By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
ASH GROVE – The ending of last season’s Morris Brothers Holiday Classic has haunted the Sparta girls basketball team for the past year.
This year’s tournament will evoke much more positive memories — and for a lot longer, too.
Brynn Holt and Megan Brown scored 13 points apiece to lead the top-seeded Trojans to a 49-41 victory over Walnut Grove in the championship game on Friday night at Ash Grove High School.
The Trojans secured the tournament title for the first time in school history, avenging a painful loss to Miller in last year’s championship game. Sparta led that game by 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter, but allowed the Cardinals to come all the way back and win.
Friday’s game looked eerily similar, as the Trojans took a nine-point lead into the final period. Walnut Grove quickly cut it down to five, but this time Sparta never allowed the Tigers to get closer.
“I’ve had that bad taste in my mouth – and my kids have had that bad taste in their mouths – for a whole year,” Sparta coach Joshua Loveland said. “And we get back here. In practice yesterday, we were high-energy. The kids were really excited. I had a good feeling that we were going to come over here and get it done tonight, and then we did. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The win capped a whirlwind and historic week for the Sparta basketball program, coming about 24 hours after the school’s boys team fell to Republic in its first appearance in a Blue & Gold Tournament title game since 1953.
“It’s been an incredible week to be a Trojan,” said Loveland, who has two sons on the boys team.
The overlapping nature of the tournaments created situations where Sparta’s girls would ride the bus to the Missouri State campus to watch a portion of the boys game, then leave immediately from the venue to make it to Ash Grove — the classic’s adopted home this year while Walnut Grove’s gym undergoes renovations — for the start of their own game. Or, the girls would finish their game in Ash Grove and quickly pack up and head to Springfield to cheer on their classmates.
Add practices and scouting to the mix and there was barely any time left in the day.
“We’re on Christmas break – and I’m exhausted,” Loveland said. “But it has been one of the most fun weeks that I have ever had as a Trojan. It’s just been incredible.”
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Sparta’s prep work has focused heavily on the result of last year’s championship game. The Trojans were determined to avoid a similar result.
“We’ve worked a lot in the last year on competing at a high level,” Loveland said. “Not just in practice, but with our schedule – and working on finishing off close games. It’s something that we’ve kind of struggled with at times.”
Neither team led by more than four points in a first half that ended with the Trojans clinging to a 19-17 lead. But Sparta hit four 3-pointers during their 16-point third quarter to begin to pull away.
The Trojans finished with nine treys, while Walnut Grove had just one.
“They shoot the ball so well and we knew coming well how good they shot it,” Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry said. “We really hoped that they had an off night, but we know how capable they are. That’s their game. They shoot a lot of threes.”
With those shots falling at that rate, Sparta quickly squashed any chance at a comeback.
“It’s impossible,” Henry said. “They’re just a heck of a team.”
An already-deep Sparta roster got even deeper this season when 5-foot-11 senior Natalie Wilks returned after sitting out her junior season to focus on her softball recruitment. After committing to Three Rivers Community College, Wilks decided to return to the hardwood.
“It’s my senior year and I’ve grown up with these girls,” Wilks said. “I feel like I needed to come back.”
Wilks was named the tournament MVP after scoring a team-high 32 points in Sparta’s opening-round win over the Skyline junior varsity team and 21 in the quarterfinals against Hollister. She added 10 in the semifinals against Marion C. Early, but was held scoreless after getting into foul trouble early on Friday.
But she made her presence felt defensively, and her fourth-quarter play helped seal the win.
“I kept telling her, ‘Hey, stay positive. Hey, stay positive,’” Loveland said. “This fourth quarter, we’re going to need you.”
Sparta got all the offense it needed from the rest of its lineup. Its four other seniors – Brown, Holt, Brooklyn Roller and Ashlyn Roller – combined for 38 points, and the three other players who saw playing time scored at least three apiece.
It’s the kind of performance that hints that an 8-2 start could just be the beginning of something special for a team that’s currently ranked ninth in the state in Class 3, and is looking to contend for its first district title since 2010.
“I think we’re going to have a really fun season,” Loveland said. “The best part about my kids is they work really hard. They run the floor really well and we can play nine or 10 kids every night. We can play that pace of game and we can guard you full-court. I can put subs in every two or three minutes and I can keep fresh legs and just keep trying to wear you out.”
Jacie Gavisk scored 20 points for Walnut Grove, which fell to 8-4 on the season.
The Tigers, who have made 10 trips to the Final Four during a run of 12 consecutive district titles, lost Rachael Kruger to a season-ending ACL injury in the second game of the season – but have virtually no other significant personnel losses from last year’s team that finished fourth in the state.
“It’s tough trying to adjust to that,” Henry said. “We’ve played without her for about three weeks now and we’re just starting to figure it all out again.”
The Tigers are still comparatively young, with just two seniors on the roster.
But Sparta’s quintet of seniors – and the added motivation the team carried after their experience in last year’s game – was ultimately too much for the Tigers to overcome.
“When you’re putting five seniors on the floor – and our seniors do a great job – but we’re starting some young kids and sophomores and sometimes that makes a big difference in a game like that,” Henry said. “But I’m super proud of our kids’ effort. Looking into that game, there are probably a lot of people that would have thought we would have got beat by 20-plus and our kids battled and we kept it close. That’s all we ask for.”
WALNUT GROVE 10 7 9 15 —41
SPARTA 10 9 16 14 — 49