By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Entering his seventh season at the helm of Ozark Basketball, Mark Schweitzer is torn on just how to feel.
On one hand, his team struggled down the stretch last season, losing four of their final five games to end the season with each loss coming by eight points or fewer. Two of those came against Christian County rival Nixa.
On the other hand, Ozark returns one of the area’s top big men in A.J. Elliott, part of what Schweitzer considers to be his deepest team ever.
“I think about it all the time,” said Schweitzer of last season. “We were 15-7 and in a great position to get near 20 wins last year. We didn’t get the job done as some of our weaknesses got exposed against our tougher conference opponents. These kids are hungry and I think they are very driven to put together a season where they are playing for titles. I definitely believe they have the ability to do just that.”
A returning All-COC selection, Elliott will grab most of the headlines entering the season.
As a junior he averaged 15 PPG and 9 RPG, proving that he’s one of the best bigs in the area. His production has earned him a range of attention from college programs.
“AJ’s size and athleticism make him so difficult,” said Schweitzer. “He’s actually a much better perimeter player than people know and that will get displayed this year as he’s joined with guys that can penetrate and shoot at a higher clip. AJ’s strength and quickness make him so tough on the block. His supporting cast this year will open it up even more for him this year and I really look for him to raise his stock this year.”
He’ll be joined by returning starter Kyle Flavin, who Schweitzer believes could be in line for a breakout season because of his scoring ability.
Senior Alonzo Riwa returns after transferring from Parkview last season and finding minutes as a defensive stopper. At Parkview, Riwa played a prominent role on Parkview’s Elite Eight team and understands what it takes to win. With a year to learn Ozark’s system, Schweitzer believes he will make an even bigger impact at both ends of the floor this season.
“Alonzo is ready to go and I am ready to trust him more,” said Schweitzer. “I look for him to be a big time producer on the stat sheet. He gets so many extra possessions for our team that he has to play a large role for us. I’m very excited to see how much he thrives this year.”
Junior Blaine Cline provides a matchup problem for Ozark in the form of a 6-foot-4 athlete that has scoring versatility. Senior Jake Skaggs, a three-sport standout and sophomore Tyler Harmon will both see major roles in the backcourt.
“Blaine played in half our games last year in limited fashion,” said Schweitzer. “He will be looked at to be a key contributor on the boards and in the box score. He can score inside and out with his athletic 6’4 length. He will cause a ton of mismatches if he can win the playing time duties alongside AJ.
“Jake was a back-up point guard last year and is a multiple sport standout. He loves to play and he loves to compete. He will be a locker room leader and keep our young kids frosty every day because he will flat out compete like every practice is a game. He will either win the point guard job or play a ton off the bench. He has excellent court vision offensively and can get guys the ball in great positions to score. Tyler is a high energy player that improves us on defense and offense. He’s very aggressive and can score in a bunch of ways. He’s a strong 6’1 sophomore that is as competitive as I’ve seen. He has no fear of failure and loves a challenge. He reminds me of me. If we can improve his decision making and channel that aggression, he can be a major player on the varsity scene this year as a sophomore.”
Schweitzer loves his group of newcomers and believes they can also make an immediate impact at the varsity level.
Senior Lighthouse Christian transfer Peyton Johnson will provide interior help. Juniors Owen Brockman, Cannon Cox, Ethan Pritchard and Jaylen Weston, as well as sophomores Ethan Whatley, Avery Voysey and Ty Lyon will all be in the hunt for minutes.
While it’s a good problem to have in some ways, Ozark will fight the battle of almost having too much talent and parity on its roster. This could allow Schweitzer to play the fastest 32 minutes in the Ozarks.
“Every one of these kids would crack varsity lineups elsewhere,” said Schweitzer. “I have tough decisions to make in terms of playing time but this is the deepest squad I’ve ever had. We will be able to push tempo and play a ton of bodies with zero regard for foul trouble or injuries. That will allow us to dictate a lot of games with an aggressive and fast paced style. I think that matches our system pretty good.”
“I stress over the decisions I’ll have to make and whether I can keep everyone happy. At the end of the day, it’ll be the kids deciding who plays. The ones that want to compete as hard as I do will get a leg up and I can’t help but think that will make us a tough team to play. Our experience might cost us wins to start the year but as the season goes on we will just get stronger and stronger and I think have the potential to make a run. Other teams are more seasoned and will start out with a little bit of a head start but by the end of the year I fully expect us to be in the mix as long as our kids come with a team first attitude and check individual desires at the door.”
The schedule will again do Ozark zero favors.
Last year, the Tigers saw Final Four participant Rogersville, state-ranked Rolla and Class 3 runner-up Catholic and that was before the turn of the calendar.
This year’s gauntlet will include Maryville, Har-Ber (Ark.), the Sedalia Tournament, Rock Bridge and Columbia Hickman.
Still, the meat of Ozark’s schedule is found in conference play in what may be the deepest field the COC has seen top to bottom.
To compete for conference and district titles, Ozark will likely have to contend with the likes of Nixa, Republic, Willard, Webb City and Joplin, among others.
Schweitzer and Ozark are already preparing for what will be a brutal February and March. For the Tigers to get where they want to go, how they navigate the conference slate could play a major factor.
“My job this year, more than any other year, is to get these kids to gel as a team and play for each other, together. I think I’ve done a good job of that in the past but this team will be my biggest challenge because the talent is there to compete but the youth and wide spread age of the kids means they have not played together and cared for each other before. If our staff can get them to gel, we will be in the thick of all the races in February and March.”
Ozark will open the 2019-20 season at the Republic Tournament.