By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Hartville players never believed losing Dune Piper and Deric Jones would hinder their success last year, but they still had to see the season through.
They delivered another 23 wins, a fifth straight district championship, and sported the top offense in the Summit Conference.
Now, there is again a healthy crop of talent to replace, but the Eagle’s M.O. remains the same.
“We’re not going to rebuild, we’re going to reload and guys are going to step into different roles,” head coach Brett Reed said. “After watching them (last year), they proved their worth. We’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
All-Summit selections Evan Matthews, Wyatt Ward, and Cody Kelly are out the door, but the jarring reality for the early portion of the season is that Hartville will not have a single returning starter. That is due to a torn meniscus to junior Holton Simmons, who would have been the lone member of the starting lineup back. Reed hopes to get him and his 10.0 points per game average back by later January.
Wyatt Mahan will be the lone senior and top returning scorer at a clip at 13.0 points per game. He made regular starts a junior but will have to work his way back into that role after taking a break from offseason activities.
The potential core and future of the Eagles is the sophomore class. Six of the seven players that competed together this summer were from that grade. They managed to put together a 17-1 record with their only setback being a six-point loss to Nixa. They were able to compete with larger schools like Kickapoo and Hillcrest, an effort that makes Reed optimistic.
“We were smaller and, given our size, the fact that we were able to rebound with those guys makes me believe that we’ll be able to compete at our level,” he said.
Ryce Piper ran the point for the bulk of the summer joins a budding guard mix along with Cody Mahan. Reed called Mahan maybe the best defender on the team and a trendsetter for what could blossom into the best defensive group ever at Hartville by the time this group becomes seniors.
“They can all get after you and guard. We’re ahead of the game defensively because they’ve been playing man together since they were younger. This team has a ton of upside because they’re so young. We had great team chemistry and shared the ball well all summer. If we continue that and continue to progress defensively, we’ve got a chance. It makes me happy because I’m a defensive-minded coach.”
Eli Cook and Brady Ward are the closest thing the Eagles have to a post presence with both hovering around 6’0” to 6’1”. Cook, specifically, is able to play bigger than his frame while also being versatile enough to play in a guard role.
Braden Branstetter also returns after an injury took most of his freshman season and could be the most talented shooter in the entire program.
The way Reed talks about the group seems to indicate that the future of Hartville basketball has a puncher’s chance to carry the same success as recent seasons. However, this is not a group that intends to wait for age to catch up to them.
“I think we have a chance to be better than a lot of people think we will be and be competitive in the postseason.”