By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It has been a long time since a local boys team won a Class 3 boys state championship. Which area teams are looking to break that drought this year?
Mountain Grove looking for third straight Final Four run
I’m almost sad for this season to come to a close because it’ll be the end of an era at Mountain Grove. Carter Otwell, Cade Coffman and Connor McNew – The Killer C’s – have been a part of back-to-back Final Four runs and now they’re reloading for a third straight and maybe the best opportunity at a Class 3 state championship. Coffman (20 PPG, 9 RPG) and McNew (15 PPG, 5 RPG) are extremely gifted perimeter scorers and Carter Otwell (9 PPG, 6 RPG, 7 APG) is the straw that stirs the drink. The biggest difference between this group and past teams is Dylan Massey (12 PPG, 8 RPG). The 6-foot-4 junior gives Mountain Grove a legitimate post presence on both ends, but his athleticism and ability to run the floor allow him to fit in with the Panthers high-octane offense. The bad news is for everyone else in District 10 is Grove’s dominance in that shiny new gym. Sure, Licking happened to pull out a win there, but winning in Grove isn’t easy. They’ve won 33 of their last 35 home games. Maybe the most telling sign of their dominance is how they didn’t duck anyone during the regular season and it took a buzzer-beater to give them their lone loss. Grove beat Kickapoo, Nixa, Catholic, Hartville (2), Dora, Thayer, Strafford and Fair Grove. They’re also fun to watch, scoring at least 70 points in 18 of their 26 regular season games. They’re an overwhelming favorite to give the Ozarks local representation at JQH Arena come March.
Springfield Catholic looking to get over the hump
Catholic might be the most complete Class 3 team in the Ozarks from balance, depth, size and guard play standpoint. Sure, they have eight losses but let’s look at who those came from. Mountain Grove, Confluence Prep, Helias Catholic, Republic Saxony Lutheran, Rogersville, Mount Vernon and Aurora. Six of those came to Class 4 or Class 5 teams. Five of those came by five points or fewer. They enter districts with three straight wins and playing much better basketball. Junior Jake Branham has emerged as an explosive scorer to go along with his ability to facilitate, which has changed the dynamic of the team. They’ve beaten Strafford, Mount Vernon, Mansfield, Willard, Rogersville and Republic this season. District 11 isn’t a cakewalk, but the Irish are the favorite. They’re also the only team in the district to win a game in Strafford this season.
Can Strafford send Mike Wilson out the right way?
Strafford has won district titles in five of the last seven seasons under chief Mike Wilson. Wilson has announced his retirement and I have no problem saying I’ll miss seeing him on the sidelines, but anyone that has had to coach against him probably disagrees. Wilson and Strafford have been as difficult to beat as anyone and this team is no different. They enter districts with a nine-game winning streak and each of those wins has come by double figures. They’re 6-1 at home this season and have won each of the last three district tournaments they’ve hosted. Weston Boswell and Riley Oberbeck are long guards that can score it, but they’ve also been able to lead a group that seems to have learned from early losses. Five of their six losses came by eight points or fewer, including heartbreakers with Forsyth (59-55), Mountain Grove (69-66), Hartville (59-56) and Catholic (64-59). What better way to send out Hall of Famer Mike Wilson than with another district championship at Strafford?
Licking hopes lightning strikes twice
Licking picked up the best Class 3 win of the season, knocking of 25-1 Mountain Grove at home. But, to win a district title, they’ll have to do it again. Which – as we said above – is a rarity. The Wildcats do enter district play with wins in six straight games and the 3-seed. The bad news is they’ll have to go through MV-BT/Liberty, the last team to beat them, to have the opportunity to play Grove. Liberty beat Licking twice this season by a total of six points.
Mount Vernon looks for revenge in District 12
Mount Vernon hasn’t won a district championship since 2015, which seems like an eternity for that program. Last year they lost to Lamar in double overtime. While there’s been some turnover with that group, 6-foot-8 senior Kyle Bushman is back, as is steady junior PG Kelly Vaughn. The ‘Neers have played a brutal schedule with losses to Catholic, Fort Smith Southside, Webb City, Nixa, Kickapoo, Aurora, Clever and Rogersville. However, they also beat Willard, Catholic, Lamar (in 2OT), Hartville, Walnut Grove and Fair Grove. The one knock?
Do you really think Fair Grove is down?
They started the season 5-5 and it seemed like 2017-18 might be a long season for Tim Brown. And then things started clicking. Since then, the Eagles are 11-5 which includes a win over Forsyth. They’ve struggled defensively at times but are so explosive offensively that they’re dangerous against anyone. They’re 7-1 when they make at least 10 3-pointers and have made as many as 14 on three different occasions. Sophomore David Oplotnik (14.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG) shoots it at nearly 40 percent from deep, which is an issue because he’s 6-foot-4. Brown loves stretch bigs and Oplotnik is just his latest toy with an extremely bright future. Classmate Cole Gilpin (14.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.5 APG) and junior Kyle Stacey (11.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG) are both combo guards that can attack the rim, facilitate and shoot it from deep. Senior Garrett Potter (10.4 PPG, 3.1 APG) is another guard that can shoot it from 3. Throw in junior Kameron Stacey and you have a team that’s built to make a run next year but is capable of giving the area a preview of that now. Fair Grove has won back-to-back district titles, but both of those came as district host. Strafford won the previous five district titles before that, three of which came in Strafford, which is exactly where the 2018 district tournament will be played.
