By Jordan Burton
Class 3 in the Ozarks is about as rugged as it gets. Three teams are currently ranked and three others have spent time in the state’s top 10. While each district’s 1-seed is a monster, there are several contenders that could knock them off. I have zero doubt that the Ozarks will be represented in Columbia, the million dollar question is who will it be and can they knock off Cardinal Ritter?
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District 10 at Cabool
Favorite: Mountain Grove
It’s impossible for me to look at this team and not see them as the favorite in the Ozarks and a team with a legitimate shot to win it all. Mountain Grove did nothing but pass test after test throughout the regular season, playing one of the most challenging schedules you’ll see at the small-school level. The Panthers also picked up road wins over Conway, Mansfield and Licking. along with home wins over Thayer, Liberty, Fair Grove and Hartville. Neutral-court wins over Catholic, Mansfield, Rogersville and Hartville. They played an absolute gauntlet and the Panthers two losses came against Class 4 schools Bolivar and Rogersville by a combined six points and that was eight weeks ago. A perfect 15-0 mark in 2017 with 12 of those wins coming by 10-plus shows just where this team is at mentally. Duane Hiler’s system is a perfect fit for his interchangeable parts and sideline break. Five guys average double figures – Brock Coffman (16 PPG, 7 RPG), Treye Collins (13 PPG, 7 APG), Cade Coffman (13 PPG, 5 RPG), Carter Otwell (12 PPG, 5 APG) and Connor McNew (12 PPG) – and they all know what it takes to get to Columbia. Success breeds more success and these guys have won in football, basketball, baseball and track. Their grit makes it impossible to pick against them in a one-game, winner-take-all format.
Top Challenger: Licking
This is one of those unfortunate scenarios where two of the best teams in the state just happen to be housed in the same district. Can Licking win this district? Certainly. But can and will are two different things. Licking’s resume is also stellar, with wins over Thayer and Liberty, but the Cats haven’t been tested in the same way Mountain Grove has. What Licking does possess is one of the toughest duos in Class 3; 6-foot-5 seniors Nathan Wilson and Brady Smith. Their size makes them difficult to matchup with. Wilson has a feather soft touch and has no problem posting up or facing up. Smith is a guard with serious athleticism. When they bring it they are difficult to stop and nearly impossible to do so without bringing help. If they turn in superstar performances this team could be Columbia bound.
From a purely physical standpoint you can make a case that this roster has the best combination of size and athleticism in the district; the Eagles have four players between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8. It’s never been a question of talent for Liberty as its well seemingly never runs dry. But, the Eagles haven’t won a district championship since Jaelon Acklin was a junior (2012). Four of their nine losses came against Thayer by a combined 21 points. Licking only beat them by nine, but Hartville and Grove nearly turbo clocked them. Liberty has a three-headed monster of its own in Josh Pruett (14.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.9 APG), Matt Coatney (12.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Shalin Stout (11 PPG, 6.7 RPG). This team is a dangerous matchup for Licking in that semifinal (upset special) but it’ll take better guard play for them to upset Grove too.
District 11 at Fair Grove
This is truly a spooky district. Fair Grove is the 1-seed, but I don’t think there is a true favorite in the district, just five or six teams that could win it. Fair Grove is easily the most talented team in the district and won the title last year. Clever returned several major pieces from a team that earned the top seed in 2015-16 and Catholic might have the best resume out of all of them.
Favorite: Fair Grove
Fair Grove has more experience than anyone in the district. Garrett Kesterson (21.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and Evan Fullerton (11.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG) are four-year lettermen that have been through the wars. Steven Huskey (10.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG) was a key contributor on last year’s quarterfinal team, as was senior guard Dalton Cloyd. Of the Eagles five losses, four came by seven points or less. The lone lopsided loss (56-41) came against Class 4 No. 5 Bolivar. Tim Brown knows he has a special group and things have been building towards this year. The loss to Catholic earlier this week could serve as the perfect wake-up call. It’s also worth noting that the Eagles have won 22 of their last 24 home games, hosting the tournament will be a huge advantage.
Top Challenger: Clever
The Blue Jays may routinely be one of the most disrespected teams in the Ozarks at the state-level; over the last two years they’ve rarely gotten love from the pollsters. A loss to the defending Class 2 state champ, as well as losses to Class 4 Marshfield and St. Joe’s Benton and Class 5 Willard and Parkview, are quality Ls. The Hartville game was a battle (61-55), the Marshfield loss was by a bucket (46-45) and the Benton loss came in double OT. Clever has been tested and Luke Brosius likes where his group is at. The SWCL champs enter district play with wins in 11 of their last 12 games and one of Class 3’s best weapons in 6-foot-6 senior Jakob Partee.
