By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
That’s essentially all that kept Walnut Grove from its seventh consecutive Final Four berth and potentially the program’s fourth state championship since 2013.
But, a 69-66 overtime loss to conference rival Wheatland in the Elite Eight ended Walnut Grove’s season, a loss that ranks alongside the 2012 state championship loss to Eminence among the hardest to swallow in Rory Henry’s decade at Walnut Grove.
“Last year’s loss was one of the toughest things that I have been through as a Coach,” said Henry. “We talk about that possibility every year and always say you want to leave the floor with no regrets and how they don’t know pain until you lose a game like that.
“It was a tough lesson because I know they realized how painful it was. They feel that they let our community and program down. The only good that can come from that is that it made us humble and very hungry for this season to start. I don’t think I have had a group more eager to start the season and avenge that loss.”
Still, the good news is Walnut Grove went 26-4 with a conference and district championship (again), defeating some of the area’s top teams like Ozark and Rogersville, as well as Class 2 runner-up Mid-Buchannan.
The better news is that the Lady Tigers return four starters from last year’s team with the graduation of current Harding freshman Bayley Harman being the void to refill.
The loss of Harman, a 2,000-point scorer that played through a torn ACL her senior season, means that for the first time in a decade, there won’t be a Harman on Walnut Grove’s roster.
“It’s going to be extremely weird,” said Henry. “I have had a Harman on my team since I have been here, nine straight years. They were a great group of girls and they made my life a whole lot easier. However, I know they have left their mark on our program and we are in good hands. I’m pretty excited about the future of our program and hopefully there will be a new generation of Harman’s come through some time soon.”
While there aren’t any Harmans, there is a Gilkey and she’s pretty good.
Sophomore point guard Faith Gilkey, whose brother Hunter helped lead the boys to a state championship in 2017, averaged 16 PPG, 5.4 APG, 5 RPG and 5 SPG, earning Class 1 all-state honors. She’s the next in a great line of Walnut Grove guards.
Classmates MaKayla McVay (9.9 PPG, 5 RPG) and Lauren Johnson (9.2 PPG) also return after starting as freshmen.
The trio, all named to the All-Polk County League team, makes up nearly half of the best sophomore class in the Ozarks.
“Faith does a little bit of everything,” said Henry. “She plays extremely hard and she’s a tenacious defender. She also handles the ball well and gets to the rim.
“Lauren plays hard, can score inside and out, great in the open floor, great defender, tremendous athlete, she is quick and can jump well. MaKayla also plays inside and out, good post moves and good outside shooter, mismatch problem for most big girls, runs the floor well”
Seniors Grace McPhail and Myranda McVay are back and return tons of game experience.
McPhail is a four-year starter and All-PCL pick and McVay is getting back on the court after missing the entire 2017-18 season.
“Grace is good defender, gets to the rim well, can play inside and out, really extended her range late last year and over the summer, turning into a great shooter. Myranda didn’t get to play last year due to illness, but she’s a good shooter, can really extend a defense. She hit four 3s in state semifinal game her sophomore year”
Henry also expects major contributions from returning underclassmen.
Juniors Courtlyn Rhyker and Cortney Stevens, sophomores Sadye Crump, Morgan Hailey, Taylor Gold, April Countryman and freshman Skyler Boyd will all compete for minutes.
“Cortney good defender and rebounder; she could be a X factor depending on how she develops offensively,” said Henry. “Cortlyn played a little last year and could see some minutes.
“Sadye is a good shooter and athlete. She could be an X factor for us as she develops. Morgan played some last year but looking for an expanded role this year. She’s a good shooter and very quick. Taylor played some last year but looking to get big minutes this year. She’s a post player, physical, and can rebound. April played some last year, she’s a good defender that could get some minutes. Skyler is only a freshman this season.”
This is a group that many Walnut Grove fans have been talking about for years, specifically the sophomores that have also been extremely successful on the summer circuit.
“This is a great class and they have played a lot of basketball together,” said Henry. “They head strong and have a high basketball IQ. The main thing for me though is that they understand how to play hard and they have a strong work ethic.”
Walnut Grove will again see a loaded schedule, with Class 5 Parkview and Class 4 Rogersville. The Lady Tigers will also see 2018 Final Four teams Strafford (Class 3), Skyline (Class 2), Mid-Buchannan (Class 2) and Wheatland (Class 1). That doesn’t take into account Lebanon’s always tough tournament.
Henry is hopeful that if he again challenges his team with the best of the best around Missouri, they’ll be prepared for anything they’ll see come playoff time when Walnut Grove will look to start a new Final Four streak.
“I think playing a tough schedule helped our young kids get tougher and more physical,” said Henry. “We went toe-to-toe with some of the best programs in the state and we competed in every game. The only problem that we run into is that we have to play physical and tough on the defensive end and when we get to post season play in Class 1, I feel we get punished some times for playing that way. Our kids have to learn to adjust to the way games are called. I still feel that our schedule will benefit us come post season time.
Walnut Grove will open the 2018-19 season in the Ash Grove Tournament on Nov. 26. The Lady Tigers will play their home opener on Dec. 6 against Crane.