By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Past performances are never a predictor of future success, but a recent trend has Skyline coach Tommy Egan extremely excited about what this season may bring for the boys basketball team.
When seniors on this year’s team were freshmen three years ago, their season ended with a heartbreaking two-point loss to Plattsburg in the state quarterfinals. That group didn’t lose anyone to graduation and used the game as motivation all throughout the following season, making a run to the school’s first state championship game in 25 years before falling to Hartville.
Last year, the Tigers claimed their third consecutive district title and earned the right to host their sectional playoff game. But eventual third-place finisher Summit Christian Academy came into Urbana and beat them by a single point, prematurely ending Skyline’s season at 23-4.
The loss felt eerily similar to the one that ended the seniors’ first varsity campaign and ultimately fueled their drive to the state title game as sophomores. With all but two players returning this winter, Egan hopes they can channel that energy and lead the team on another big playoff run.
“My hope is it is similar to the 2019-2020 season and our team is extremely hungry and motivated and in turn puts in the time and effort required to have a good season,” the coach said. “That all begins with the leadership, experience and work ethic our seniors bring to the table.”
There’s no shortage of any of those in the eight-person senior class, which includes four players who have either started or seen a wealth of varsity playing time in each of the past three years — forward Jaytin DeFreece and guards Lawson Beem, Zack Williams and Kourt Cheek.
“Our seniors have played a lot of basketball over the years and we are excited to see how they perform in their final season,” Egan said. “The ability isn’t in question. If we can do the little things and display constant mental and physical toughness, that will have a huge impact on how our season plays out.”
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Beem (6-foot) and DeFreece (6-foot-2) are both three-time all-conference and all-district picks, while Beem was named to the all-state team after averaging 19.2 points per game as a junior.
“We are at our absolute best when he is playing well and just as importantly, making his teammates better,” Egan said of the guard. “He has put in a lot of time on his game and we are excited to see how his senior season plays out.”
DeFreece led the team in rebounds last year, averaging 6.4 boards and 11 points per night. His two-way presence will help the team absorb the graduations of all-state selection Bradyn Porter, who was second on the team in both of those categories, and top defender Trey Swearingin.
Egan said DeFreece has had “a lot of big moments in his high school career and his game has a chance to be at a whole other level this season.”
Williams (6-foot-2) led the team with 139 assists and chipped in 7.2 points per game, earning all-district and all-conference honors. His 4.9 rebounds per game also ranked third on Skyline.
“He sees the floor as well as any kid I have ever coached,” Egan said. “He is very versatile in the way he passes, rebounds and scores the basketball.”
Cheek (6-foot-1) scored 7.2 points per night in his first season as a full-time starter.
“He is versatile in what he can give us on both ends of the floor,” Egan said. “He had as good of an offseason as anyone in our program and we are expecting him to have a big senior season.”
Fellow seniors Dawson Pitts (5-foot-11 shooting guard), Mason Beck (6-foot-2 forward) and Nate Leslie (6-foot-1 guard) also return, while 6-foot-1 guard Brady Herring transferred from Weaubleau and will compete for playing time in his final season of high school basketball.
“The biggest question mark for this season is how quickly our newcomers adjust to varsity minutes, how our overall depth shakes out and the leadership qualities our seniors exhibit in both games and practices,” Egan said.
Minutes could be hard to come by with so many talented seniors on the roster, but junior forward Weston Owen (6-foot-2) is one underclassman who will be hard to keep on the bench.
“Weston has all the tools to be a really good basketball player,” Egan said. “He has size and strength, can score from all three levels and has the ability to defend multiple positions. His biggest key is playing with confidence and assertiveness. If he can do that, he will be in a position to really help this team this season.”
Juniors Clayton Gronniger and Caden Crawford provide additional depth at guard, while sophomores AJ Dampier (guard) and Cohen Mashburn (forward) will round out the roster.
“We also add a number of incoming freshmen and we are excited about what that group can accomplish in the next four years,” Egan said.
The Tigers begin their quest for a fourth straight district title at the 88th Annual Warsaw Invitational, which starts on November 29. Their home opener is set for December 10 against Wheatland.
They will also compete in the OCHC Shootout, Blue and Gold Tournament, 60th Annual Skyline Boys’ Basketball Tournament and Laker Shootout before hosting Fair Grove in their Mid-Lakes Conference opener on February 4.
“As with every season, our No. 1 goal is to be playing our best basketball at the end of February and into March,” Egan said. “It is so important that we stay hungry, put in the work every single day and not be content with where we are at.”