By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Several of the Class 1 districts got going this past weekend. Here is what to look forward to this week as district basketball gets going fully.
Walnut Grove begins title defense
It’s rare for a team with a legitimate Final Four shot to enter district play with 10 losses. It’s especially rare when that team is the defending state champion. However, Walnut Grove is a rare group and nothing about their process is normal. Entering 2017-18 – despite returning nearly everyone from last year’s state championship team – coach Darin Meinders was adamant about testing his team. So, an already loaded schedule added the Clever Tournament, Class 5 Carthage, state-ranked Dora and the Nixa Invitational Tournament. Naturally, the Tigers lost games, but you won’t find a single bad loss on their schedule and keep in mind many of those came without senior point guard Hunter Gilkey (13 PPG, 11 RPG, 5 APG). Gilkey might be the most important player in the Ozarks in terms of how dependent a team is on a player. He allows Grove to pressure for 84 feet and also keeps sharpshooters Logan Thomazin (25 PPG, 9 RPG), Dawson Meinders (18 PPG, 3 SPG) and Ryan Keith (12 PPG) off the ball and allows them to do what they do best.
Honestly, I’m not worried about the Dora loss. The Falcons could very well win the Class 1 state championship. And, maybe the most overrated part about all of this is the fact that it’s the regular season. This team has been to an Elite Eight and back-to-back Class 1 state championship games. And really, they’re a Dallas Hawk broken arm away from three straight Final Fours. They’re battle-tested and have been through all the wars. They understand what elimination basketball is about. So, when you put them on a neutral floor or college court, they’re fine. That’s an element not everyone in Class 1 is familiar with. At some point, that brutal schedule will either make or break Walnut Grove, we’re about to find out if Meinders is a genius or not.
One thing to keep an eye on is just how tough the district is. Hurley and Greenfield are legitimately good Class 1 teams. The Tigers might get tested in District 5.
Eminence looks for three straight
The Wings are looking for their third straight title and seventh in the last eight seasons. Eminence advanced to the Elite Eight last year, losing to eventual state runner-up Advance in the quarterfinals. Advanced started this season by handing Eminence its lone loss of the season, which has been followed by a 26-game winning streak. With South Iron in the district, this is typically one that isn’t easily decided but that may change this year.
Eminence is undefeated against other teams in the district, which includes a 36-point win over South Iron. They also beat Dora twice, Class 2 state-ranked Thayer three times and Class 3 Clever and MV-BT/Liberty. At this point, they have to be considered the favorite in Class 1. Junior big man Trent McBride (19 PPG, 12 RPG) has been a monster this season. He commands double teams and if you don’t send help he’s a 40-20 candidate. Keep in mind, this is a kid that will bump into 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career, with injuries being the only thing restraining him. Maybe the best part about McBride is his ability and willingness to pass and he has several options around him. Senior point guard Ethan Drake (16 PPG, 5 APG) has been terrific at both ends all season and he’s a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range that is over 1,000 points for his career. Drake’s size also makes him a tough matchup for most Class 1 guards. Junior Grant Dyer (13 PPG, 8 RPG) is the ultimate glue guy because he can defend multiple positions and outworks most people on a given night.
Their balance is huge, as is their ability to play small ball or go big. Keep in mind, these guys remember watching Logan Dyer and Cole Keeling combine for 40 points in Eminence’s 2013 Class 1 state title win. They’ve gotten a taste of playoff basketball, winning District 3 again would give them a shot at creating their own legacy, which would also set up a trilogy with (likely) District 4 winner Dora.
Dora the new kid on the block
From 2007-14, Dora averaged 19 wins, including a district championship in 2010 and 2013, led by guys like Derik Collins, Gavin Haney and Treysen Hambelton. Rick Luna has persevered through the last three years, knowing that the future was bright thanks to Dora’s Fantastic Four. Freshmen Isaac Haney, Bryson Luna, Mason Luna and Auston Luna combine to average nearly 56 PPG, which is roughly 82 percent of Dora’s scoring. After last summer, the expectation is that Dora would compete at a high level, but I’m not sure many people expected them to win 20 with the schedule they played. The Falcons are a perfect 5-0 against District 4 opponents. Just two teams in the district have winning records and Dora already owns wins over Walnut Grove, Hartville, Class 3 Clever and class 4 Aurora.
They aren’t very big, but they’re physical defensively and rebound surprisingly well, especially the Luna Triplets. Their ability to defend multiple positions is impressive, but they also just play with an always-running motor. When they get refs that aren’t whistle happy, they may be the most dangerous team in Class 1. You also can’t ignore the losses. So, even though they lost to Class 3 Mountain Grove, Class 2 Thayer and Hartville, as well as Eminence, they are beneficial losses in that it presented Dora freshmen with playoff atmospheres and pressure. Keep in mind, seniors Austin White, Kaleb Harris, Brent McKemie and Robert Vigdal all played for a district championship last year.
Is Hurley for real?
