By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
There will be a host of new faces on the Walnut Grove roster this season.
Following a third place finish in Class 1 last season, the 24-5 Lady Tigers now prepare to move on from a talented group of graduated seniors in Faith Gilkey, Makayla McVay, Lauren Johnson, Sadie Crump, Morgan Hailey, Taylor Gold, April Countryman and Maddy Hughes.
Talented, in this case, might be a gross understatement, as Gilkey, McVay and Johnson all received all-state honors last season.
Gilkey, a 5-foot-6 guard, departs as Walnut Grove’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time Class 1 Player of the Year.
Gilkey (Southwest Baptist University), McVay (Evangel University) and Johnson (Evangel) will all continue their respective basketball careers at the next level this season.
“We graduated one of the best groups that we have come through here,” Walnut Grove head coach Rory Henry said. “They were very accomplished, winning two state championships and taking third place last year. They left a resounding legacy here and they were even better kids then they were basketball players.”
The Lady Tigers will feature a host of new faces eager to step into expanded roles this season, as Henry will look to replace 91% of the team’s graduated scoring.
The returning varsity players will be led by guard Jaedyn Johnson.
The 5-foot-8 sophomore finished up her freshman campaign as a starter, averaging 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
“By the end of the year [Jaedyn] was in our top five,” Henry said. “She made the most gains this summer of anyone and now has become a legitimate threat from outside.”
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Johnson will be joined by 5-foot-11 junior Kylie Craig and a trio of classmates in 5-foot-8 Raygan Dougherty, 5-foot-7 Annika Vinson and 5-foot-6 Abby Coons.
“We graduated 8 seniors and really only bring back one player with much experience,” Henry said. “However, I am excited for what we have coming up. We have a great group of freshmen who will get a chance to play right away and some returners who have worked hard to improve and are ready to get their chance to show what they can do.”
Varsity newcomers include 5-foot-5 junior Peyton Johnson and 5-foot-5 sophomore Clara Rodriguez.
Freshmen Ellie Smith (5-foot-6), Jacie Gavisk (5-foot-10), Rachel Kruger (5-foot-9) and Kelli Albert (5-foot-8) will also compete for varsity minutes.
While Walnut Grove’s roster will feature only two juniors and no seniors this season, Henry doesn’t consider his new-look squad to be a rebuild by any stretch.
“We will be very young and have no seniors on our roster; however, we had a great summer and this group is very motivated to show everyone that we are not done and we are not rebuilding here,” Henry said. “As a coach, I am very excited for the challenge of this season. I think a lot of people will write us off when they look at our roster and what we lost, but what we do have is a strong tradition and a winning culture that we have built over the years.”
As he enters his 14th season at the helm, one thing that Henry expects will change is Walnut Grove’s style of play.
“We have been one of the fastest teams around and have always prided ourselves on playing baseline to baseline on defense,” Henry said. “This group will be more post-oriented and rely on tough/physical defense and a more ground-and-pound offensive style.”
Walnut Grove’s success will, in the end, be determined by the development of its young roster as players adjust to the varsity game.
“We will go through some adversity as this young team grows and learns, but by the end of the season we expect to be competing again for the district championship and beyond,” Henry said. “I would not count us out, and I think we will turn some heads when this team steps on the floor in November.”
Following a Nov. 18 jamboree at Sparta with Ozark, Bolivar and the host team, Walnut Grove will tip off its season Nov. 23 at home against Greenfield.