By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mount Vernon has strung together three straight winning seasons, but perhaps none were tougher than last year’s introduction to the Big 8 Conference.
The Mt’neers finished 19-8 before falling to Seneca in districts. While many of the same opponents littered the schedule, it was the quality of play that kept Mike Ray and company on their toes.
“With Catholic and Rogersville making it to the Final Four, that side of the conference is loaded. Marshfield was really good last year,” he said. “It presents quite a challenge for us. We have to be ready to strap it on because it’s going to be tough.”
Fortunately, Ray returns four starters and his largest senior class (eight total) during his five years at Mount Vernon. The group includes All Big 8 East selections Cale Miller and Mason Ballay, along with Zach Jones, Slater Eldridge, Colby Johnson, Kaden Killingsworth, Noah Duwe, and Toby Hoover.
The group’s recent success on the gridiron has meant a longer adjustment period come basketball season, and Ray expects the same this year. Still, the level of experience throughout the group is likely to ease that process.
“They’ve done well to stick together. Of those eight seniors, all but two play football. They’ve had success in a lot of different sports here.”
“The last two years, we’ve had one day of practice before our first game. We didn’t play great over the first couple weeks last year. Going into the Blue and Gold Tournament, we started to find our rhythm. We know to expect that. We just try to continue to get better and it has paid off for us in February and March.”
Ballay returns as the most dangerous shooter on this year’s squad. His 45% from beyond the arc and 14.2 points per game lead the team. Miller, meanwhile, started inside to the tune of 13 points and 4.2 rebounds per night.
Jones (5 PPG, 5 RPG) will join Miller in the frontcourt, while Eldridge (10 PPG) will slot alongside Ballay at guard.
Junior Rafe Darter, in the discussion for top athlete on the team, will add to the post presence with his 6’4” frame. He was a standout for the junior varsity squad last winter and that effort should pay off with more work on the top squad this year.
The largest looming question for the Mt’neers will likely be who will run the point.
“The one starter we lost from last year, Kelly Vaughn, was a four-year starter at point guard,” said Ray. “We’ll have to find a true ball handler. We hope someone can step up and take the lead on that.”
When that happens, and Mount Vernon finds their rhythm, their experience could pay dividends down the stretch. This group knows how to win across all sports and will understand what the final weeks of the season will take in order to win.
“We have some good skill guys that shoot the ball well, but even if we have everyone with us, the front end of our schedule is tough. We’ll find out early what we need to work on.”
Mount Vernon opens the season on Dec. 6 at Nevada.