on this playoff run than ever before. That’s good news for Iowa fans who may have been nervous about his November signing.
“He had surgery that I think will correct any future problems,” McCaffery said at Iowa’s National Signing Day news conference. “Of course you never know, but it really looks like he’s in a good place physically now, and there is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to have a great impact for a long time.”
Pemsl hasn’t put up gaudy high school statistics like Palmer’s Troy Skinner or Paullina’s Randy Kraayenbrink, or stunned crowds like Iowa City West’s Glen Worley or even Mason City’s Dean Oliver. He certainly isn’t a Cinderella story like the “Roland Rocket” Gary Thompson.
But for ruthless efficiency — nearly 60 percent field goal shooting over four years — and winning consistently against mostly top 4A competition, there haven’t been many better.
“It’s amazing,” Bergman said. “The first thing you figure out when you play Wahlert is who you can leave so you can go double Cordell. He’s seen every defense.
“I’ll give our league some of that credit too, because Wahlert gets to play a level of competition that not many in 3A get to play.”
And he’s leaving quite a legacy behind before he heads to Iowa City.
“I’ve had a great career at Wahlert, but it’s not over yet,” Pemsl said. “We have one final goal and we’re three games away from it.”
CORDELL PEMSL CAREER STATS
SEASON GP PPG RPG BPG FG%
2012-13: 21 12.9 8.2 1.1 55.6
2013-14: 27 15.5 9.1 1.1 59.7
2014-15: 20 17.3 8.9 1.2 57.9
2015-16: 24 21.8 10.2 1.4 64.3
State Only: 6 13.3 10.0 0.7 54.2
Career: 92 16.9 9.1 1.2 59.9