By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
One of the most surprising teams in all of Missouri last year was West Plains.
The Zizzers had their first winning season since 2016, with their 22 wins exceeding their winning total from the last two seasons combined.
While their season ended prematurely in a district title game loss to eventual Final Four participant Rogersville, West Plains took home a share of the Ozark Conference title for the first time ever and owned wins over basketball powers like Kickapoo, Parkview, Willard and Bolivar.
“We had a really good group of seniors who were great leaders,” said West Plains head coach Shane Benson. “We also had some young players mature and play their role really well. That combination was a very good mix and we were fortunate to win a lot of close games.”
Benson’s third season at West Plains will have a different look, as he tries to replace three starters and seven letterwinners, including All-Ozark Conference selections Jacob Swope and Clay Butler.
West Plains will again be competitive, it’ll just have a different look this year, led by a strong perimeter attack.
Senior point guard Allen Marcak returns after averaging 6.8 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals. Classmate Connor Rackley, who was the team’s sixth man last year but essentially played a starter’s role, is also back in the mix after averaging 4.8 points and 2.1 assists. Rackley committed to play football at SBU earlier this fall.
“Allen started every game as our point guard,” said Benson. “He is deceptively athletic and is very disruptive on the defensive end of the floor. We are looking for him to be much more of an offensive threat. Allen had a great summer and we are looking for big things from him.
“Connor is a strong physical player who sees the floor really well. He is very competitive and we will look to him for his leadership and poise in tight situations.”
The darkhorse of the group is 6-foot-3 wing Taylor Harrison.
As a sophomore he started every game, putting up 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds. He’s a sleeper to be among the top scorers in the Ozark Conference this winter.
“Taylor is looking to have a breakout year,” said Benson. “He is athletic and is very skilled. He can score from all areas on the floor and will have to pick up a big scoring load for us.”
The list of newcomers is big, but none of them are in stature.
Seniors Chaney Martin, Mason Cochran, Carter Martin, Tommy Keller, Eli McGinley and Jacob Ackerson are all 6-feet tall or shorter, but all will compete for roles in the rotation at the guard spot. Ackerson, who is one of the program’s best rebounders, will be in the post.
West Plains’ success will hinge on how quickly the Zizzers can get acclimated to an altered system and vastly different roles.
“We will definitely miss the players that we lost from last year’s team, but we have spent all summer and fall preparing for the upcoming season,” said Benson. “We are upperclassmen heavy on this team. These guys have been patiently waiting their turns. We are hoping several of them will step up and show the leadership necessary for us to compete in this league.”
Small ball is something Zizzer fans will have to get used to after last year. West Plains played at one of the more methodical tempos in the league last year, holding teams to just 47.3 points and an insane 36 percent shooting from the field.
Being undersized, they’ll likely play faster. Benson is excited about this group, but it’ll be something different than what he’s done in his time in red.
“I would like to think it will help a lot but we are going to be almost a complete opposite type of team this year,” said Benson. “We lost almost all of our size. We are going to have to be very good defensively and figure out ways to get some easy buckets off of our defense. Hopefully our speed and quickness will help us with this.
“This bunch is going to have to completely buy in to the style we are going to try to play. We have 14 players that could play varsity ball. As a coach it is impossible to keep that many happy. We are anxious to see who steps up and separates themselves from the pack. We have to outwork and be more aggressive than every team we play because we will be so small. Hopefully, our depth will help us outlast and outwork our opponents.”
West Plains will open the 2019-20 season on Dec. 6, at home, against Willow Springs.