By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Here are some things to watch for in the Pink Bracket of the Pink & White Tournament.
The No. 1 Seed: Kickapoo (7-2)
The Lady Chiefs have been dominant this year. Yes, they have a pair of losses, but those came by a combined six points to great teams in Rolla and Incarnate Word. They also came without standout Bella Fontleroy. She’s averaging 14 and 6.3 rebounds and Indya Green continues to be a 20-10 double-double machine; they’re best inside-out duo in Missouri high school basketball. Seniors Rachel Senn and Madie Barrett provide size and length, allowing Kickapoo to pressure all over the floor and still protect the rim. The real revelation for this team has been the play of Kaya Goldsby at the point. Last year at Jack Britt (N.C.) she built a reputation on the back of her defense. But the 5-foot-7 guard has been great on both ends for Kickapoo, with the junior averaging 10 points and 4.9 assists. She’s a large reason why Kickapoo has handled the absence of Fontleroy so well. Kickapoo beating Nixa and Republic handily reiterated the fact they’re the best team in the Ozarks. If they run through some combination of Mt. Vernon/Strafford/Willard/Skyline in the next several days, they will have essentially knocked off every contender to their throne with the exception of West Plains.
Top Contenders: No. 1 Willard (7-0) | No. 2 Strafford (7-1) | No. 3 Mt. Vernon (6-0)
From 2009 to 2017, Willard had zero seasons of more than 15 wins. The Lady Tigers have now enjoyed three consecutive seasons with at least 16 wins, which speaks to the job JJ Adamson has done. Willard is off to a 7-0 start with wins over small-school powers Strafford and Walnut Grove, as well as Bolivar, Glendale and Central. Willard is as unique as anyone in the area in that they routinely have five players on the floor that can dribble, pass and shoot like a guard. Their balance is their strength, to the point where in a 49-36 win over Walnut Grove, nobody scored more than 10 points. In basketball, chemistry matters and Willard has plenty of that. Shooting matters, and the Lady Tigers collectively shoot it as well as anyone. All the headlines have talked about the fact they don’t have a star (five players averaging at least 9 PPG), but if Addy Adamson, Ariana Patillo, Brielle Adamson, Jada Holoman, Kailyn Washington and Vanessa Wells keep it up, they’ll have a chance to end the week and season with championships.
The roster has completely turned over at this point and Strafford continues to win. The Lady Indians have one blemish and that came at less than full strength on the road at Willard. Since then, Strafford has won six straight, including wins over Final Four contenders Licking and Blue Eye. The junior trio of Emma Compton, Emma Mullings and Mattie Walker have emerged as the next crop of greatness and all three can score it in bunches. What makes them unique is the amount of time they’ve been around winning. They watched as all the other classes won state title after state title and now it’s their turn. Being around winning makes it much easier to win games. The program has won 16 of their last 17 games at the Pink and White, with a one point loss to Republic being the lone defeat. Oddly enough, it was Kickapoo in 2015 that beat Strafford prior to them winning three straight titles. Now, it’s that same program they must knock off to start a new streak of titles.
Mt. Vernon has sprinted out to an undefeated start, which includes winning the Joplin Tournament by topping Carl Junction, as well as a win over a very strong Carthage team. For them to win a title, they have arguably the toughest path by seeing an underrated Clever squad in the first round, followed by what could be a stretch against Strafford and Kickapoo. But, if anyone is built for that it would be the Lady ‘Neers. Guards win in high school basketball and Grant Berendt has a loaded back court with Missouri Southern signee Lacy Stokes (19.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 5.5 steals) and Morningside College signee Ellie Johnston (19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 steals). Stokes is Russell Westbrook because of her motor and production so we’ll call Johnston Brad Beal because of her scoring ability. Cameryn Cassity and Raegan Boswell have found ways to help alleviate pressure on Stokes and Johnston. With their move to Class 4, this is a team that has Final Four talent and experience. A run this week could further prove that.
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Best First Round Game: No. 4 Central (3-4) vs. Ava (5-2)
This is a sneaky good game. Ava isn’t a pushover and has not only beaten Parkview, but the Lady Bears also beat Central just three weeks ago. Nathan Houk has a group that won 17 games last year and return an all-conference duo in Hannah Evans and Olivia Gastineau that are two of the best unknown players in the Ozarks. The emergence of 6-foot-1 post Sarah Mendel is what has Ava as a darkhorse in this tournament. Central is better than its 3-4 record indicates. We know that Memphis-bound senior Makaiya Brooks is the best scorer in the Ozarks and her 24.9 PPG average can quickly become 40 with the way she scores it. Lost in the shuffle for Caitlin Lamberth’s team is the fact they play two sophomores and two freshmen in prominent roles. They’re rapidly improving, but playing in marquee games with little experience can take its toll. The Lady Bulldogs’ sophomore duo of Heaven Shockley (7.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.3 blocks) and Aaliyah Pittman (7.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1 block) have a chance to be a special at “twin towers” duo at 6-foot-1 each. As they continue to improve this Central team will be an increasingly tough out.
Most Intriguing Potential Game: No. 2 Strafford vs. No. 3 Mt. Vernon
These two have met several times over the last few years and all have been big games. This one is intriguing because this is the first time we can be sure they won’t have a postseason meeting with Mt. Vernon moving to Class 4. But, on the court, this would be a war. Compton vs. Stokes might be the most entertaining positional battle you’ll see at the point guard spot all season. Both are uber-skilled and competitive, but they also love matchups like this.
Player Who Could Ruin the Bracket: Raegan McCowan, Lebanon
As a freshman, the 5-foot-10 forward had a pair of 20-10 games for Lebanon down the stretch. She liked that feeling so much that through seven games this season she’s averaging a 20-10 double-double. The scary part is how consistent she’s been, scoring at least 18 in every game this season. That includes the West Plains game. The Zizzers are allowing just 27 PPG all season and McCowan nearly matched that alone. She had 21-21 against Clever and 33-10 against Eldon. Lebanon is off to a 6-1 start and the Jackets top five scorer are all juniors. There’s some great basketball in their future.
Upset Special: No. 3 Skyline (7-0)
Skyline is again flying under the radar, but the Lady Tigers are 7-0 and have beaten everyone by double figures. This is yet another Kevin Cheek team that just gets after you. They’re the only team to knock off both El Dorado Springs and Tipton. Their path to the semifinal is unique. Their first round game is by far the most difficult with Marshfield. The Lady Jays are by far the best unseeded team. But, the potential quarterfinal matchup against Ozark is winnable. That would set up a showdown with either Willard or Central. Skyline is as dangerous as ever.