By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The area has sent a boys team to the Class 2 Final Four in four consecutive seasons. Which teams have a shot to make it five? Read a full preview below.
Is Thayer playoff bound again?
Few teams are tougher to beat in playoff basketball than Thayer. They’ve won four straight district championships and six of the last seven overall, including a Final Four run in 2014. The Bobcats have been one of the area’s most dominant teams this season and it all starts at the defensive end. Thayer allows just 37 PPG, holding 15 opponents to 35 points or fewer. If you play in the half court they’re going to beat you. The only teams that were able to beat Thayer were one-loss Eminence and one-loss Mountain Grove, two teams that could bring home state titles in Class 1 and Class 3 respectively. They held Grove to a season-low 42 points. The key to that is defensive anchor Ayden Stone (11.7 PPG, 10.2 RPG). Veteran coach Matt Pitts always has a big that cleans glass and communicates defensively, and Stone is the latest. He also has 17 double-doubles this season and is shooting 58 percent from the field. Senior scorers Jalen Andrews (11.8 PPG) and Dagen Jones (9.1 PPG) shoulder the perimeter scoring load and then there’s classmate Trevor Jenkins. He’s the team’s leading 3-point shooter and make it difficult to help too much defensively. Thayer’s likely district championship opponent is Neelyville, a fellow 20-win team that has won 10 straight entering the district semifinals. Neelyville is another team that doesn’t mind getting up and down the floor, which could make for an interesting game stylistically with Thayer. But, the Cats thumped them by 20 last year. Thayer is a senior-laden group that expects to win.
Mansfield still perfect against Class 2
For some reason they fell out of the state rankings, apparently losses to Class 4 West Plains, Class 4 Hillcrest, Class 3 Springfield Catholic and Class 3 Mountain Grove (twice) just isn’t quality enough. I disagree and right now they’re the favorite in a tough District 4, which includes Hartville. Mansfield is unbeaten against Class 2 teams, which also includes wins over Hartville, Crane, Spokane, Gainesville and Plato. Mansfield also topped Class 3 Conway. Terry Writer, who continues to sneak up on win No. 800, has great balance with this group. Junior post Dylan Caruso (15.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.8 BPG) is one of the best bigs in the Ozarks and his ability to anchor the paint at 6-foot-8 is a game-changer. The Lions also have a play-making guard in junior Payton Watterson (12.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG and 3.5 APG). Both Watterson (38 percent) and senior Spencer Greene (45 percent) can stretch the floor from 3-point range. Greene hit nine triples against Bakersfield at the end of January, which is a new program record. As a team they shoot it at 38 percent from deep and are undefeated (8-0) when they shoot at least 40 percent from 3-point range. Basketball is simple, make shots and you win games, and Mansfield shoots it as well as anyone. They enter district play with wins in 11 of their last 12 games.
Hartville is fine
Yes, the Eagles enter districts with losses in three of their last six games, but it’s not really what it seems. While this isn’t the team that brought home a state championship two years ago, this group is still capable of making that kind of run. Those three losses came to Mountain Grove, Dora and Walnut Grove. Keep in mind, they’d beaten Dora just a week prior to dropping the rematch. Of their seven losses, six came by single digits, four came against Class 3 teams and all came against state-ranked teams. The one thing that happened this year that hadn’t happened in the past was a regular season loss to a Class 2 team. The 50-46 defeat at Mansfield gave life to the entire district. It also resulted in Hartville being the 2-seed. Brett Reed does have a few things in his pocket. He has enough size to matchup with Dylan Caruso and enough guards to make teams work. The key might be Evan Matthews. The 6-foot-4 post is averaging 11.5 points and 11 rebounds, shooting 67 percent from the field. He’s a matchup nightmare in Class 2 and when he, along with senior wing Wyatt Ward, are bringing it this team can play at a state-championship caliber.
