By Jim Connell (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Daniel Cutbirth knows he has a huge job ahead of him.
He was the boys’ basketball coach for seven seasons at Aurora High School, and this year he’s taking the reins at Willard. The big challenge isn’t because of the school he’s at, but because he’ll be toiling in the Central Ozark Conference this season.
“I’ve coached against COC guys, but I haven’t coached a full season against them,” Cutbirth said. “It’s going to be very challenging, and it’s going to be a learning experience.
“But if you want to be a top-level coach in southwest Missouri, that’s where you want to be.”
Waiting for him at Willard is a group that is guard-heavy, with a group of quick and skilled players at his disposal.
Lost to graduation was center Houston Johnson, a second team All-COC pick who averaged 12.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as a senior.
Kenny Chambers leads a group of seven seasoned players back for Cutbirth this season. Chambers was an honorable mention all-conference pick as a junior, and the 6-foot, 170-pounder averaged 11 points per game last season. Cutbirth called him a “lock-down defender” and one of the most explosive players he’s ever coached.
Also back are 5-foot-10 senior Kobe Holloman, who averaged 5.0 ppg last season and is a difference-maker on the defensive end and on the boards; Quinton Batson, a 6-foot-3 senior who is a standout leader on the floor, 6-foot-4 sophomore Daniel Abreu, who averaged 7.0 ppg as a freshman, 5-foot-10 senior Elijah Davis, who brings quickness and athleticism to the court, 5-foot-10 senior Riley Young and 6-foot-2 sophomore Maurice Grayer.
“As far as basketball skill-set, this is probably the best team I’ve ever had,” Cutbirth said. “I’ve never had as many kids as skilled and as athletic as I have here.”
There are a group of newcomers who could make an immediate impact on the team.
Topping that list is 6-foot-2 senior Austin Biellier, a high-energy player and standout athlete, plus Ethan Burson, a 6-foot-5 senior who will get the first opportunity to replace Johnson. Isaac Davis is a 6-foot-3 sophomore who should get immediate playing time on the front line, and Reese Dawson is a 6-foot-2 sophomore.
The absence of Dawson is one of the biggest areas of improvement Willard’s first-year coach needs to see.
“I think we’re really going to have to improve on our rebounding,” Cutbirth said. “That’s something we didn’t do very well this summer, and also our shot percentage on 3-pointers. We’ve spent a lot of time on that in the offseason.
“This bunch is so used to going downhill, we’re been focusing on shooting, rather than putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim.”
The junior class includes the 6-foot-1 Nathan Bushnell, and a pair of 5-foot-10 players in Dominic Hauck and Karden Cornell.
The young players on the roster will get a chance to earn playing time right from the start, Cutbirth said.
“We have a lot of sophomores who have gotten better,” Cutbirth said. “A lot of our success will depend on how game-ready they’ll be. They are very good and talented, but there’s a big difference in coming off the bench and playing JV, and starting and having a lot of responsibility on varsity.
“They have to be the man this year.”