By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mount Vernon will start the 2018-19 season with high expectations coming off of last season’s 27-3 campaign that ended with a Sweet 16 run.
While the roster is back and nearly intact, the Lady Mountaineers will have a new coach this season in Grant Berendt.
Berendt is no stranger to turning around programs after a four-year stint at Neosho. In 2014-15 he took over a Lady Wildcat group that was coming off just 10 wins the previous season. He then proceeded to win at least 16 games in three of the next four years.
It’ll be a little different feel taking over a program that is one of the best in Southwest Missouri, but it’s a challenge that Berendt welcomes. While he’s excited about that tradition, he’s also looking forward to put his touch on the program.
“When the job became available I was very excited about the opportunity to coach at Mt. Vernon,” said Berendt. “Mt. Vernon has a rich tradition of excellence in all of their sports. The whole town embraces and supports high school athletics in Mt. Vernon. Our athletes work very hard in their preparation and take pride in the school and our accomplishments. It is great to see our students out at different sporting events supporting each other. This team is a district and conference championship team that returns every player but one. I believe we have a team with lots of experience that has played in some very tough games in the past. Many of our girls have been playing on the varsity team since they were freshman.
“Anytime you start at a new school and take over a new team there is a learning curve. I’m trying to get to know and learn the school and players, and the players are trying to get to know and learn me. I believe that building relationships with the players is extremely important in this process. When players know you truly care about them and the program, I think great things can happen. I’m blessed that our returning players were well coached and we can hit the ground running in some areas. We will change or alter a few things or the way things were done in past years to help us this season and in the future. Ultimately we want to be a source of pride and enthusiasm for the members of the Mt. Vernon community.”
An offseason injury will hurt the Lady ‘Neers bid to repeat as conference and district champions. Senior forward Camryn Eldridge was lost for the season due to an injury suffered during the summer. Eldridge was a two-year starter entering this season.
Even with the injury, Mount Vernon returns loaded roster led by the dynamic senior duo of Cameron Call and Caitlin Hicks.
Call – an Illinois State commit – averaged 13.1 PPG, 3.3 APG and 1.7 SPG. Hicks – the Big 8 Player of the Year – averaged 16.7 PPG, 7 RPG and 3 SPG. Both all-state players will again lead Mount Vernon.
“Both of these young ladies are very talented basketball players,” said Berendt. “They are always in the gym with me or on their own working on their game. They are competing hard in the weight room and conditioning to get themselves in the best shape for their last go round as seniors. Both have played in some big games for this team. We will lean on them again this season with their experience and production. Fortunately, we are blessed to have some other very talented players that have multiple years of varsity experience.”
Berendt will also have the luxury of a talented and experienced supporting cast.
Sophomore point guard Lacy Stokes (11.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 6.1 SPG) is one of the best two-way guards in the Ozarks. Senior trio Ashlyn McCanless, Lyndsey Hood and Lauren Vaughn have all played in big games and also provide a defensive punch.
Sophomore Ellie Johnston will also provide backcourt depth after playing meaningful minutes as a freshman. Berendt believes her ability to score from different levels will be key. Senior Michaela McChesney and Nebraksa transfer Katelyn Kotlarz will also provide depth.
Mount Vernon will have a challenging non-conference schedule, with Arkansas power – led by 5-star wing Sasha Goforth – Fayetteville on the schedule. The Lady ‘Neers will also have Clever, Webb City and the Pink and White Lady Classic.
The program will also adjust to the expanded Big 8, which is essentially the merger of the Big 8 and COC Small, along with the addition of Nevada. The league will be one of the best Class 3-4 conferences in Missouri and will be even further preparation for playoff basketball.
“I think our side of the conference will be tough, but I feel like we have a shot to win it,” said Berendt. “The winner of the Big 8 East will play the winner of the Big 8 West for the overall conference championship. I believe the crossover game for the championship will be a lot of fun for the players and the fans.”
Mount Vernon will open the 2018-19 season in the Carthage Invitational, which will begin play on Nov. 26. Their home opener will be on Dec. 10 against Nevada.