Pierce City finally ready for a run
Pierce City’s district championship last year marked three in the last five seasons. The Eagles return much of that team, led by senior big Hunter Tindell. The 6-foot-5 center is still a defensive anchor, but he’s been an efficient low-post scorer this season. He dropped 35 on College Heights, 28 on Purdy and 25 on Class 3 Stockton. But PC is deep. Donnell Kleiboeker, Trey Sagehorn, Jackson Kleiboeker and Colten O’Hara can all score and sophomore point guard Aaron Garner – typically a facilitator – has no problem filling it up too. Their balance makes them extremely difficult to defend. Matt Street and company have won 10 of 12 entering districts and their losses are all high quality. Verona by five, Walnut Grove by nine, Class 4 Cassville by two, Class 3 Seneca by five, Greenfield in overtime and a really good Parsons team beat them on a neutral floor. Playing at home should be a major advantage. PC won the district last time they hosted (2015) and have won 16 of their last 20 home games overall.
Jeremy Dresslaer finding immediate success at Purdy
If you’ve ever seen him play, then this doesn’t surprise you. Dresslaer was a great player at Clever and is one of the area’s up-and-coming young coaches. Purdy ran through the regular season, finishing 19-6 and going unbeaten in Ozark 7 play, their first conference championship since 2009. But, the Eagles might be Final Four good behind a trio of senior guards. Colt Keeling (22.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG), Tyler Keeler (15.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG) and Hunter Cook (7.7 PPG, 3.2 APG) are experienced and have won big games. The Eagles made an Elite Eight run in 2016. They’ve beaten Billings, Verona, Class 3 Seneca and Class 4 Cassville. But, ultimately, they’d likely have to beat defending district champ Pierce City in Pierce City to win a district championship, which is easier said than done. Entering districts with 10 wins in their last 11 games is a great foundation for making a playoff run.
Big 3 lead sneaky good Verona
Brad Stewart has done a tremendous job at Verona for years and while next year seems like it should be the Wildcats peak year, don’t be surprised to see them make a run now. Verona has three 1,000-point juniors in Caleb Hillhouse (19 PPG, 9 RPG), Kolton Pinkly (17 PPG, 5 RPG) and Eddie Gutierrez (16 PPG, 5 RPG, 4 SPG). Hillhouse and Pinkly put pressure on opposing defenses off the dribble and Gutierrez – who hit a school-record nine 3-point FG against McAuley Catholic – forces the floor to stay spread. Verona has been inconsistent at times, but this is a team that still has wins over Pierce City, Greenfield and Thomas Jefferson. They’re also 7-1 when they score at least 70 points so if they get out in transition, watch out.
Lockwood could make it 3
The Ozarks has a ton of Class 2 teams and it’s typical to see multiple teams advance to the Final Four, but this year the area could have three if Lockwood gets hot. The Tigers are defending district champs and this group has been wildly successful. Keep in mind, many of the same names that guided them to a Final Four in football are playing basketball for Aaron Shockley, led by seniors Cade Holman and Logan Sparkman. Lockwood has won nine of its last 11 games and gave Pierce City everything the Eagles could handle. Lockwood is the one-seed in District 13 and clearly the favorite to make it out. If they can get by Sacred Heart in Sectionals, this will be a Final Four team.
Andrew Mitchell, Blue Eye
The 6-foot-5 combo forward is one of the area’s most efficient scorers. He’s approaching the 1,500-point mark and this has been the best season of his career (19 PPG, 5.5 RPG). Mitchell is pulling his best Dirk impression, shooting a ridiculous 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 94 percent from the foul line. He’s an impossible matchup but he’s also not alone. Ryan Reagan is the perfect lead guard (14.2 PPG, 4.5 APG) but he also shoots 34 percent from deep. Maybe the X-factor for this team is guard Nathan Garnett. He’s averaging 11.1 points and leads the team in steals, but he’s also a lights-out 3-point shooter (33-for-59). He gives Blue Eye a legitimate third option and also spaces the floor for Mitchell and Reagan to work. If he gets hot the entire dynamic of this team changes. They’re also hosting the district, which helps because they’ve won nine of their last 11 at home.
