By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
As a player at Miller, Hannah Wilkerson help put the Lady Cardinals on the map by scoring a then state record 3,724 points. That highly decorated career included a Final Four run in 2010, capping back-to-back seasons with 24 and 28 wins respectively.
Now, entering her fourth season as her alma mater’s head coach, Wilkerson has a roster talented enough to get the Lady Cardinals back to the Final Four. This on the heels of a 25-6 campaign in 2018-19 that saw Miller lose to Hartville in the Elite Eight; a game that Miller trailed 12-0 due to a slow start.
They’re eager for another shot to get to get to JQH Arena.
“The quarterfinal loss made our young team eager to get back on the court,” said Wilkerson. “Everyone, including our coaching staff, learned a lot from that game. We were fortunate to be able to be in that position with such a young team. Our girls realized the hard work it takes to get there and how much more work it takes to go beyond.”
On paper, Miller might be the best Class 2 team in the Ozarks, led by a loaded sophomore class.
Guard Claudia Hadlock is the biggest name on the roster, averaging 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.9 steals. She was one of the biggest Class 2 all-state snubs, but was the Southwest Conference Player of the Year, an award that she could end up taking a few more times.
“Claudia had a solid freshman year,” said Wilkerson. “I was confident in her ability to step up big last season and she did. She had many lessons learned that all young players experience. Claudia’s talent on the floor does not even compare to her heart and “never satisfied” attitude. She is always looking for ways to not only improve her game, but her team as well.”
Classmate Kaylee Helton averaged 11.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals. The 5-foot-8 wing, who was also an All-SWC selection, averaged 17.5 points in Miller’s eight games preceding the Elite Eight.
“Kaylee became a huge impact last season,” said Wilkerson. “She can play inside and outside. Her physical play drew a lot of fouls, grabbed key rebounds and opened up the outside shot for our best outside shooters. Kaylee never quits and will do what it takes to win. A true competitor.”
Fellow sophomores Payten Richardson, a 5-foot-7 guard, and Ashten Kingsley, a 6-foot-1 post, complete the “Fantastic Four” with Richardson putting 9.7 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 steals and Kingsley adding 4.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“The sophomores have been playing together since they were young,” said Wilkerson. “Their chemistry sets the foundation for their success and they are always cheering each other on. A very selfless group. They all make an impact immediately because of their drive and knowing their role and taking that role and perfecting it. That is something you cannot teach, and it makes coaching a lot easier.”
Senior guard Jessica Epps is also back after playing in every game as a junior. Wilkerson loves her motor and grit.
Wilkerson will also integrate a deep freshman class – Alyssa Hill, Emberlynn Kingsley, Addison Stockton, Haylie Schnake, Hailey Mart and Kylee Rinehart – that should provide depth and athleticism.
The pieces are in place and to say the expectations around the town are high would be an understatement. However, the players within the program understand and want that pressure. It’s not a championship or bust season, but everyone is excited about what could be this winter.
While they’re more experienced than they were a year ago, starting four sophomores can still come with some growing pains. Recently, we’ve seen programs like Walnut Grove, Crane and Strafford win state championships with sophomore-dominated rosters.
For Miller to join that list, there are a few things she’d like to see from her team.
“Our young team learned something from every game,” said Wilkerson. “One thing we always talked about last season was just being consistent and not taking a day off. Every practice and game are an opportunity to get better. This season I expect our returners to lead our freshmen who will be expected to play some big minutes. Nothing will be handed to us.
“Every game matters. In order to compete for conference and district championships, we will need to execute game plans, never take a team lightly, play tough defense without fouling, play smart on the offensive end and limit our turnovers.”
Miller will open the 2019-20 season at Billings. The Lady Cardinals will play their home opener on Dec. 9 against Fair Grove. Other key games include at Blue Eye (Dec. 16), vs. Skyline (Jan. 4), at El Dorado Springs (Jan. 13) vs. Sarcoxie (Jan. 30) and at Marionville (Feb. 4).