By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It’s no secret that the Class of 2018 holds a special place at Ozark across all sports and basketball is no different.
The group has seen three straight district runner-up finishes with each loss coming at the hands of Kickapoo.
Entering his fifth season as head coach at Ozark, Mark Schweitzer isn’t running from the expectations that 2017-18 will bring.
Ozark has seemingly embraced the idea that it’s district championship or bust.
“These kids know what Kickapoo lost and that they have the ability to win a very tough district,” said Schweitzer. “The district reloaded with Parkview getting Tyem Freeman and Glendale is obviously very good. Kickapoo doesn’t have household names but they will be capable to win with their players who have waited in the wings.
“I’d be lying if I downplayed our expectations. We expect to win, but we expected to win the last three district finals games as well. We’re hungry. We will come to play.”
Ozark returns three starters from last year’s 19-win team that won the Blue and Gold and upset Glendale in the district semifinals, headlined by dynamic scoring duo Quinn Nelson and Parker Hanks.
Both senior guards earned All-COC honors last winter. Nelson averaged a team-high 17 points, knocking down 89 3-pointers. Hanks is one of the most efficient scorers in the Ozarks from a guard spot, averaging 15 points and five rebounds while shooting 58% from the field.
They don’t get as much attention as other scoring duos on the south side of Springfield, but Schweitzer is high on his guys.
“Quinn and Parker are definitely our leaders,” said Schweitzer. “It’s a good feeling for me knowing they’re on the floor. I appreciate them immensely and will miss them after they graduate.
“There will be times this season where the most important thing I do during a game is sit down, shut up and just trust these kids to play because they are ready and they don’t need me telling them what to do all the time. That might be the first time I’ve ever admitted that.”
Payton Nichols might be the most important returner because of what he brings to the table.
The 6-foot-3 senior is a big on a team that doesn’t have many bigs, but his length and athleticism allow him to protect the rim at a high level and finish in traffic.
After a great offseason of growth, Nichols is expected to build on his 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks per game.
Under normal circumstances Curt Gracey would be listed here, but for the second year in a row the standout senior, who was the sixth man as a freshman and started as a sophomore, will likely miss the entire season.
His absence continues to create opportunity to make an impact in that backcourt, with several seniors vying for spots.
Mason Capps and Will Pickering are two guards whose ability to shoot it or move without the ball in Schweitzer’s motion offense make them extremely valuable.
Pickering took over the starting role last year until a wrist injury essentially ended his season.
Juniors Kristian Cooper, Caleb Holzer and Parker Ramsdell are also great fits in the offense and will provide depth and more shooters for opponents to account for.
Schweitzer is expecting some new faces to add some size and athleticism to Ozark’s frontline.
Baseball standout Forrest Barnes, who has already committed to pitch at Missouri State, is expected to be a versatile 4-man that can defend multiple positions and help on the glass.
We’ve seen this before in the Ozarks. Current MSU freshman pitcher Connor Sechler helped Bolivar get to the Final Four last year after not having played basketball since eighth grade.
Senior Peyton Skipworth is an intriguing combo forward prospect that can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot it.
Sophomore AJ Elliott will be one of the biggest players in the COC at 6-foot-6, 235lbs. He’ll immediately step into rotational minutes.
“I really like coaching this group; they are all capable varsity players that understand out motion,” said Schweitzer. “I believe that I have 11 varsity players that can step in and impact a game. If that’s the indeed the case, we will be deeper this year than previous years and very hard to guard.”
Ozark’s schedule will again offer little reprieve from what is a loaded COC and district slate.
The Tigers open with the Republic Tournament and will see Kansas power Blue Valley Northwest and Kickapoo before the Blue and Gold.
Then comes January, which offers the SLUH, Bass Pro Tournament of Champions and yet another meeting with Glendale, which should decide the top seed in the district.
Schweitzer has never been one to duck opponents, regardless of class, talent or location. This is likely the toughest schedule he’s had in his time at Ozark, all in hopes of preparing his Tigers for the opportunity to win that elusive district championship.
Which, with this group of seniors, would mean everything to the program… and to Schweitzer.
“Going to the gym with these kids has been a true pleasure and I will enjoy every day this season,” said Schweitzer. “This group is special to me because we do have a very close knit locker room and I believe each one of these kids have confidence in me to lead them.
“That’s a special feeling as a coach and is not the case every year in today’s society. I want the world for these kids and as a team we want to be considered special by SWMO by going about our business the right way and winning championships. There is work for us to do in order for us to make believers of people outside of Ozark and that is our focus.”