Outside of Blue Eye, there are several opportunities for SWCL teams to win district championships. Crane and Billings are the 2-seed and 3-seed respectively in District 11. Crane is just 10-15, but have wins over Class 4 Aurora, Walnut Grove, Billings, Hurley and Purdy. The Pirates are still adjusting to Kevin Smith’s system, but they’re still a capable group… Billings has a pair of scorers that are difficult to defend in Luke Johnson (16.2 PPG) and Tyler Essick (14.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG). Johnson has scored more than 1,000 points in the last three seasons and Essick has nine double-doubles this year. Bobby Brown (9.9 PPG) is shooting 40 percent from deep with more than 50 makes. The Wildcats beat Blue Eye, Verona and were a 3-pointer away from overtime with Pierce City on the road… Spokane earned the 1-seed in District 10 and also has two great scorers in junior Isiah Bean (16.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and senior Jack Rigdon (15.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG). The Owls beat Crane, Billings and Class 4s Cassville and Reeds Springs. They’ve seen a schedule that will allow them to be unphased by anything they’ll see in districts.
Speaking of coaches that could hoop, Matt Powell…
Has Gainesville competing at a level few saw coming. This is a team that won nine games a year ago and lost by 48 points in the first round of districts. Now, they’re the 3-seed in District 4 and while it’s unlikely they’ll knock off Hartville, what the Bulldogs have done is impressive. Gainesville has hung with Thayer, Dora, Licking and other teams that should’ve run them out of the gym. In a district setting where offense is sometimes difficult to find, the usually sound Bulldogs could be competitive.
Brant Gideon, Skyline
The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging nearly 23 points and seven rebounds for the Tigers. Playing in Tommy Egan’s up-tempo system has been perfect for Gideon. He scored his 1,000th point back in January and has helped Skyline win 11 of its last 14 games entering district play. Sophomore point guard Dax Beem (18 points, 5 assists) has been the perfect running mate. The losses were Class 3’s Strafford, Stockton and Fair Grove. They’re the two-seed in District 10 with one of the top scorers in the district, which certainly makes them dangerous.
Matt Dugan, Liberal
He’s not a guy seen much around Springfield, but bigs are like unicorns in the Ozarks and the 6-foot-5 senior is one of the best locally in Class 2. He’s averaging 14.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. That production has helped Liberal knock off solid teams like Lockwood and Thomas Jefferson. Senior guards Jacob Dermott, Jayden Dalby and Tyler Stebbins are capable scorers and classmate Dalton Davis – a Pitt State football signee – and junior Colby Selvey add frontcourt depth. This is a dangerous team and they avoid the area by going north for districts.
Thomas Jefferson’s Dynamic Duo
Thomas Jefferson won its first 10 games of the season, powered by sophomore point guard Chase Kellenberger (15.4 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.9 SPG) and freshman wing Druv Gheewala (18.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG). Kellenberger has been hot over his last six games, averaging 22.2 PPG. Gheewala has knocked down 67 triples this season at 38 percent clip. Thomas Jefferson returns its top three scorers so clearly their best basketball is ahead of them, but they’re still capable of pulling an upset.
Jake Doyle, McAuley Catholic
The 6-foot-4 senior is a load on the block, which is why he’s scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed more than 800 rebounds in his career. He’s averaging 18.2 PPG and 12 RPG with 14 double-doubles (8 of which are 20-10 games). McAuley is the eight-seed in the district, but they’re not your typical eight-seed. They enter districts with wins in six of their last nine games and Doyle is big enough to matchup with Pierce City big Hunter Tindell. PC is a heavy favorite, but McAuley shouldn’t be a total push over either.
Grady Todd, Plato
At 6-foot-3 with a barrel chest, Todd is a matchup nightmare on the block. He’s averaging 21 PPG and 6.9 RPG for the Eagles, including eight double-doubles in his first 17 games. He’s allowed Plato to hang around in several games that seemed should be a tough matchup for them. The Eagles lost to Licking by five and nearly knocked off School of the Ozarks, Todd double-doubled in both of those games.
Ethyn Boorom, Crocker
Crocker enters district play with five straight wins and one of the toughest players to defend in Boorom. The 6-foot-5 big is averaging 21 PPG and 10 RPG and has already committed to Mount Marty College in South Dakota. He’s over 1,000 points for his career, he can step out and shoot it and he finishes above the rim. He’s one of the best players you haven’t had enough about and he, along with 1,000-point scorer Adam Shockley, are good enough to deliver a district championship to Crocker.