LEON – If you’ve spent any time around southwest Iowa sports, you’ve likely heard the name Emma Atwood.
The Central Decatur product has been wowing both her home town and opponents across three sports in four years, leaving a permanent mark on her home community of Leon and all of southwest Iowa as one of the most hard working and motivated athletes in recent memory.
The long nights at practice and motivation to achieve greatness made a mark permanent enough to secure the 2019 South Central Iowa Female Athlete of the Year Award.
“Obviously it’s an honor,” said Atwood, looking at the crystal award dignifying her. “It’s relieving that all the hard work I do in the offseason and during season pays off.”
While the talent was there from an early age, the ability to take that talent and push it to the next level didn’t take long to develop.
“Ever since I was little I always had the drive to work hard,” said Atwood. “It was just natural that I wanted to.”
Emma recalled going to early morning practices with her father, Manuel Atwood, when he was coaching junior high school basketball, as a contributing factor to what pushed her.
“I’d always go in early with him and practice with the boys on the side and I’d do all the drills they would do. Having that drive at a young age to want to work hard, I knew it was going to keep improving and I would keep working harder as I got older,” said Atwood.
The motivation to be better later on in life was sometimes subtle, like getting to practice before anyone else or going through her drills on an off day.
“When I’d come to practice she’d already be here with the lights on and the net set up and the balls ready,” said CD volleyball coach Chelsey Green. “She was always here before everyone and had everything ready and was warmed up.”
“She’s an extremely hard worker,” said Cardinals head girls basketball coach Curtis Boothe. “She’d put so much time into her shooting. ... She was early for practice and stayed late, even throughout the offseason.”
In other times her motivation was evident, like staying late until being forced out of the gym.
“We’d be done with practice and I’d have to tell her to go home. ... There were tons of times where I told her that she needed to (go home),” said Green.
“I do know for a fact that sometimes later in the evening she may have been kicked out of the gym by a janitor or two. It’s kind of hard to punish a kid who’s wanting to spend time in the gym,” said Boothe.
The extra reps and getting kicked out of the gym was a method to her madness for the Cardinals in volleyball as she racked up 790 career kills, 480 digs and 131 aces in her three-year career.
She received all-conference second team honors from the Pride of Iowa in her first season before getting bumped up to first team in her junior and senior seasons.
“Her presence on the floor, she just had that aura I guess to bring everyone together,” said Green. “They always knew that if we were in a pinch, get the ball to Emma because she’ll find a way to score.”
After sustaining an ACL injury her freshman year, which kept her out for nearly a full basketball season, Atwood dove head first into a memorable career that ended with her scoring 1,434 career points on 59.5 percent shooting.
A do-it-all type player for the Cardinals, Atwood was unfamiliar to a losing decision, losing just five times in her high school career – four coming in the state tournament.
On top of that, she was a first team all-conference member in her junior and senior seasons, was voted second team all-state by the IPSWA this past winter (her third all-state selection total) and was nominated as a Wendy’s Heisman of the year candidate in Iowa in 2018.
“All of the hard work and the dedication she had before games kind of set her apart,” said Boothe. “The desire to win once the game started (set her apart) also.”
Athleticism in volleyball and basketball translated well in track and field, putting together a memorable career on the track that saw her grab her first state titles.
The leading point scorer for CD in her freshman, sophomore and junior year, according to head coach Jacob Stamper, Atwood was a key member of a team that rose through the Pride of Iowa ranks.
“She came in and worked hard and set an example for the girls,” said Stamper. “She’s meant a lot to us and kind of helped us be relevant these last two years with the trips to state.”
After finishing second and third in high jump years prior, her championship-caliber potential was met when she claimed the Class 1A high jump state championship in her final meet this past spring.
About an hour later she clinched first in Class 1A in the 100-meter hurdles for her second state title.
Despite the pure joy of winning her first title, the always humble Atwood wished the teammates she went to state in shuttle hurdle with could have been there with her to share the victory.
“It was fun winning the hurdles and high jump, but I would have enjoyed it more if it was shuttle (hurdle) so I could share it with my teammates,” said Atwood. “That bond with my friends. I’m going to miss that the most.”
Looking back across the storied careers leaves Atwood with strong memories of what she grew up with in Leon.
“All the success has been awesome and I’m always going to remember that, but the bonds with my teammates and definitely the feeling of playing with my best friends in basketball and the atmosphere here by the community,” said Atwood.
Emma closes the chapter on her high school career with her name listed on the Central Decatur school record boards multiple times, creating bench marks for the future generation of athletes who want to work hard, if not harder, than her.
“In a way it kind of sets the bar high for younger girls. A lot of people know that I work hard. They’ll always see me in the gym shooting, lifting or working out or up on the track running. I think my name on the board is a bar set so people know that people get there if they work hard,” said Atwood.
Knowing Atwood was one of the best to ever play for Central Decatur, her coaches were quick to acknowledge that she was not just a hard working athlete, but a hard working person in life also.
“She truly was just an inspiration to me and I think all of the athletes at Central Decatur,” said Green. “She was an all-around good person and I think everyone here kind of wants to be like her. ... In school, in practice, she’s never been the one to slack at any aspect of her life.”
“I think we’re extremely blessed to have kids that are dedicated like Emma and want to really improve to a certain standard,” said Boothe.
“She doesn’t like to step on people’s toes,” said Stamper. “To see her grow from seventh grade and to watch her and coach her her senior year, that growth and where she has made it to, she’s the pinnacle of what you want to be as a high school athlete.”
One of her biggest influences, her father has been with her from the start of her career.
“He’s always been involved with basketball and that’s kind of where that love for the sport came from. Always being with him and around basketball and doing the book for him when I was little at junior high games also.”
Outside of family, Atwood gave credit to her basketball coach of four years for pushing her to the level she’s at and for being a positive influence on her and her teammates.
“Coach Boothe always has been like a second dad to me,” said Atwood. “How he always cares about people and his love for the game. ... You always want to be around him.
“Having those two guys to look up to and teach you to love the sports in the right way (was important).”
The relationship between Boothe and the Atwood family extends beyond the high school basketball season, with Boothe’s daughter Raegan, being close friends with Emma and Boothe’s son, Carter, being friends with Emma’s brother, Grant.
The families themselves are friends, which only bolstered the relationship between Boothe and Atwood on the court.
“It’s a nice thing to have a player think of you as a second father, but we always wanted what was best for her,” said Boothe. “Emma had thrived in that situation and loved basketball and it really was a lot of fun to be able to coach her.
The next level
Emma will begin her college basketball career not too far from home, heading 80 miles away to Maryville, Missouri to play basketball for Northwest Missouri State University at the Division II level.
As she moves on to the next chapter, Atwood is thankful for what has led her to this point in her life, but an ‘excited nervous’ for what lays ahead.
“It just all paid off,” said Atwood. “I’m happy that I get to compete at the next level because of it.”