By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Fresh off a district championship, the Mount Vernon boys’ basketball team enters a new chapter with a move to the Big 8 East Division this season.
Mountaineers coach Mike Ray is eager to see how his returning squad measures up against the other six teams in the division: Aurora, Hollister, Rogersville, Marshfield, Reeds Spring and Springfield Catholic.
“The overall quality of these programs and the basketball tradition they bring will offer new obstacles for us,” Ray said. “As a program, we need to raise our standards to be able to compete with larger schools and programs where basketball is important to the school and who put resources into basketball.”
The Mountaineers come off a 21-9 season in which they also posted a 3.8 team GPA off the court. They won the Class 3 District 12 tournament before falling 52-49 to Catholic in the sectional round.
Mt. Vernon graduated six seniors from that team, including three starters: leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker Kyle Bushman, defensive standout Ty Boswell and sharpshooter Cale Cornell.
“Kyle was our anchor last year on and off the court. His presence for us on offense and defense will be a challenge for us to replace,” Ray said. “Ty guarded the other team’s best player each night.
“Cale was our most consistent outside shooter and his ability to hit 3s took a lot of pressure off of Kyle. Cale was also our leader in charges taken and was a leader in our locker room.”
Returning starters Kelly Vaughn and Cale Miller will lead the Mountaineers this season.
Vaughn is one of the area’s most efficient point guards. He had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5-to-1 last season.
Ray’s looking for Vaughn to increase his scoring output (8.2 points per game as a junior) this season.
“We need Kelly to be more of an offensive threat while continuing his great play as our point guard,” Ray said. “He will help us as we bring some new faces to the varsity level. Kelly is an outstanding student and with his basketball skill, he will have the opportunity to play at the collegiate level.”
Miller emerged as a rising player in the area last season. As a sophomore starter on a veteran-laden team, he averaged 10 points and five rebounds per game and earned all-conference honors.
The 6’3” wing has the ability to play inside or outside.
“Cale will be counted on us for his offense but he will develop into more of an all-around player,” Ray said. “We expect him to be one of the top juniors in southwest Missouri.”
Mason Ballay (4 ppg, 3 rpg) was Mt. Vernon’s top reserve last season as a freshman.
“Mason can stretch a defense with his shooting ability and has great court sense,” Ray said. “While only a sophomore, he has a lot of basketball experience and will be counted on to be a team leader for us.”
The Mountaineers lost some size and athleticism with the graduation of Bushman, Boswell and others. Ray said team chemistry and defense are key.
“We will not be the most physically talented team but if we buy into our roles and play as a team, then our skill and basketball IQ will make us a competitive team,” Ray said. “This group will also need to make a commitment to get better defensively like last year’s team did.”
The Mountaineers will call up several players from last season’s successful JV team to fill the remaining starter and key reserve spots.
Junior Zach Jones is known for his toughness and defense.
“While he will be outsized most nights, he brings athleticism and a toughness we will need this year,” Ray said. “We expect Zach to excel as a defender and rebounder. He had an outstanding summer for us in that role.”
Junior Colby Johnston provides perimeter shooting. Classmate Slater Eldridge may be in line for the backup point guard role with his ball handling and scoring abilities.
Ray is also high on 6’3” sophomore Rafe Darter.
“He might be the best athlete on our team,” Ray said. “He is still young but we think he has the ability to be an outstanding player for our program.”
Three juniors, two sophomores and a freshman are also expected to contend for playing time.
The juniors are Kaden Killingsworth, Noah Duwe and Brett Violett.
“Kaden’s really come on this summer and is a good shooter who understands the game,” Ray said. “Noah, at 6’4”, has worked hard in the weight room and gives us size. Brett is back out for basketball this year and is one of our hardest workers.”
The sophomores are Curt Wendler, who suffered an injury last season, and 6’2” forward Kyle Orr. Freshman Kai Brown is also a name to watch for the future.
Mt. Vernon opens the season Nov. 26-Dec. 1 at the Clever Tournament.
“As with every year, we want to be the best team we can be by the end of the year,” Ray said. “To do that takes a commitment to practice each day with the right mindset and work ethic.
“If we do that and continue to build a family attitude, we will have a successful season. These men are outstanding in the classroom and will represent our school in a first-class style.”