By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Rory Henry and Walnut Grove have created a mini Blue and Gold and Pink and White north of Springfield. There will be four ranked teams in action and several others deserving of a state rank. Here are some of the things to know about the 2017 Walnut Grove Tournament.
On the boys side the Tigers are the top seed and deservedly so. Don’t get hung up on the losses, again, playing without Hunter Gilkey for an extended period of time will only make this team better. However, there’s whispers that Gilkey could be returning sooner rather than later. If that’s the case, the Tigers shouldn’t have a problem defending their top seed. Senior Logan Thomazin is averaging 25 a night, juniors Ryan Keith and Dawson Meinders are adding 14 each. They’re the favorite but, they’ll have plenty of competition.
Forsyth is the 2-seed and the biggest school in the tournament. You can also make a case that the Panthers have the tournaments best scorer (Micaiah Rocha; 20.2 PPG) and best defender (Anthony Stanford; 10.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3 blocks). They also own wins over Marshfield and Strafford.
Verona (6-2) got the 3-seed. The Wildcats gave Walnut Grove in a chippy season-opener back in November. Verona also has wins over Pierce City, Marionville and Greenfield. Juniors Caleb Hillhouse and Eddie Gutierrez can fill it up in a hurry
Pierce City is about as strong of a 4-seed that you’ll find. Keep in mind, this was a district championship team last year in Class 2 and returns a ton from that team. Senior big Hunter Tindall will be the most imposing post presence in the field. The Eagles have won four straight since that loss to Verona, including a win over Billings
Fordland lost a ton to graduation last spring, but the Eagles have reloaded behind Hunter Burks. They enter the tournament with losses in three of their last four, but are capable of making a run. Burks was averaging 28 PPG through Fordland’s first six game.
Billings got the 6-seed and will be an awkward matchup for anyone. Senior Luke Johnson (19.3 points, 3.3 assists) and junior Tyler Essick (14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds) give Kendall Tilley a pair of explosive scorers that can take over any game. Billings enters the tournament with five straight wins and a quality 3-point road loss to Pierce City.
It’ll be tough for Richland to make a run as the 10-seed, but they’ll have one of the field’s top players in sophomore Ethan Fagre. The 6-foot-1 wing is averaging 20.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field and 45 percent from deep. He’s one of those kids that is explosive enough to will his team to an upset.
On the girls side Walnut Grove is again the favorite and at this point I’m unwilling to say it’ll be close. Last year Pierce City beat Grove inn the semifinals and I’m sure the Lady Tigers haven’t forgotten. They’ve been the area’s most dominant team aside from defending state champs Strafford and Skyline. WG has beaten everyone by at least 20 points with Ozark being the outlier (54-39). Bayley Harman is bucketing people to death, but the play freshmen Faith Gilkey, Makayla McVay and Lauren Johnson – along with all the returners Grove has – elevated the level of this team. They’re legitimately one of the best teams in the area, regardless of class, and their ability to pressure teams 1-5 makes them extremely difficult to contend with. Again, they held a good Class 5 Ozark team to 39 points.
The Walnut Grove Tournament is the deepest in the Ozarks this season outside of the Pink and White. To put it in perspective, Miller is 6-1 with an average margin of victory sitting at 22 and the lone loss to Class 4 Marshfield by four and the Lady Cards received an 8-seed. Hannah Wilkerson (yes, legendary scorer and Miller alum Hannah Wilkerson) has this team playing at a high level. That just speaks to the depth of the field.
Pierce City is the 2-seed and the Lady Eagles made an Elite Eight run last year and return nearly everyone. Their lone loss came to Class 4 Cassville by six. PC’s four wins have come by 16, 32, 38 and 19.
Fordland got the 3-seed is this might be one of the most slept on teams in the Ozarks. The 7-1 record is nice, but the lone loss came to Blue Eye by 14. Blue Eye is arguably the second-best Class 2 team in Missouri behind Skyline. Outside of that Blue Eye game they haven’t really been challenged, winning six games by at least 20 points. A potential Fordland vs. Walnut Grove championship would pit Harman and Gilkey vs. Fordland’s underrated backcourt of Sophie Sparks (15 points, 3.4 assists) and Abi Southard (18.8 points, 3.4 assists). But, getting past Pierce City will be a major task.
Jeremey Mullins and Crane got the 4-seed. Honestly, this is the appetize before the meal. This team is junior-loaded and this year, much like last year, has the Lady Pirates playing with house money. The loss to Walnut Grove isn’t a bad one, nor is the Purdy loss. However, Crane’s frontcourt of 6-foot juniors Madison Hicks (16.7 points, nine rebounds, two blocks) and Olivia Doto (15.5 points, 7.8 rebounds) will give anyone fits and Crane’s guards are great defensively and try to get their post as many touches as possible.
Hartville is as good of a 5-seed you’ll see in any tournament, sitting at 7-1 with their lone loss coming to Class 5 Central. Road wins over Plato and Verona are also impressive. Junior point guard Sadie Chisum is one of the area’s best and gives the tournament another insanely good PG. Mike Percival has done a tremendous job with a young group.
Hermitage, sitting at 7-0, picked up the 6-seed which, again, let’s you know how quality of an event this is. Keep in mind, the Lady Hornets drilled previously state-ranked Wheatland by 23. Sadi Hostettler leads four players averaging double figures with 19.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.9 steals. This is a dangerous team with a favorable draw despite the low seed.