By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mount Vernon has represented one of the area’s most consistent girls basketball programs in the last half-decade. They Lady Mt’Neers have put up 66 wins in three years along with three straight district championships.
Last season, they continued their success under the tutelage of first-year head coach Grant Berendt. There was plenty in the cupboard, including nine seniors and three future collegiate athletes. With those departures, particularly Class 3 All-State selection Cameron Call, now at Illinois State, Berendt has a much different job ahead.
“This program carries so much tradition. This is just the next step of us carrying on that torch and doing what teams before us have done,” he said. “I walked into a great situation last year. They had been coached well and I got to put my twist on it. With everything we lost and the young players we gained, we’re trying to get them to understand what basketball means to this school and community.”
Berendt added how this year reminds him of going into his second season with Neosho prior to his arrival in Mount Vernon.
“The first year, I had a couple seniors that anchored us. This year, we return two very good juniors with a slew of young kids to mix in. We’re approaching it differently and the kids are excited to prove themselves. They know the shoes they have to fill.”
The lone full-time returning starter is junior Lacy Stokes, who will return to her spot at point guard for the third straight year. She appeared in all 30 games as a sophomore, dishing out 84 assists and averaging 9.2 points per night. As an All-Big 8 East Second Team selection, she already carries her own postseason honors, and Berendt expects that list will only grow.
“She should probably have received more accolades, but she played behind such a talented class,” he said. “It’ll be her turn now as long as she keeps working.”
Ellie Johnston, another junior, will step into a full-time starting role after being the first player off the bench last winter. She will look to improve on her 4.7 points per game while utilizing her long reach and defensive prowess.
“She put up 20 for us a couple times off the bench last year. She’s a long kid that can guard any position. We won’t be very tall this year, but she’s one of our biggest in that 2- or 3-guard role.”
An ACL injury to sophomore Raegan Boswell will deal a blow as Berendt had expected to slot her into a starting spot, but classmates Cameryn Cassity and Jolie Prescott are ready to step up. Berendt said Cassity is the benefactor of a big growth spurt over the summer and will be a boost with her versatility on defense.
Prescott mainly ran point for the junior varsity squad last year, but has been one of the most consistent sights at offseason workouts and will factor into varsity play as well.
The freshman class is a bigger question mark with 11 incoming players. There is talent there, with the group having won the Big 8 Tournament as eight graders, but it will be a matter of establishing strengths and roles.
Berendt is excited about his talent, but will not want to reinvent the wheel in the early going. It could take until after the Pink and White Tournament to truly see what the Lady Mt’neers have to offer.
“We will have good team speed. We’ll have to keep things simple early because we have so many new kids. We expect to be very good at the basic things. The team you see in the first three days at the Carthage Tournament will not be the team you see in districts. Eventually, those freshmen and sophomores that are playing up won’t be freshmen and sophomores in their minds anymore.”
Mount Vernon opens the season Dec. 9 against Neosho.