By Derek Shore (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Expectations were sky-high going into the Fordland Lady Eagles 2016-17 season.
In fact, longtime head coach Kevin McDaris said last year’s group had the potential to be one of the most competitive under his 16-year tenure.
With a team that consisted of no seniors, Fordland finished 13-14 last year (2-4 in Summit Conference play), losing to Hartville in the opening game of districts.
“We dealt with some injuries, but they played hard and competed all season,” McDaris said, who enters his 17th season with a 235-190 career record at the Webster County school. “Six of our losses were under six points. We were very young last season. This experience has made us closer as a team, and I think it has made us better.”
Fortunately for the Lady Eagles, they return all five starters and eight lettermen, giving Fordland an opportunity to compete with potent teams like Hartville, Gainesville, and Norwood once again.
Among the top returnees for the Lady Eagles includes junior guard Sophie Sparks (5-foot-4). As a sophomore, Sparks averaged 17.8 points over only four games last season due to a broken arm.
“We are glad to have her back this year,” McDaris said. “I believe she is one of the best point guards in the area. She is a tough matchup for other teams because she is a great scorer and she also passes the ball very well. She is also our best defender.”
Taking over at point guard last year, sophomore Abi Southard (5-foot-5) led Fordland in scoring (16.2 points) and assists (3.2). Southard, who possesses the natural ability to score, made 38 three-point buckets and can get to the basket.
She was also named to the All-Conference and All-District teams as well.
Another solid junior is Emily Whiteford (5-foot-5), who posted 11.6 points per game last year and grabbed 5.8 rebounds. Whiteford attacks the basket and is also an adept three-point shooter, knocking down 42 triples on the season.
Four seniors and one other sophomore make up the rest of the returnees, headlined by senior Brooke Hyder (5-foot-4), who stepped into the starting lineup when Sparks was injured and had a breakout year. Hyder averaged 9.6 points per game, making 58 threes while shooting 38 percent from the field.
Rounding out the returnees includes seniors Danielle Bailey (5-foot-6), Lexie Stoll (5-foot-8), Jaiden Suter (5-foot-2), and sophomore Kenzie Branson (5-foot-8).
Bailey averaged 5.8 points a game and grabbed a team-high 7.4 rebounds over 27 games. Stoll and Suter each 2.9 and 4.2 points per game last year as well while Branson saw some varsity time as a freshman.
“Danielle is a very versatile player for us,” McDaris said. “She can play inside and outside. She is our leader on and off the court. Lexie is our only true post player. She is a solid post defender and rebounder. We need her to continue to improve on her scoring.
“Lexie was our sixth man last season. She provided some toughness off the bench for us last year. She is a good guard who can handle the ball and score when needed. Kenzie is an athletic forward who can provide us with some depth and height off the bench this season.”
Other names to keep tabs on are sophomores Jessie Brown (5-foot-6) and Kayleena Lucas (5-foot-2) as well as freshman Mahalia Burks (5-foot-6).
Brown, who missed her freshman year due to an injury, is back and healthy this season, providing depth at the forward position. Lucas is a good shooter, who will give depth at the guard position. McDaris said Burks continues to improve on both ends of the floor and expects her to see minutes off the bench this season.
“We do not have much height, but we are quick,” McDaris said. “We like to play a fast-paced game, and we like to shoot threes. We have six to seven girls who are capable of making multiple threes in a game.”
Another key component for Fordland this season will be rebounding which is an aspect they will need to improve on come playoff time.
“We are very excited about this season,” McDaris said. “We have everyone back from last year, and our expectations are very high for this season. This a very competitive group of kids. They want to be good, and they want to win.”
Fordland opens the season at the Cabool Shootout on November 25.
“Our goals for the season are to compete for the conference and district championships,” McDaris said. “I think we have the talent and ability to do this.”