By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For the fourth time this decade, the Walnut Grove Lady Tigers finished atop Class 1.
Walnut Grove comes off a state championship season, its first since a three-peat from 2013-15.
The Lady Tigers finished 27-5 overall and beat their two final four opponents – Lakeland and Stanberry – by a combined margin of 57 points.
Not surprisingly, Walnut Grove’s eyeing another final four run this season. The Lady Tigers return three of their top four scorers, including reigning Class 1 Player of the Year Faith Gilkey.
In addition to four state titles this decade, Walnut Grove has also won nine straight district titles – the longest-running streak by any program in the area.
“Our conference is tough and our path to the final four will be extremely difficult, but we have experience in big-game situations,” said Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry. “Our expectations are to compete for another state championship in March.”
Gilkey leads Walnut Grove’s stellar junior class and comes off a breakout sophomore campaign.
She led Walnut Grove in scoring (22 points per game), assists (3.9 per game) and tallied the second-most rebounds (4.9 per game).
“She cemented herself as one of the elite players in our area,” Henry said. “She can do it all from the point guard position. She is very quick and get to the rim when she wants. She is a great shooter outside and a tenacious defender.”
Lauren Johnson earned first team all-conference honors as a sophomore. The 5’9” junior averaged nine points and four rebounds per game.
“She had a great season and was close to being named all-state as well,” Henry said. “She’s extremely athletic, runs the floor well and is a great defender. We are really looking for her to have a huge year.”
Walnut Grove will be missing a major piece of its lineup, however. Junior Makayla McVay – a first-team all-state selection – tore her ACL in July and will miss the majority of the season.
Henry is optimistic that McVay (13.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) could return in time for districts in late February.
“She can really stretch the floor and plays inside or out,” Henry said.
Walnut Grove also brings back seniors Courtlyn Ryker and Cortney Stevens, juniors Sadye Crump and Morgan Hailey, and sophomore Taylor Gold.
Crump and Stevens played in all 32 games last season.
“Sadye had some really big moments last year and had a great summer for us,” Henry said. “She’s athletic and can shoot. She could be our X-factor.
“Cortney’s a good defender and has the ability to shoot the ball. We are looking for her to step up big this year.”
Hailey and Ryker will give Walnut Grove depth in the backcourt. Gold, a 5’10” sophomore, will bring a needed presence inside with McVay out.
“(Gold) is physical and rebounds well,” Henry said.
With only two players listed over 5’10” – Gold and McVay – Walnut Grove’s strength lies in the backcourt.
“We are a fast, guard-oriented team,” Henry said. “We pride ourselves in playing tough hard-nosed defense and controlling the tempo of the game with full-court pressure. The key for us this year will be how well some of our returning lettermen and freshmen adjust to a bigger role.”
Walnut Grove graduated two seniors: Grace McPhail and Myranda McVay. McPhail was a four-year starter and one of Walnut Grove’s top-four scorers.
“Grace had a huge game against South Iron in the quarterfinals to get us to the final four,” Henry said. “Myranda was an inspiration leader for us. Great kid and worked as hard as anyone we’ve had.”
Freshmen Jaedyn Johnson (5’8”) and Peyton Johnson (5’5”) will see varsity playing time in their rookie seasons.
“Jaedyn fits right into our defensive scheme,” Henry said. “Peyton’s a great shooter, plays hard and could see huge minutes in Mikayla’s absence.”
To prepare for the Class 1 postseason, Walnut Grove will again play multiple Class 3-5 schools throughout the season.
Four of the Lady Tigers’ five losses last season came against schools who were Class 3 or larger.
“We always have a very tough schedule for a Class 1 team and this year is no different,” Henry said. “We know there are going to be ups and downs but we feel we can compete with anyone and that should prepare us a postseason run.”
Walnut Grove opens the regular season Dec. 2-7 at the Ash Grove Lady Pirate Classic.