By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
A new era is underway in Ava and the rest of the SCA should be worried.
Last year was the first time the Bears finished .500 or above since 2013. Now, Ava hands the reigns over to coaching vet Damon Seiger, who has nearly two decades of coaching experience.
He inherits a team that returns four starters and 11 total letterwinners. That includes First-Team All-SCA selection Andrew Dalton, Second-Team All-SCA pick Blake King and Honorable Mention All-SCA nod Nate Swafford.
Seiger didn’t get to work with his players during the summer and knows there is plenty of work ahead to get everyone acclimated to his system and expectations. He’s embracing not only the challenges of taking over a new program, but also the excitement.
“I think the biggest challenge is gaining your kids’ trust and for them to know you are in this with them,” said Seiger. “Having taken over this job August 1, I did not have the opportunity to have a traditional summer program with my guys. That in itself will prove to be a challenge as we will have to hit the ground running and it could be extended even longer with a deep playoff run in football. Bringing in former AD and coaching colleague, Kevin Armstrong will definitely help bridge the gap and give me another head coach caliber assistant that will aid in the development of our success.”
Everything starts with sophomore Andrew Dalton.
The 6-foot-2 Swiss Army Knife averaged 19.4 PPG and 7.5 RPG, earning him All-Ozarks Sports Zone Freshman Team honors.
“I expect him to have an even better year, but in the same regard he isn’t going to sneak up on anyone that’s for sure,” said Seiger. “Andrew is a five-position type player that can do a little of everything if asked of him. He’s a special talent and look forward to coaching him the next three years.”
Senior Blake King averaged 12.4 PPG as a junior, but could be in for an even bigger senior season after growing more than three inches since the start of last year. Classmate Nate Swofford averaged 11 PPG for the Bears last year.
Both are expected to shake off the rust of a long football season and lead the Bears on and off the court this winter.
“I expect both of them to increase their levels of play once again,” said Seiger. “Nate has added strength and will set the tone daily as to how to practice and lead as a senior. As one of the most athletic kids in the conference he will be looked to for a lot of things throughout his senior campaign. Blake has grown and statistically was our best perimeter shooter a year ago. With his newly found size I believe it will only enhance him as an all-around better player this season.”
Sophomore guards Kaden Bruce (4.9 PPG) and Blayne Mendel (4 PPG) are two guards that are capable of scoring, but will make an impact with their strength and athleticism on the defensive end.
6-foot-5 senior Jacob Gillies and classmate Dylan King will bring tough to the frontcourt and backcourt respectively. Juniors Mason Cole, Zach Mendel, Zach Miller and Quinton Donley will also battle for rotational spots. Cole and Mendel are a pair of athletic, two-way players. Miller is an undersized post that has solid footwork and Donley is a catch-and-shoot threat.
Regardless of the coaching change, there’s no dodging the expectations surrounding Ava Basketball entering this winter.
In total, three of the top 10 vote getters in SCA postseason awards return this season. Two of them play for the Bears. While district assignments remain to be seen, Seiger and Ava will set their sights on challenging programs like Thayer and Mountain Grove for SCA supremacy.
“Year in and year out the SCA is extremely competitive with some of the best coaches in the game regardless of classification,” said Seiger. “I don’t expect this year to be any different. These programs have tradition and have proven over the years that some of the best Class 2 and Class 3 basketball is played in the SCA.
“These guys are excited and think they are starting to realize the potential they could reach this season. A long way to go still but we have had a great preseason and have high expectations for this group as well.”
Ava will open the season on Nov. 26 at Seymour. The Bears won’t play their home opener until Dec. 17 against Fair Grove. Their schedule is loaded with traditional powers and a challenge against St. Louis Carnahan at the Route 66 Shootout in Waynesville.
What will decide Ava’s season is pretty simple.
“As is with most years, our health will dictate a lot going forward. If we can stay healthy I like what we are capable of doing,” said Seiger. “Another contributing factor will be how quickly we pick up a new system and take from practice and apply to our games. Fortunately for us conference and district play comes later in the year so we should have a couple of months to get ourselves ready for that level of play.
“Our fan base can expect to see a group of young men that play hard and play the game the right way.”