By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
After losing the essential pieces from back-to-back 20-win teams, last year should have been a rebuilding year for Rolla.
And, after losing its first four games to start the season, it seemed like that’s exactly where the Bulldogs were headed…
But a seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season helped right Rolla’s ship. The Bulldogs would finish 15-12, advancing to the district championship for the third year in a row.
Now, with three starters and several lettermen from last year’s team returning, Rolla will again be fighting for an Ozark Conference title and Class 4 Final Four run.
It all starts with seniors Josh Pritchett and Nick Janke.
Pritchett, a 6-foot-4 wing, has already received an offer from Washburn while several other D-2 programs continue to recruit him after averaging 16.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a junior.
He’s also coming off of a strong football campaign as a quarterback.
He’ll have plenty of options collegiately, but Rolla head coach Mark Miller believes he’s a unique basketball talent.
“Josh is not only a highly skilled player but he’s also an extreme competitor,” said Miller. “You have to guard him tight on the perimeter because he shoots it well from 3 but with his long first step, good size and good hops, he can get to the rack and finish well too. He’s got good instincts to throw on top of all that. Probably best of all, he’s a very high quality young man.”
Returning to Rolla’s starting lineup is 6-foot-5 big Janke, who averaged 8.9 points (68% FG), 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks last season.
In a conference lacking quality big men, Janke is one of the best in the Ozarks, especially defensively.
Junior point guard Blaize Klossner is also back for the Bulldogs. Klossner led the Bulldogs in 3-point FG percentage last season, knocking down 46 percent of his attempts.
Miller is extremely excited about the growth he’s seen in other returners.
Senior Aaron Cunningham, a 6-foot-4 post offers another interior presence for Rolla. Classmates Jake Grooms and Isaac Arthur will provide backcourt depth.
Junior guards Alec Buhr and Coby Martin, have both shown tremendous development in the offseason. Miller believe they’ve progressed more than any other players in the program.
Juniors RJ Alfred and Trey Quick, as well as Sophomore guard Muluken Pritchett will all be battling for varsity minutes.
Miller is high on the depth and versatility of this roster, which should again allow them to pressure in the full and half court, while also forcing tempo offensively and taking advantage of mismatches.
His system is why Rolla scored 70 or more points on 13 different occasions last year. This after scoring 80 or more nine times in 2015-16.
“I think it all starts on the defensive end,” said Miller. “We try to speed teams up and try to get them in turnover situations. Defensive scores are usually less contested and allow easier shots. We try to push the ball every trip and we’re not afraid to pull the good 3-point look. I don’t think it’s anything unique to us though, it just seems to be the way the game itself has evolved.”
All signs point to Rolla having an opportunity to play in the state playoffs and potentially making an elusive Final Four run after coming up short in the last few seasons.
In 2014-15 the Bulldogs only regular-season losses came to Class 5 Waynesville. Rolla beat Hillcrest during the regular season by 35 points, only to be upset by that same Hillcrest team in the Class 4 Elite Eight.
The very next year Rolla again went unbeaten against Class 4 competition, with its only losses coming to Class 5 Ozark and Kickapoo. But, the Bulldogs would again be upset by a team they defeated during the regular season, this time at the hands of rival Helias Catholic.
Helias has beaten Rolla in each of the last two district titles. Miller and company are hoping they can end that skid this season.
“This team definitely has the potential to turn out to a great season,” said Miller. “If they work together with intensity and attention to detail, they could enjoy quite a run this year.”