By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
STRAFFORD — As soon as opposing players walk into Strafford High School, they’re met by giant photographs of the girls basketball teams who have won a Class 3 state title in each of the past five seasons. Four of the five banners depict the records of those Indians teams, which were a dynastic 129-3 between the start of the 2016 season and the end of the 2020 campaign.
As one of the biggest threats to what would be Strafford’s unbelievable sixth consecutive state championship stood on the court on Thursday, waiting for the public address announcer to introduce the starters, a hype video played in the arena. Footage of the Indians was spliced together with a clock, culminating with an ominous message to their foe — your time is up.
None of that deterred the Miller Cardinals, who walked away with a 48-46 victory that, at the least, ended Strafford’s 86-game win streak against Class 3 schools and significantly boosted Miller’s rising stock as a bona fide state title contender. It was the first loss in class for Strafford since March of 2015.
While state championships are not won or lost in regular-season games, especially ones in January, the Cardinals improved to 12-1 with the win. Two of their past three victories have been against multi-time-defending state champions, both of which were playing at home.
“I told them in the locker room that these are the types of games — the type of environment — that you’re going to play in later on,” Miller coach Hannah Wilkerson said, “and you’ve got to overcome this so we can reach our goals and get where we want to go.”
The Cardinals also beat Class 1 powerhouse Walnut Grove by 10 to win the Tigers’ holiday tournament on December 30, and are shining in their first season in Class 3. Their only loss came to Class 6 Kickapoo, and they’ve beaten Class 5 Webb City twice and Class 4 Lamar.
While the early returns are favorable, the question is how far Miller can go in the playoffs after ending each of the past two seasons in the state quarterfinal round.
“We knew we had to work hard after last season,” said junior Kaylee Helton, who led all scorers with 22 points. “I’m glad that we put these tougher teams on our schedule so it prepares us for the postseason.”
Strafford, meanwhile, dropped to 10-4 and has now lost more games this season than it has in the previous four combined. The Indians, who fell to Class 6 school Carthage earlier in the week, also lost back-to-back games for the first time since three straight losses in January 2014.
Juniors Emma Compton (15 points) and Emma Mullings (14) scored in double-digits for Strafford, which led for most of the game before Miller went on a 7-0 run to open the fourth.
Helton had five of them, scoring off a spin move to cut the deficit to 36-35. Then, with about 6:30 remaining, she converted a three-point play after collecting two of her own rebounds and getting fouled on her third attempt to give Miller a 38-36 lead, its first since early in the opening quarter.
Helton never came off the floor for the Cardinals, who have just eight players on the roster — only six of whom are currently healthy.
“She stays after it,” Wilkerson said. “She doesn’t quit. She’s going to have to play 32 minutes, probably most nights in games like this. For her to be able to go inside, outside, everything she does on both ends and finish a shot like that late in the game is awesome.”
Strafford retook the lead when Hannah Hess — the only senior in the lineup for either school — hit a 3-pointer for a 39-38 advantage with 4:40 to go, and junior Bailey Chrisman put the Indians up by three about 90 seconds later.
But Miller tied it at 41 on a 3-pointer from Claudia Hadlock, then took the lead for good when sophomore Alyssa Hill hit another trey — her only basket of the game — with 2:09 to go.
Neither side led the game by more than six points, and that was when Strafford was up 27-21 early in the third. But Helton hit a 3-pointer to quickly shift the momentum back toward Miller.
“If they would have pulled away, it would have been really hard to get (the lead) back,” Helton said. “But I believe in every single one of those girls and I feel like we could have done it.”
Payten Richardson added 10 points for the Cardinals, while Hadlock scored five of her eight in the fourth quarter.
“We got better tonight playing against them,” said Strafford coach Dustin Larsen, noting many of his players are first-year starters. “This group of ours, we’re still growing. We’re just continuing to get better and we’ll learn a lot from that game tonight.”
The Indians are used to being a litmus test for other teams, as title hopefuls always treat games against Strafford — or any state champion — as a chance to see how they fare against the elite teams they will see in the playoffs. Strafford has come out ahead in virtually every one of these exams since their run of titles began in 2016, with Thursday’s result being a rare exception.
With many more games on the schedule, only time will tell who will rule the class at year’s end.
“Everyone works to have that mark on your back,” Larsen said. “You want everyone’s best. If you don’t get everyone’s best, you can’t be your best. That’s something you’ve got to accept and show up and be ready for it. This group, we’re proud of what they did. We just have to keep growing and learning from our mistakes and hope to put ourselves in a good position come February.”