It’s been an agonizing eight months for the Walnut Grove girls’ basketball team.
Back in March, the Lady Tigers’ magical season ended with a crushing 36-35 loss to Eminence in the Class 1 championship game. Walnut Grove finished 26-6.
“Coach (Rory) Henry talks about it all the time,” junior Heather Harman says. “(The players) talk about it all the time. To get that close and not get it was really frustrating.”
Walnut Grove has done all it can do, which is turn that frustration into motivation for this season.
The Lady Tigers have ample talent back for a return trip to Columbia this spring, anchored by Harman, who averaged 16.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists a year ago. She already has offers on the table from College of the Ozarks, Drury and Southwest Baptist and several larger schools have shown significant interest. Kansas State, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt and Southeast Missouri State, among others, have kept the secretaries busy at Walnut Grove High School.
“She’s a great player, but it’s really a great group of kids as a whole,” Henry said. “We have six juniors that have been playing for me since eighth grade, and it’s kind of a coach’s dream.
“They are fun to be around and it makes it even better when they are all that talented.”
Junior Lexi Harman, Heather’s cousin, also is drawing significant interest from colleges. According to Henry, her list of interested schools include SBU, Drury, SEMO, Pittsburg State, Fort Hays State and Kansas State after she averaged 11.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists last year.
It would be easy to write off the Walnut Grove success to having two players as talented as the Harmans, but it would be inaccurate. Balance is the name of the game for the Lady Tigers. Six different players were high scorers in games last season.
“It really just depends on what night, who’s going to lead us,” Henry said. “Most of our scoring output comes from those two, but they really spread it around.”
Juniors Karsyn Hejna and Madisyn Freeze, plus sophomore Audree Crain, will join the Harmans in the starting lineup to open the season. Miranda Allison also could push her way into the starting lineup at some point. The Lady Tigers lost three players from last season, but that leaves seven that averaged at least five points per game. Sophomores Ellen Hayten and Carrigan Comstock and freshman Shelby Harman should also see minutes.
“We’ve kind of created an identity that’s worked for us,” Henry said. “And that’s what we are going to do. We don’t have much size and depth is a question, but what we’ve done has worked for this group.”
With the Lady Tigers’ up-tempo style, including its ball-hawking defensive pressure, depth always is a concern. Walnut Grove lost junior Megan Shuler to a torn ACL, a devastating blow as Henry said he was expecting a breakout season from her after a big summer.
“That hurt us a lot, but I think the other girls are going to step up and fill that role,” Lexi Harman said. “I think all of us are pretty equal. We are all short and that probably will be a factor, but I think our quickness will make up for it.”
A return trip to the final four will take a group effort, which is fine with the Lady Tigers.
“We are all really good friends and hang out all the time,” Hannah Harman said. “We don’t have any drama, and I don’t think we will. We just have to be focused and not overlook anyone (we) play.”