By Kary Booher
It’s one thing when a basketball coach relishes a late-season district tournament that includes tough teams, including the defending Class 2 state champs. Hey, if you want to be the best, gotta beat the best.
Fortunately for Fordland High School boys basketball coach Terry Mitchell, his players apparently share his perspective.
“They’re looking at it as, ‘Why not us?’” Mitchell said. “They see it as a positive thing to play Hartville and Mountain Grove and all those teams. And I think that’s the jump we made this summer. They want to play those teams.”
Fordland certainly could have a say in the Summit Conference and Class 2 District 4 this season, given the Eagles return four starters and, rotation-wise, really only need to determine who will be the eighth and final player.
It’s a good problem to have after the Eagles finished 16-11 last season, although Fordland was a first-round casualty in the district tournament.
However, Mitchell is excited for a number of other reasons, partly because the team gained some mileage over the summer in a couple of key areas – defense and confidence. The first usually leads to the second.
“That’s what held us back last year,” Mitchell said of defense. “Over the summer, we really made it a focus. There were several games last year were we really needed a stop and didn’t get it.”
The Eagles have the pieces to contend. The returning starters are Noah Abbasi, Noah Sparks, Corey Sampaio and Hunter Burks. The rest of the rotation includes sophomore point guard Jake Farnsworth, Josh Holmes and Hunter Young.
Sampaio’s fearlessness could fuel the defensive intensity.
“He’s a blue-collar worker. He loves to play defense and rebound,” Mitchell said. “He’s got a little better on offense, too, so he might surprise some people. But he dives for loose balls and that’s a kid you have to have if you are going to win games.”
Another key on defense could be Abbasi, a 6-foot-2 player who, on offense, is a threat inside and outside after averaging 18 points and six rebounds a game last season.
“He really took a big step this summer and became a better defender,” Mitchell said. “I think he’s looking forward to having a big senior year.”
Sparks averaged 14 points and six rebounds a game last year.
“He’s kind of a slasher, but he got into the weight room this summer,” Mitchell said.
Fordland’s two guards, both sophomores, also will be a factor. Burks will play the two-guard spot, while Farnsworth will handle the point. Burks averaged nine points and eight rebounds a game last season, when Farnsworth five points and two assists.
“If (Burks) plays like he can play, he can be one of the better players in the area,” Mitchell said. “As a freshman last year, he was always around a double-double. He’s just all kinds of athletic.”
Farnsworth is a good outside shooter but is learning to play under control.
“Our guard play is going to be a lot better,” Mitchell said. “These kids are going to be a lot more comfortable.”
For Mitchell, the team is shaping up the way he envisioned when he took the job before last season. He is 201-99 with stops at Chadwick, Hurley and Dora and jumped at the Fordland job because it is closer to home.
“I like this district, but that’s me,” Mitchell said. “If you win it, no one can say it was handed to you.”