District 5 goes through Walnut Grove but there will be plenty of competition to be had. Early in the season I had someone ask about Hurley and I laughed. At that point they were 2-5, Chase Simpson had just scored 50 points against Fordland, giving the Tigers a 3-5 record. But then Hurley started winning and it hasn’t stopped. Since Christmas they are 18-1 with the lone loss coming in a rematch to Class 2 School of the Ozarks. You can knock their strength of schedule, but all they can do is beat whoever is in front of them. Hurley enters district play with seven straight wins, which helped earn them the 2-seed in District 5. It’s another team that’s not very big, but Ryan Yates has gotten the most out of them by just playing hard and fast. And, in high school basketball where guard play makes the difference, Yates has a pair of studs in seniors Simpson and William Pope. Simpson (23.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.4 SPG) has had six 30-point games and that 50-point explosion back in December. He’s hit 96 3s at 38 percent as well. Pope (22.3 PPG) is more of a scorer than shooter and excels at getting to the rim. Both are extremely difficult to defend and are capable of going for 30 or more on a given night. If it’s the same night, you’re not going to beat them.
Greenfield would win several other Class 1 districts
The Wildcats are a Class 1 team with wins over Class 2 Lockwood and Pierce City, two teams that could win district championships as well. Honestly, there are a few districts you could put Greenfield in and they’d not only be a top two seed, but a heavy favorite to win a district title. Instead, they’re locked in District 5 with Walnut Grove and Hurley. Life isn’t always fair and basketball is no exception. With that being said, Hurley and Walnut Grove could get more than they bargained for in trying to eliminate Greenfield. Senior guard Marcus Wright (22 PPG, 7 RPG, 4 APG) is one of the most complete guards in Class 1 and his nearly 1,700 career points has programs like Evangel and North Ark showing interest. Backcourt mate Sawyer Dodd (12 PPG, 3 SPG) is an elite defender, which is exactly what it’ll take to upset any of the elite Class 1 teams in the Ozarks. Last year Greenfield gave Grove a run in the district championship, can Preston Hyde tap into that and find a way to sneak out a district title?
Hayden McCarthy, Halfway could play spoiler in District 7
From 2013-17, Halfway totaled 21 wins. This season, the Cardinals are sitting at 20 wins and are a sleeper in District 7. Ryan Toombs has coached his group to wins in 10 of their last 12 games entering district play. And, the losses were quality and – outside of Walnut Grove – extremely competitive. Halfway gave Hurley a run and lost to Lighthouse Christian and Weaubleau by a bucket. Halfway also has the advantage of a pair of dynamic guards in Hayden McCarthy (22 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.7 APG) and Ryan Gallivan (13 PPG). Toombs has some balance and depth, but he also has a team that’s hot and legitimately believes.
o Logan Thomazin, Walnut Grove
Well, in case you haven’t heard, he’s one of the best scorers in Missouri, regardless of class. He’s averaging 25 PPG and has scored more than 2,000 points in his career. He’s top-10 nationally in career 3-point FG, which includes the Missouri record. With Hunter Gilkey healthy and the emergence of Dawson Meinders as a legitimate No. 2 scorer, Walnut Grove is even more dangerous. Meinders going off makes it impossible to bring too much help towards Thomazin and Gilkey. It’s also worth noting that Thomazin averaged 31.5 PPG and 11.5 RPG in last year’s Final Four, including 11 3-point FGs. He dropped 48 earlier this season against Class 3 – District 12 1-seed Mount Vernon. He’s a gamer that loves a big stage, which is crucial come late February.
o Isaac Haney, Dora
Haney is in the midst of one of the most prolific freshman campaigns in Missouri history. He enters districts with 601 points, the fifth-highest total in state history for a freshman and 29 points away from tying all-time Missouri leading scorer Fred Johnson’s 630 points as a freshman (second-most all-time). The freshman record is 733 points scored by Missouri legend JaRon Rush in 1994-95. At his current average (23.1 PPG), Haney would pass Johnson in the district semifinal. His current average would also put him within reach of that record should Dora advance to the Final Four, or if he just snaps off over the next two weeks. Haney has been insanely consistent, especially for a rookie. He’s hit 20 points in 20 of his 26 games this season, never scoring fewer than 15 points in a game. He’s shooting 53 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range. He’s been especially good as of late, averaging nearly 26 PPG over his last 13 games. The hype is real, he can flat out score the ball and that’s just in his genes. This kid is on pace to go down as one of the best scorers the state has ever seen and the Luna Triplets being willing to consistently help get him good looks can’t be overstated. Dora is only going to get better.
o Arlo Stump, Golden City
He’s one of the best scorers you probably haven’t heard of much. It took him just 40 games to score 1,000 points. He’s averaging 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game. Golden City has struggled this season and they’re extremely young, but Stump – who has eight 30-point games already – is an elite scorer. Golden City is unlikely to upset Walnut Grove, but Stump has had a fantastic sophomore season.