By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
OZARK – For the second year in a row, the Ozark girls basketball team has a new head coach.
Brandon Clift has been promoted to the top job after nine years in charge of Ozark’s junior varsity.
Clift’s familiarity with the Tigers will ease the transition into a new era, particularly for the senior and junior classes that have seen three head coaches lead the program in the past three seasons.
“Knowing the players, having coached them all as they moved through the program at the junior varsity level is definitely a benefit,” Clift said. “I am already familiar with their skill set and they are familiar with my demeanor, which will help the learning curve.”
Clift first joined Ozark at the start of former varsity coach David Brewer’s eight-year tenure with the program, then remained with the junior varsity when the district tabbed former Spokane, Clever and Mount Vernon coach Doug Hepler to replace Brewer last year.
But Hepler stepped down after a 20-7 season that ended with a district semifinal loss to eventual state runner-up Kickapoo, creating an opportunity for Clift to take the helm.
He inherits a team that graduated five seniors, who all saw significant varsity action last season. Four were starters, with three – Moriah Putt, Riley Boggs and Lyla Watson – now playing in college.
“Each one of them offered a skill that was a big part of last year’s success,” Clift said. “Their departure leaves a lot of minutes up for grabs, especially at the point guard position.”
The biggest question surrounding the team, Clift said, is which players will grab those minutes. But with a seven-player senior class and a few talented underclassmen, there is no shortage of candidates.
“This team’s biggest strength is their chemistry,” Clift said. “We have a lot of capable kids who are willing to share the ball.”
Seniors Jordyn Foley, Haven Haymes and Alexis Solomon appeared in all 27 of Ozark’s games as juniors.
Foley, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged 7.9 points per game – tops among returning Tigers.
“Jordyn is an excellent outside shooter who is able to attack off the dribble and stretch the floor,” Clift said.
Haymes, a 6-foot post, is the team’s top returning rebounder, averaging 3.6 while adding 4.8 points per game.
“Haven is a mobile post player that runs the floor well,” Clift said. “She will be a presence on offense and defense.”
Solomon, a 5-foot-7 guard/forward, added 4.6 points and two rebounds per night.
“Alexis has a high basketball IQ and can play any position 2-5,” Clift said. “She leads by example.”
Fellow senior Molly Rushing is a 5-foot-4 guard who averaged 3.9 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 18 appearances last winter. She’ll play a more prominent defensive role this season.
“Molly is a tough-nosed defender who never backs down from a challenge,” Clift said. “She will be tasked with guarding the other team’s best player most nights.”
Classmates Chloe Eisenmann and Kandace Kirkland both return to the varsity team, while senior Abby Wofford will join the squad this year.
Eisenmann (5-foot-7) and Kirkland (5-foot-3) are both guards who give the Tigers additional threats from beyond the arc. Wofford is a 5-foot-8 post who can contribute at both ends of the floor.
Junior guard/forward Sydney Hampton (5-foot-9) also returns, while classmates Madison Felton (5-foot-2) and Macey Sult (5-foot-10) are poised to make their varsity debuts.
Clift touted Hampton’s ability to put pressure on the rim, Felton’s defense and speed and Sult’s ability to find open teammates.
Sophomore guard Kori Russell (5-foot-3) will also be competing for playing time.
“Kori is a point guard who has ability to put pressure on the defense by getting to the basket,” Clift said.
Ozark will travel to Bolivar for a November 15 jamboree with the Liberators, Walnut Grove and Marion C. Early. They will kick off the regular season at the BSN Shootout in Rolla four days later.
Ozark’s first home game is December 9 against Jefferson City, while the team’s first Central Ozark Conference game is a January 9 home match against archrival Nixa.
“We will be a team that emphasizes defense and rebounding,” Clift said. “We will value the basketball and look to take high-quality shots.”