Before we close the books on another compelling high school basketball season in the Ozarks, let’s visit 10 questions to think about going into next season:
* What does Trevyor Fisher do for an encore? The first-year Republic High School coach took the local high school scene by storm in his first go-round, winning the school’s first boys basketball state championship in 50 years.
How’s he going to top that?
Forward Cody Geiger is a great building block for next season, and guards Canyon Smith and Dylan Bekemeier are among the most fearless players in the Ozarks.
Without Grant Hancock and Marcus Miller inside next season, however, Republic will look different and could play a more up-tempo brand of basketball.
Any good coach these days adjusts to his personnel, and it will be interesting to see how Fisher’s team handles next year as the target and expectations — and point totals — likely increase.
* Should we expect more of the same from the Crane and Walnut Grove girls? The talented small-school teams certainly didn’t play Class 2 and Class 1 schedules this season, and that should be a lesson to all coaches out there.
That’s why they were battle-tested for tight games come postseason time, a trend for the Final Four teams.
The state’s 10 state champions combined for 31 losses this season, which isn’t that many. But, quite remarkably, the 10 runner-ups combined for 75. It paid for those teams to take some lumps throughout the season.
Crane and Walnut Grove will lose a combined one player from their state championship teams, and will certainly begin next season as favorites to repeat.
But don’t expect coaches Jeremy Mullins and Rory Henry to let their teams get satisfied and treat next year as some kind of victory lap.
* What players could make the leap next year? On the girls side, expect Crane’s Emma Lander to be a star. It’s not unique for 5-foot-11 freshman girls to make an impact on varsity: That size is a unique trait, even at the varsity level.
But the way she finishes with both hands, makes explosive moves to the basket from 15 feet and in, and her nice touch — that should expand in range as the years go on — should make her a player to watch for fans and college scouts alike.
The way freshman teammate Lexie Vaughn already makes mature and winning plays as the unsung starter for the Lady Pirates should be appreciated, too.
For the boys, look for a big senior year from Kickapoo’s Tyson Batiste. He was playing catch-up when he returned from injury this year, and should benefit from a healthy summer and more defined roles from the start for the Chiefs next year.
Waynesville’s Juwan Morgan should be worth the price of admission next season, and it will be fun to watch the improvement of Rogersville freshman Marcus Gorman as his career evolves.
* Will the elite juniors make their collegiate decisions soon? This is a storyline we will be following throughout the spring and summer.
Elite junior girls like Walnut Grove’s Heather Harman, Parkview’s Aubrey Buckley and Ozark’s Hannah Cook could make commitments before their senior years begin. They will join Marshfield’s Lauren Aldridge (Kansas commit) and Webb City’s Mikaela Burgess in one of the most talented classes this area has seen in a long time.
For the boys, you might expect to wait a little longer.
Geiger surely caught some eyes with his steady play during Republic’s run, and Joplin’s Charlie Brown could boost his stock with another strong AAU summer.
Branson’s Da’Quan Ervin is a pretty good football player, too. He might want to see how his senior year on the gridiron goes before making his decision.
The big catch locally is Willard’s Chris Kendrix, and he might wait to see what other power conference schools are interested, as Kansas State likely won’t be the only big school interested at the end of the day.
* Who will get the Glendale boys basketball coaching job? That’s been the hot question ever since Sean Williamson resigned.
The job also was a hot topic among statewide media members in Columbia this month during the state finals.
Springfield Public Schools athletic director Mark Fisher should have his pick from fine candidates. Crane’s Dale Lamberth has SPS experience from coaching alongside John Schaefer at Hillcrest, but is one year as a head coach enough?
Webb City’s Landon Cornish has SPS ties, Glendale’s assistants helped win Williamson a lot of games, and Fisher could also look at successful small-school coaches in the area. Names such as Kendall Tilley of Billings, Fair Grove’s Tim Brown, Ash Grove’s Jeremy Nicholson and Bolivar’s Robbie Hoegh could be worth a call to gauge interest. Former Glendale standout Brandon Kimbrough, a graduate assistant for the Drury men, is an intriguing name.
* Speaking of SPS, the district is graduating a lot of boys talent this year. Who’s going to be the district’s best team? It’s Kickapoo. Hillcrest returns a few players with experience, headlined by Juwan Johnson, Brady Petry and David McIntosh, but Kickapoo’s core is a little deeper.
Batiste, Jack Simpson, Matt Ridder and Ryan Burland need to all up their scoring for coach Dick Rippee. But a couple of talented players from the lower levels should be ready to contribute next season as well.
* How does next season’s Bass Pro Tournament of Champions stack up? It’s not as strong as a field as last year, as Bobby Portis, Isaac Hamilton and Julius Randle were nice names for the event.
But Montverde (Fla.) and Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI are back, and will bring a lot of familar names, not to mention great talent.
The wild card, however, could be Sun Valley (Calif.) Village Christian. The program is known for gathering a lot of transfers, and talent could be on the way. And you never know who else will team up with Australian five-start player Ben Simmons and coach Kevin Boyle at Montverde. Stay tuned.
* Who rules Christian County: Nixa or Ozark? The two basketball powers down south played opposite parts this year on the boys and girls side. Nixa was the big, bad boys team, and Ozark proved to be a thorn in their sides. It was just the opposite for the girls.
Ozark’s boys stopped Nixa from winning a share of the Central Ozark Conference title, and will have good talent coming back with Korbin Evans and Josh Cookinham. Nixa counters with Jacob Ruder and Bryce Dulin leading the way. There might not be a favorite next year when these rivals meet, which could be fun.
For the girls, Angie Allen and Toshua Leavitt should lead an athletic Nixa team. But Cook could be the area’s best player next year, and I always bet on the best players.
* What’s next for the Ozarks Throwdown? We considered the inaugural News-Leader dunk contest a wild success and look forward to next season. Once again, we’ll open it up to everyone, and we hope high-flyers like Kendrix and Evans will participate, along with Johnson of Hillcrest to give it another shot.
We’ll try to make the contest earlier in the year next year and catch some of the momentum around the holiday tournaments.
So, if you’ve got high school eligibility left, practice those hops in the offseason and come dunk in our contest. You could join Rogersville’s Justus Boever as being named the area’s top high-flyer.
* Who are the teams to beat next season? Let’s put together a little offseason top five, shall we? For the girls, at No. 5, I’ll take Walnut Grove with Heather and Lexi Harman back as seniors. It’s Buckley and Parkview at No. 4, and Jim Middleton’s Nixa Lady Eagles at 3.
Crane will be better than most teams regardless of classification next year and the Lady Pirates are No. 2. No. 1 is Ozark, though, although they have a strong graduating senior class to replace.
For the boys, I like Ozark at No. 5, edged by rival Nixa at 4. Kendrix and Willard should be No. 3 as another solid COC race should occur.
I’ll keep Kickapoo at No. 2 though, out of respect for Fisher and the state champion Republic Tigers, who I’ll put at No. 1. They’ve been doubted in these pages before, and I’m starting to learn my lesson.