By Matt Turer — @MattTurer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
HEAD COACH: Dan Jones
2017-18 RECORD : 22-7
2017-18 POSTSEASON: DISTRICT FINAL: Lost 76-34 to Strafford
RETURNING PLAYERS: Harper Little (Senior), Abi Menzies (Senior), Tessa Newman (Senior), Allie Clevenger (Junior), Camille Bishop (Junior), Annakate Riley (Junior), Madison Gladney (Junior), Kadence McFall (Sophomore), Jordan Palmer (Sophomore), Tori Raulston (Sophomore)
NEWCOMERS: Ruthie Brown, Alexis Pate, Paula Gomez
The Clever Lady Jays return nearly every key player from a 22-win group that made a run to its district championship game in 2017, where the Jays fell to three-time defending Class 3 state champion Strafford.
“We knew we were a much better team than we showed in the district championship against Strafford,” head coach Dan Jones said of his team, which was much more competitive in a 68-42 loss to Strafford earlier in the season.
“Our measure of success isn’t in wins and losses but by continued improvement. We did that all last year until the last game.”
The Jays lived up to that motto by losing to Fair Grove by four points on Dec. 1 and then coming back and knocking the Eagles out of district play on February 23. They also showed it in the Pink & White Tournament, when 8-seed Clever upset top-seeded White Station (Memphis, Tenn.), lost a heartbreaker to Mt. Vernon 53-51 in the semifinals, and then rebounded to take down a talented Branson group 72-66 in the third-place game of the Pink Bracket.
This year, Jones has Clever set up with another competitive round of in-season tournaments (like the Stephanie Phillips Classic) and higher-profile matchups to better prepare his group for district play and Strafford. Clever is scheduled to face Marshfield, Mt. Vernon, Ozark and St. Louis-based powerhouses Principia and Whitfield. Whitfield is home to the No. 3 guard in the country in Aijha Blackwell, who has committed to Missouri.
“In addition to the toughest schedule we could put together, our training and gameplan will be geared towards toughness and handling pressure.”
WHAT TO EXPECT ON THE COURT
Clever returns its top four leading scorers, all of whom averaged double figures in 2017-18. The big four are all-district selections Harper Little (17.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 5.5 SPG, 2.7 BPG) and Abi Menzies (12.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.2 SPG, 2.3 BPG), plus Allie Clevenger (14.9 PPG, 2.1 SPG) and Tessa Newman (10.5 PPG, 2.5 SPG). All four are captains.
“All four of these girls have great ability and leadership qualities,” Jones said. “I expect them to take the younger girls under their wings and prepare them to continue at a high level.”
Little recently committed to College of the Ozarks and is expected to eclipse the 1,500-point mark for her career this year (currently 1,219 points).
Menzies (746 points) and Clevenger (770 points) also have milestones on the horizon with both in reach of 1,000 career points.
Jones commented on his three seniors (Little, Menzies, Newman):
Jones on Harper: “Harper has been our leading player in terms of efficiency and has been a great example of drive and determination. I’m looking for her to take her game up another notch as she’s done each year.”
Jones on Menzies: “Abi is our difference-maker who has brought stability to our game in the post and the wing. She brings so much joy to our practices and makes the hard work seem fun. I’m looking for her to play with a high engine the whole game.”
Jones on Newman: “She’s the toughest player on the floor. She sacrifices her body for charges, dives for balls you’d never believe she could get, and is all-around steady and above in every category. I’m looking for her to be more aggressive than ever this year and be the spark we need when things aren’t going the way we’d like.”
Jones enters 2018-19 with 285 career wins.
Starting center Madison Gladney returns, who Jones said might be the best athlete on the team.
“We also have a group of sophomores that are waiting in the wings to be called upon,” Jones said.
The Lady Jays add a standout freshman in Ruthie Brown, who joined the rotation for Clever’s undefeated summer schedule.
Clever also adds Texas move-in Alexis Pate (junior) from Texas Class 2 state champion Martins Mill. Pate was on the Martins Mill J.V. team last season.
Transfer student Paula Gomez will also be new. Gomez is a swing player from Spain who helped lead her high school to a Spain championship appearance last season.
“She is tough-nosed, fast and has a versatile game inside-and-out,” Jones said. “She’s already shown in practice that she’s going to add another dimension to our team.”