By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Few teams in the Ozarks consistently play a tougher schedule than Class 1 Walnut Grove.
With seven-straight district title appearances and five championships, it’s hard to argue with the results.
While the Lady Tigers produced a winning 14-11 record in 2017, the season ended with a first-round district loss to Fair Play.
Despite the disappointing finish, don’t expect any big changes from head coach Jeff Dishman.
“I have always thought that if you want to get better, you go find the best teams, no matter what class, and play them,” Dishman said. “Our administration has always been really good about allowing us to play people that most Class 1 teams don’t get a chance to play.”
Walnut Grove is eager to prove itself this season, but the Lady Tigers must first replace four key spots in the lineup with graduates Bayley Harman, Grace Miller, Stephani Ortiz and Julie Stilley moving on.
Harman, a two-time all-state selection, will continue her athletic career with the Harding University basketball program.
“Most know her for her basketball skills, but Bayley was a great softball player,” Dishman said. “She turned out to be in the top-ten in every category in Walnut Grove history. She hit over .400, led our team in doubles and home runs playing with a torn ACL her senior year.”
Replacing an all-state player is no small endeavor, especially at a Class 1 school, yet the Lady Tigers have every reason to be optimistic heading into the fall season.
Seniors Grace McPhail (2B) and Myranda McVay (3B) return to the Walnut Grove lineup. The speedy McPhail is set to continue her pursuit of the Lady Tigers’ career stolen bases record and has been thrown out only twice in her high school career. McVay will be a welcome addition after battling through health issues last fall. The two seniors are joined by junior Cortney Stevens (OF/INF) as Walnut Grove’s three returning upperclassmen.
While young, the Lady Tigers aren’t exactly inexperienced. Walnut Grove’s lineup is anchored by a deep and talented sophomore class, including MaKayla McVay (P), Faith Gilkey (SS), Lauren Johnson (C) and Maddy Hughes (OF).
Two more sophomores in Morgan Hailey (OF/INF) and April Countryman (OF) hope to make an impact on the roster as newcomers.
“Our sophomore group might go down someday as one of the best to ever put on a Walnut Grove uniform,” Dishman said. “I think that the early loss in softball and a quarterfinal loss in basketball has made them understand that you just can’t show up and win! We can’t beat people just by the name on our jerseys anymore. We have to compete every night.”
Dishman believes Walnut Grove’s difference-maker this season lies within the circle and starter MaKayla McVay.
“MaKayla will be a year older and stronger,” Dishman said. “She had a great freshman season, hitting .376 for the year and proved that she can throw with any pitcher in any class. I think she was tired last year at the end, but this year we will try to keep her in better shape.”
With a brutal schedule featuring the likes of Willard, Republic, Marshfield, Ava, Dora, Mansfield, Naylor and a loaded Springfield Tournament, the Lady Tigers will certainly be battle-tested when the postseason finally rolls around.
In fact, Dishman believes this season’s schedule will be the toughest the school has ever faced; however, don’t expect any excuses or apologies.
“Sometimes you just feed them to the wolves and see what they can do,” Dishman said. “I think with a year and basically two summers now under our belts, we will be ready.”
Following jamboree play on Aug. 18 with Nixa, Republic and Rogersville, Walnut Grove opens the season Aug. 25 hosting a double-header against Dora and Willard.
This article has been corrected to reflect the return of Grace McPhail.
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