Sleeper probably isn’t the best adjective to use when talking about Catholic. The Fighting Irish are clearly back after a slight rebuild, owning wins over Mansfield, Rogersville and Fair Grove. They’ve been a little inconsistent, but most of that comes because Tony Armstrong’s top four players are sophomores or juniors. Honestly, this Catholic team is a year early. Next year they’ll be one of the top Class 3 teams in the state so this year is almost like they’re playing with house money.
Budding Star: Cole Gilpin, Fair Grove
He’s just a freshman, but Fair Grove’s ability to make a run may rest between the ears of freshman guard Cole Gilpin. He’s had an incredible freshman season (13 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.9 RPG) and the Eagles are really good when he plays at a high level. Fair Grove is 11-1 when Gilpin hands out five or more assists. When he’s attacking and creating for others he helps alleviate the pressure on Garrett Kesterson and Gilpin has enough options to find someone in a scoring position. It’s a tough role to fill, but he’s more than capable of guiding the Fair Grove ship to CoMo.
X-Factor: Ian Cochran, Catholic
The 6-foot-7 junior has been starting since Day One at Catholic and this is the first time he’ll compete in a district tournament with a chance to make a run. The Irish have stellar sophomore guards in Charlie O’Reilly and Jake Branham, but if Cochran (9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 58% FG) is able to get it going on the block this team becomes difficult to defend. If he can anchor the paint, this team might challenge for a Final Four run sooner rather than later.
Upset Alert: Strafford vs. Forsyth
This is an intriguing 4/5 matchup. Strafford is the 4-seed and while this Mike Wilson team doesn’t have the top end talent of recent Strafford teams, this is still a Mike Wilson team. The Indians struggled out of the gate, but have won nine of their last 11 entering district play. This is also a team that has played a rugged schedule. Senior guard Tyler Winburn (15 PPG, 40% 3FG) has had a solid senior year, but the emergence of sophomore Riley Oberbeck (12 PPG, 5 RPG) has added another dynamic for this team. On the other hand Forsyth has given Fair Grove two competitive games and beating a good team three times is tough to do. Regardless of who wins, Fair Grove will have its hands full in the district semifinals.
District 12 at Seneca
So much for being just a football school. In former Missouri Southern guard Tyler Ryerson’s first year Lamar has looked like a team capable of making a Final Four run. The Tigers haven’t been challenged quite as much as their counterparts to the East, but Lamar continues to beat nearly whoever is in front of them. Lamar lost to three Class 4 teams (Hillcrest, Webb City & Aurora). The Aurora loss on Friday was a little head-scratching, but the Tigers will still be the favorite. Picking them as the favorite is more about the eye test and knowing what this team is made of. The Webb City game was basically the team’s first of the season after getting everyone back from football and it was the Cardinals home opener. Could they have competed better? Yes. Is that indicative of who they are as a team? Not at all. Lamar has a legit big in 6-foot-6 senior Sam Timmons (17 PPG, 7 RPG, 1.5 BPG), his partner is crime in 6-foot-5 senior Trey Mooney (14.5 PPG, 7 RPG) and a solid point guard in junior Ian Moore (11.5 PPG, 3 APG). Not to mention a slew of athletes that can defend, rebound and are capable scorers. Last year this group was upset by East Newton in the district championship and they appear eager to erase that memory.
Top Challenger: Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon reminds me a little bit of that Hillcrest team that went to the Final Four two years ago. The ‘Neers had a dreadful start to the season, losing six of their first eight games. There aren’t very many games on the Mount Vernon schedule that aren’t quality and they’ve been pretty competitive with everyone. They gave Clever (70-68), Lamar (59-57) and Catholic (55-47) everything they could handle. Mike Ray has an imposing team because of their size and physicality. Seniors Jarrett Massie and Brett Campbell are essentially combo guards that can post to take advantage of good matchups. They also have frames that allow them to attack, handle contact and finish. Mixed with 6-foot-7 post Kyle Bushman, Mount Vernon can find ways to grind out points and force you to defend the entire floor. Mount Vernon hasn’t won a district championship since 2012, but this group is playing its best basketball at the right time.
The Bears are an interesting team in this bracket because of Kaleb Kauffman. They’re just a shade over .500 and have seen several qualities opponents, but Kauffman’s ability to go off on a given night, in a district with multiple offensively-challenged teams, is intriguing. Kauffman is putting up 21.9 PPG and has scored 500 points with four 30-point games. Butler is 6-2 when he goes for 25-plus with one of those wins coming against a solid Adrian team.
X-Factor: Ian Moore, Lamar
Lamar has everything you want right now with athletic bigs, depth, versatility and just enough intangibles. But, the key to the Tigers marching through March will be Moore. When he has it going he’s one of the top guards in the area, having the ability to score at all three levels and create for himself or others. Having a guard that can go get a bucket at anytime is a game changer at this point of the season. If he’s playing at a high level I don’t see anyone knocking off the Tigers in district play. This could be the start of his coming out party.