By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Joplin legend Jeff Hafer enters his fourth year as head coach at Joplin and the buzz surrounding Joplin Athletics as a whole is as high as it’s been in decades.
Eagles fans are hoping that the first class that has been in Hafer’s system for four years can provide the program’s first winning season since 2012-13, this on the heels of quadrupling last season’s win total from 2015-16.
“I certainly feel that we are starting to embrace our ability to defend and with that ability, generate transition offense and easy scoring opportunities,” said Hafer. “Our kids really started to grasp that concept towards the end of last year and carried over to our summer season where we continued to improve. This team is continually improving and I look for them to continue to grow and learn this year.”
On paper it seems like that growth will need to be extreme for Joplin to compete early, losing three starters from last year’s team that lost six games by single digits.
However, the game is played on the court and Joplin brings back eight lettermen and a loaded sophomore class that should allow the Eagles to compete immediately despite graduation departures.
“I absolutely think our returning players experience in our close games last year will
translate into us closing out games this year,” said Hafer. “Over the summer we found ways to win tight games down the stretch on both the defensive end and the offensive end. The
largest growth I saw in our team, that will translate into success this year, was their ability to “embrace the grind” on the defensive end. Our kids really started to guard in both the full and half court defensive possessions that can decide games.”
Joplin doesn’t have any giants, but the Eagles won’t lack length or depth.
Seniors Austin Higdon (6’3), Ayush Patel (6’4), Hagen Hoffman (6’2) and Grant Gillory (6’4) are much longer than their listed heights suggest and provide depth and a paint presence.
Classmates Garrett Woods (6’2) and Braeden Testerman (6’1) are long, athletic guards that also shoot it well.
Testerman is Joplin’s returning leading scorer (11 PPG).
Hafer also has a welcomed addition to his backcourt in senior Zach Taylor, who joins the Eagles after sitting out last season. He’s yet another guard that can shoot it and also facilitate.
Adding to that depth is a loaded sophomore class that has several D-1 caliber athletes.
Evan Guillory is a 6-foot-2 guard that is the team’s returning rebounding leader (6) and second-leading scorer (8 PPG).
After spending the summer playing with prestigious grassroots program MOKAN Elite, there is an expectation that Guillory can transition from a role player to a leader on both ends of the floor for the Eagles.
“I expect Evan to continue to develop,” said Hafer. “He works tirelessly in the gym and that has
resulted in his development of a consistent spot up 3 and coupled with his ability to get to the rim in the open floor and half court, will make him difficult to defend. Playing against better athletes has also really helped Evan improve his ability to defend on the ball; I will look for him to really improve on the defensive end this year.”
Football standouts Isaiah Davis and Zach Westmoreland got some varsity reps late last year. Hafer mentioned both sophomores as potential breakout players once they knockoff the football rust, thanks to their athleticism and competitiveness on both ends of the floor.
Hafer has 12 guys, possibly more, that he feels confident can step on the floor and produce. That depth and versatility will allow Joplin to give several different looks and do a variety of things schematically.
That will help the Eagles compete in a conference that offers vastly different playing styles program to program.
“We do have more depth this year than we have had in a long time,” said Hafer. “Our initial challenge will be to get into the physical condition we will need to be in to play the up-tempo
brand of basketball we want to play on both ends of the floor. “That up-tempo style helps us alleviate the pressure of one of our other challenges, which is our lack of size. We are however, quick and athletic and capable of playing fast, that will be instrumental to our success this year.”
Joplin is clearly heading in the right direction, looking to build off of last year’s finish of winning three of its last four games and posting its first district tournament win since 2012.
As the Eagles look to turn 2017-18 into a reload rather than a rebuild, Hafer is focused on reestablishing the greatness that once was Jopin Basketball.
“We have talked about continually getting better,” said Hafer. “If we commit to that, than good things happen. We have talked a lot about playing with a purpose and committing to the core values of our program and knowing that that it can make people take notice of Joplin Basketball. We are looking forward to the challenges of this season.”