In the Greene County town of Walnut Grove, basketball wins are expected.
The girls team from Walnut Grove High School measured up to great expectations with a 64-29 Class 1 District 5 title win over Wheaton Thursday night at Willard High School. The win marks Walnut Grove’s seventh consecutive girls basketball district championship.
Walnut Grove has reached the “final four” five consecutive teams, including three consecutive state championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Tigers finished in third place in the 2016 Class 1 playoff tournament.
Senior all-state forward Raylie Hejna led Walnut Grove (25-4) with 22 points, 18 of which came in the first half. Walnut Grove exploited the 6-footer’s height advantage with lob passes into the block or cutters in the paint.
“As weird as it sounds, I didn’t feel any pressure coming into this game,” Hejna said. “We have that legacy of knowing that we’ve been in this situation. We know what it takes, and we know what it takes to get it to where we want it to be.”
Walnut Grove (25-4) opened the game with Wheaton (13-5) on an 11-0 scoring run. A second run of 14-0 put the Tigers ahead and in control by 20 points at the end of the first eight-minute quarter.
Junior all-state guard Bayley Harman scored 12 points for Walnut Grove, and Grace McPhail also hit double digits with 10 points.
“(Hejna) really sets the tone, her and Bayley (Harman),” Henry said. “They play hard and they hold everybody else accountable. That starts with them.”
Walnut Grove planned from the onset to feed the ball to Hejna often with lob passes or on cuts to the basket.
“(Hejna) really had a lot of energy, she had a bounce in her step, just really got up and down the floor,” Henry said. “We knew that we had a little size advantage and we wanted to go to that early.”
The Tigers’ next game will be Tuesday at Webb City against either Bronaugh (21-5) or Drexel (16-11). Given the team’s recent history of advancing in the playoffs, Henry acknowledged aspirations are high in Walnut Grove.
“There is a huge expectation, so I’ve been kind of on them about being a little bit more focused,” Henry said.
Girls basketball Class 1 District 5 championship game
Walnut Grove 64, Wheaton 29
Walnut Grove 25-18-15-6—64
Wheaton—Tori Goostree 10, Hannah Lombard 7, Hallie Mitchell 6, Samantha Sherwood 4, Alyia Prewitt 2
Walnut Grove—Raylie Hejna 22, Bayley Harman 12, Grace McPhail 10, Myranda McVay 9, Kylee Verbeck 4, Taylor Dodson 3, Grace Miller 2, Aspen White 2.
Walnut Grove boys survive Greenfield to win third straight title
The boys basketball team from Walnut Grove (26-3) extended a playoff streak of its own by beating Greenfield 67-51 for the Class 1 District 5 boys championship. The win marked back-to-back-to-back district championships for a Tigers squad that reached the Class 1 state championship game in 2016.
It looked like the entire population (estimated at 665) of Walnut Grove made the trip to Willard to see the games. That wasn’t lost on Tigers coach Darin Meinders.
“Three quarters of the gym was in orange, and you’re not going to find a better community as far as supporting and following, and it makes a difference. You can here when we get on a run, it gets pretty loud.”
Walnut Grove all-time leading scorer Logan Thomazin scored 28 points to lead all scorers.
Thomazin scored 11 first quarter points, but went through a dry spell in the middle quarters, often finding himself double teamed.
Marcus Wright led Greenfield with 17 points.
“Marcus is a great player,” Thomazin said, adding that he was also impressed with the play of Greenfield’s Colin White, who scored 14 points. “Those two players are pretty dang good and I knew they would keep pushing the ball and play some great defense on me. I knew it was going to be a tough battle. They grind.”
Thomazin is proud of a third district title, but also said Walnut Grove has loftier goals.
“I don’t care, as long as we win. I don’t care. I just want to get back to state,” Thomazin said.
Meinders encouraged his team to be proud of its accomplishment.
“I said, ‘You guys need to enjoy this because there are a lot of schools that don’t get to enjoy this, and that’s three years in a row,” Meinders said.
Walnut Grove plays in the boys basketball sectionals Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Webb City. The Tigers will take on the winner of a Friday night game between Montrose (19-7) and Sheldon (16-11).
Greenfield finished the season 25-4. Coach Preston Hyde tried his best to console the Wildcats after a hard-fought loss. Greenfield showed vast improvement after going 14-12 a season ago.
“We did an excellent job this season defending, blocking out—offensively we were phenomenal. We averaged almost 70 points a game, from a team that averaged 54 or 55 last year,” Hyde said.
In his second year at Greenfield, Hyde frequently used a two-word phrase: “hard work.”
“I hope that people realize what hard work is,” Hyde said. “(The Wildcats) have been part of a lot of winning, and hopefully that just carries into their personal lives as they grow into adults.”
Boys basketball Class 1 District 5 championship game
Walnut Grove 67, Greenfield 51
Walnut Grove 19-8-13-27—67
Greenfield—Marcus Wright 17, Colin White 14, Mason Jones 11, Jalen Roby 6, Hayden Sims 3
Walnut Grove—Logan Thomazin 28, Hunter Gilkey 15, Dawson Meinders 8, Jaron Dishman 6, Ryan Keith 5, Kyle Keith 2.