By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Inside the Walnut Grove locker room are painful but motivating reminders.
Photos from Walnut Grove’s season-ending loss to Wheatland in the quarterfinals a year ago decorate the walls.
The Lady Tigers finished one win shy of the final four and a shot at another state championship.
“Anytime you’d have a hard day and you’d go into practice like, ‘Oh man, I really don’t want to practice today,’” said Walnut Grove sophomore Makayla McVay. “We could look up at (those photos) and see that and say, ‘We never want that to happen again to us, so we’re going to practice hard again today and every other day.’”
Said Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry: “(The photos) weren’t always the most fun to look at it, but they’ve motivated us to be back to this point.”
For the sixth time in eight seasons, Walnut Grove’s back in a familiar place: The Class 1 state championship game.
Walnut Grove dominated final four first-timer Lakeland with a relentless defense en route to a 70-30 victory Friday night at Hammons Student Center in the Class 1 Show-Me Showdown semifinals.
The Lady Tigers scored 33 points off 30 Lakeland turnovers.
“(Defense) is what we want to be known for,” Henry said. “We’ve talked about it every day in practice: We want a staple of our program to be the fact that we’re going to guard and start things with our defense. We did a great job with that tonight.”
Walnut Grove led 15-0 just four minutes into the contest.
“That’s the one thing we had to prevent: Walnut Grove getting out on us early,” said Lakeland coach Justen Cooper. “We knew we had to stop it. We weren’t quite ready. We look forward to being ready for that moment in the future.
“Honestly, we haven’t been pressed but about one game all season. Just because (teams) hadn’t been successful enough with us.”
Sophomore Faith Gilkey scored a game-high 20 for Walnut Grove (27-5 overall). She also led the Lady Tigers with eight rebounds.
Fellow sophomores McVay and Lauren Johnson scored 16 apiece.
Faith Gilkey’s following in the steps of her older brother, Hunter Gilkey, who played in three final fours and won a state championship for Walnut Grove before he graduated in 2018.
“Every time in the postseason before I have a game, he’s been sending me these inspirational things that everyone would send him before he played,” Faith Gilkey said. “He’s really excited that I get to do this, too.”
Walnut Grove will face Stanberry (26-3 overall) in the Class 1 title game at 8:10 p.m. Saturday at JQH Arena.
The Lady Tigers have won four state championship in program history, including a three-peat from 2013-2015.
A key player from that three-peat run, 2014 WHS graduate and Drury alum Heather Harman, spoke at the team’s prep rally Wednesday night.
“That’s probably the coolest thing, to me, is the former players,” Henry said. “We talk about it all the time. I just gave them some letters the other day that former players had written. It’s the fact that we still have this tradition. These (current) players want to be a part of it.
“We have former players all the time who are dropping lines of encouragement. It means a lot to me that they show up and they’re so invested in the future of this program.”
Walnut Grove led 48-18 at halftime and had the turbo clock running in the fourth quarter.
Cooper said his message to the Lady Vikings at halftime was simple: have fun and play hard.
“At halftime, I was like, ‘Obviously, we’re down 30. The focus is going to be don’t go out there and feel sorry for yourself. Don’t show a bad attitude,’” Cooper said. “Come out and play hard. If you make a mistake, try to play harder to make up for your mistake. Don’t give up or have a bad attitude because of your mistake or something didn’t go your way.’ I thought we did a good job of that.”
Senior Annie Swaters led Lakeland with 13 points plus six rebounds. She shot six-for-eight from the field.
Lakeland (30-1 overall) had won 30 consecutive games to reach the final four for the first time in program history.
But they hadn’t seen a defense like Walnut Grove’s.
“The most I’ve had in-my-face defense like that was against Archie or Leeton,” said Lakeland sophomore Ryan Landes. “Alison French, on Leeton, she’s the only that’s had reach on me who’s played up-in-my face defense like that and had me rush myself like that.”
Lakeland will play for third place in Class 1 at 12:50 p.m. Saturday afternoon at JQH Arena.
“(Tonight) was an amazing experience,” said Lakeland sophomore Madison Thompson. “We haven’t played anyone like (Walnut Grove). It’s a really good experience to play such a good team because schools around us are nothing like that.”
Walnut Grove 70, Lakeland 30
Lakeland 4 14 9 3 — 30
Walnut Grove 23 25 12 10 — 70
Lakeland (30-1 overall) – Annie Swaters 13, Ryan Landes 9, Madison Thompson 4, Tracy Munsterman 2, Stella Cordrey 2
Walnut Grove (27-5 overall) – Faith Gilkey 20, Makayla McVay 16, Lauren Johnson 16, Myranda McVay 7, Grace McPhail 6, Morgan Hailey 2, Cortney Stevens 2, Taylor Gold 1