By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mountain Grove has made good on maximizing its talent pool over the last three seasons. The Panthers have represented their hometown in the Class 3 Final Four on three straight occasions and took third place last year.
After suffering just two losses during the 2017-2018 season, they have a mighty hall to replace. Cade Coffman, Carter Otwell, Connor McNew, and Hayden Newberry all earned South Central Association honors last year.
All are gone.
Coffman joined former teammates Treye Collins and D.J. McNew in a continuing string of SCA Players of Year and All-State selections. What the Panthers do return is Duane Hiler, who has spent the last half-decade being honored as the top coach in the conference and is no stranger to the task.
“Every year has its challenge,” he said. “You embrace that and I guess it keeps you young. We enjoy seeing the kids get a taste of this and be able to go to the postseason.”
In fact, Hiler made a point to say the Panthers will surprise folks yet again this winter. He has six seniors that have all been first-hand witnesses of a winning culture to help him achieve that.
“They competed against these older guys every game. The last three groups were all tight and this one is no different. It rubs off and winning is contagious, so I hope they caught it.”
The road back to state begins with 6’6” senior Dylan Massey, an All-SCA Second Team selection a year ago. He returns a team-high 12 points and nine rebounds per night. His prowess on the glass showed at JQH Arena last year when he pulled down 29 boards in two games. That level of production will be necessary this year.
“If he stays healthy, he has the chance to be special,” said Hiler.
Seniors guards Dawson Hiler, John Felkner, and Bryce Lauderdale also return, with Hiler carrying the most starting experience. He averaged eight points per game as a junior and hovered above 90 percent from the free throw line.
Felkner and Lauderdale will be looked upon to take up bigger roles this winter.
Senior Gavin Vaughn will also add to the guard depth after transferring in from Plato. He provided 6.5 points and 2.9 assists per night for the Eagles last year.
Hiler added the Panthers may not average the 73.6 points they did last year, but they are ready to reload and continue to roll just as they have done over the last several years. They are a reigning winner of the Blue & Gold Tournament and still have not lost an SCA decision in four years.
Until those results change, Mountain Grove remains one of the toughest outs in the Ozarks.
“(The players) have higher expectations than most people. We’ve maybe been spoiled a bit, being able to go to three final fours in a row. They understand the responsibility and what we expect in the program.”
“There will be a growing period early just like there is every year, but they’re excited. They don’t back away from a challenge.”