Forsyth continues magical season
Everyone expected Forsyth to be much better than last year, but a 20-win season and undefeated SWCL championship run has the Panthers a legitimate contender in a loaded District 12. They’re the 4-seed, despite having a win over 2-seed Strafford, but a pair of losses to 3-seed Fair Grove (who lost to Strafford) flipped the seeding in the district. Forsyth doesn’t have the strength of schedule that other teams in the district have, but they have a pair of horses in Micaiah Rocha (22.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists) and Anthony Stanford (13.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks). Rocha is one of the best players that doesn’t get enough media love, especially with how good he is with the ball in his hands. Stanford is one of the area’s most elite defenders and his 6-foot-4 frame and freaky athleticism allows him to defend 1-5. So, you have a guy capable of going off offensively and another guy capable of locking down elite scorers. This is the reason Forsyth knocked off Strafford, Walnut Grove and Reeds Spring. They’re capable of beating anyone in the district on a given night.
Stockton looking to build on solid season
Stockton enters districts with wins in eight of its last 11 games. Keep in mind, this is a Tiger group that earned a seed in this year’s Blue and Gold Tournament. Five of their eight losses were by eight points or fewer. Their versatility makes them difficult to defend. Having a 6-foot-4 forward in Gannon Kenney that can step out and shoot the 3 is tough. Having wings that can score it like junior Clayton Hubbard (17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds) and Drew Wheeler (15.2 points, 3.3 assists) also causes matchup problems and senior point guard Jake Wheeler (six assists, 2.5 steals) is able to bring it all together. They’re in a district full of Big 8 teams which makes it tough, but nobody won more games than Stockton.
Shalin Stout, MV-BT/Liberty
A health scare robbed Stout of six games and seemed like it could end his career, but a clean bill of health has the rest of Class 3 on notice. The 6-foot-8 center in the Eagles leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and rebounder (5.6 RPG) and has blocked 221 shots in his career. Stout also allows Liberty to play a huge lineup and shifts stretch-4 Andrew Holden (11.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG) back to a more comfortable role. Holden has had some huge games due to his ability to score inside and out. The X-factor is PG Tyler Dewick (11.6 PPG, 3.6 APG). The 6-foot senior is averaging 14.1 PPG over his last seven and dropped 19 in both wins over Licking. Liberty is again long, athletic and deep, this could be the group that gets the Eagles back in the state playoffs.
Devan Hampton, Clever
Clever was dealt a tough blow when senior guard Caleb Peck (18.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 67 3s) tore his ACL, ending his season prematurely. A healthy Peck meant Clever was going to have a chance to make some noise in district play. But, life isn’t fair and basketball isn’t fair. Luke Brosius does have one of the best point guards in senior Devan Hampton (15.4 PPG, 5 APG, 5 RPG, 2.6 SPG) and now even more responsibility falls on his shoulders. He’s a dynamic playmaker and the Jays will need every ounce of that to make a run. A rematch with Forsyth, who beat them by two during the regular season and is a conference rival, should be a compelling first round matchup.
Ian Moore, Lamar
Moore is one of the most gifted scorers in the area, which makes the Tigers extremely dangerous in a playoff format. He dropped 37 of East Newton, 31 on Camdenton and 20ish on just about everyone else. On the season, he is averaging 19.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. His ability to create space is about as good as you’ll see at the high school level and he’s easily one of the most fun players to watch in all of southwest Missouri. Lamar grabbed a share of the Big 8 title, the first time the program has gone back-to-back ever. Lamar has been playing great basketball with the emergence of 6-foot-6 big Truman Kaderly and the ability of Garrett Morey to stretch defenses. They also have an abundance of physical athletes on their roster (thanks to Scott Bailey). This group is capable of adding back-to-back district titles, especially hosting the district.
Matt Luebbert, Warsaw
Warsaw is a team rarely seen around these parts and – by virtue of being in District 13 – they avoid all of Southwest Missouri. But, this team is worthy of some love after a resurgent regular season. After winning three games total from 2015-17, the Wildcats will finish this season no worse than .500 thanks 13 wins entering district play. A key cog behind the success has been 6-foot-4 scoring machine Matt Luebbert (23.6 PPG, 11.6 RPG) and point guard Logan Davis (14.2 PPG, 4.5 APG). Both juniors have been responsible for Warsaw righting the ship and the Cats could be a team to watch next year.