By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Last season was a banner year for Fair Grove.
Loaded with talent and experience, the Lady Eagles finished with a 24-4 record, before falling to four-time Class 3 state champion Strafford in the district title matchup.
Fair Grove head coach Jenny Talbert, set to begin her 10th season with the program, was pleased with her team’s journey.
“We had a great season last year,” Talbert said. We would have loved to have competed better versus Strafford but, besides those two losses, we did a great job of avenging loses versus teams we had lost to in years past (Skyline and Clever).”
Five graduated seniors depart the program, including Alana Findley, Harley Maxwell, Cydney Fullerton, Lexie Sutherland and Kalyn Wheat.
The quintet represented 84 percent of Fair Grove’s scoring last season and 87 percent of its rebounding.
Findley amassed over 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds during her four years. The two-time all-state selection will continue her basketball career this season at Drury University.
Both Maxwell and Sutherland are set to play for Evangel University.
“We will definitely miss our five seniors that we had last year,” Talbert said. “Between the five of them, we graduated about 4100 points for their careers. Each one of these seniors served a vital role and we will never completely replace them. We will be a new type of team, but their legacy will live on. They have left quite an impact on our program and their key attributes of hard work and team work will be key components of our program.”
Despite the heavy graduation losses, Fair Grove does return a pair of key components.
The Lady Eagles will be led by senior Maddie Clark (2.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.2 spg) and junior Brooklyn Luna (7.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 5.1 apg, 2.0 spg).
“Maddie has been a varsity player for four years,” Talbert said. “She was our sixth man last year, but was basically like a sixth starter. We didn’t miss a beat when she was in the game. Brooklyn is our main ball handler and one of our best outside shooters. She will be asked to become more of a scorer this year and look for her shot more than she did in the past.”
With its large number of graduates, opportunities abound for Fair Grove’s host of newcomers eager to earn varsity playing time and impact roles, including a trio of seniors in Bailee Morgan, Liz Holland and Kennedy Phifer.
Morgan returns to the varsity roster after taking her junior season off.
“Bailee is a great option for us as a shooting guard,” Talbert said. “She played some varsity minutes as a sophomore so she does have some varsity experience which will be helpful for us since we are so young and inexperienced.”
Other newcomers include juniors Lauren Kennard and Gracin Wood, sophomore Bradi Weaver and freshman Kameron Green.
With limited experience at the varsity level, Talbert believes her team will need to develop quickly and rely heavily on its returning players for leadership.
“One of the biggest challenges will be adjusting to varsity basketball,” Talbert said. “We only have three girls who have ever played lots of minutes at the varsity level. Basketball season can become a grind and the sooner our young ones adjust the better we will be. We obviously have many stat areas we have to replace and scoring will be a big one. We will need our main returners to adjust to becoming our team scorers. Staying out of foul trouble will be big for us as well.”
Talbert sees offensive production as another potential early challenge; however, she believes her team’s overall speed and defense can help alleviate any shortcomings as the scoring chemistry develops.
“We will have tremendous team speed,” Talbert said. “Maddie Clark is one of the most athletic and quickest girls in the area. Brooklyn Luna and Bailee Morgan are also very fast and track stars, as well. I hope that we can use their speed on both ends of the floor, and we will try to find ways to use our team speed to our advantage.”
The new-look Fair Grove roster won’t be alone this season in the challenging Mid-Lakes Conference, as perennial heavyweights Strafford and Clever both suffered key graduation losses, as well.
While the conference and district races could be up for grabs, Talbert is content working on day-to-day improvements, for now, and helping her new players adjust to the flow of varsity basketball.
“We want to improve with every game, always be the hardest working team on the court and play with 100% effort at all times,” Talbert said “I think our main obstacle will just be learning to adjust to playing without our main scorers/rebounders/leaders last season. The speed at which we adjust to varsity basketball will be a big x-factor. It will take us a bit to get all sorted out, but I feel like once everyone is up to speed we will be playing our best basketball.”
Fair Grove opens its season Nov. 26 at Mountain Grove.