By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Last season was a banner year for Blue Eye.
The Lady Bulldogs finished with a 21-7 record, falling Hartville in the Class 2 sectional round.
The team achieved both its primary goals — a district title and 7-0 run through the Southwest Central League — yet head coach Ken Elfrink felt they left a little on the table.
“We didn’t finish the season like we had hoped in the fact we did not play our best basketball in our final game,” Elfrink said. “We had a lot of injuries that sidelined kids through multiple games and I never felt we got in a rhythm so to speak with playing multiple lineups during the year and relying on several underclassmen to fill those roles. With that being said it should have prepared us even more so for this upcoming season.”
While Blue Eye has high expectations once again heading into the 2019-20 campaign — chief among them a third-straight district title — it must first replace a talented group of graduates, including four starters.
Taylor Arnold, Ayshia Bettlach, Kenzie Hobbs, Kenedi Larson and Hope Smith all move on from the program.
Arnold and Bettlach will both continue their basketball careers this season at Evangel University.
Despite the graduation losses, Blue Eye does return a talented group of rising players from last season’s roster.
The Lady Bulldog attack will be led by two-time all-state selection and SWCL Player of the Year Kohnnar Patton.
The 5-foot-6 senior averaged 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.1 steals last season and has committed to play at Evangel University.
“Kohnnar was our leading score the past three seasons and eclipsed the 1,000-point club last season,” Elfrink said. “She battled injuries all season but is healthy now and had a great summer. All around great offensive player and has the ability to guard inside and out — expect
her to have a big year.”
Blue Eye’s other returning players include senior Maddie Box (3 ppg, 3 rpg), sophomore Avery Arnold (6 ppg, 2 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.5 spg), sophomore Riley Arnold (5.5 ppg, 2 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.0 spg), sophomore Kyla Warren (1.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and senior Jaelyn Brown.
In addition, the Lady Bulldog lineup will feature a pair of varsity newcomers eager to fight for minutes in sophomores Makayla Johnson and Gracyn Fairchild.
“We lost a lot to graduation and key kids that will be hard to replace,” Elfrink said. “This group, however, may be the most competitive and determined group I have had. We have some senior leadership along with some youth that is going to spark the team, and I think we will surprise a lot of people.”
With a host of athletic players on the roster, Elfrink believes his team’s ability to switch things up defensively and create problems will be a major strength this season, as will its overall balance and competitive nature.
“We will be mismatched due to our lack of size, but I also feel we will cause a lot of mismatch problems for teams,” Elfrink said. “This group is not afraid of challenges and is very competitive. We are fairly skilled and shoot the ball pretty well, and our balance will be a strength. I have multiple girls that can score and teams won’t be able to key on one or two kids.”
While Blue Eye’s defense can create all sorts of havoc, the Lady Bulldogs will have to pay close attention to in-game foul counts and remain healthy.
“Our bench will not be as deep this season,” Elfrink said. “Staying away from the injury bug — which we did not do last season — and staying out of foul trouble will be key. This will be a fun group to coach and I think a fun group to watch play.”
For Blue Eye to build on last season’s success and mount another postseason run, the team must develop its secondary weapons around Patton, who will likely surpass the 1,500-point milestone at some point this season.
“Obviously, having a two-time all-state guard is our X-factor, and teams will be focusing on her,” Elfrink said. “To have other kids step up and take some of the load off her will be key for us.”
Blue Eye will get an early test this season, as the Lady Bulldogs’ schedule begins Nov. 25 at Strafford, the four-time defending state champion in Class 3.